"Communism equals Soviets plus electrification,” Vladimir Lenin once quipped. We could rewrite that for the age of climate crisis, and the biospheric (and Putin-averse) momentum against fossil fuels. Call it “survival equals electrification powered by renewables”.

Particularly in Scotland, we may think we have the renewable energy part sorted. In 2021, we produced the equivalent of 83.7% of Scotland’s overall energy needs from renewables, mostly wind power (milder weather took it down from 98.6% in 2020). We have about 12% of Europe’s entire wave and tidal resource, if we exploit it effectively.

Yet the renewable storage of all that electricity, generated when the weather is ripe, is becoming an acute question. Part of why we stay hooked to fossil fuels is that, practically, they are “high-density” energy supplies. A gallon of petrol, or a gas supply, is highly portable, and goes a long way for the relevant machine.

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Nuclear power is getting a look-in again, because its steady supply can be a “baseload” (covering potential gaps or lulls in renewable supply). Although my resistance is crumbling at the edges, I still essentially can’t thole them.

Producing millennia-long radioactive waste (their clean fusion version is always “10 years away”), a sitting duck as a national security target, a totally centralised and overly-expensive energy solution… Some other answer, please – one that doesn’t give succour to authoritarian petro-states.

I heard about two great solutions this week, one of them being pioneered by a leading Scottish company. Yet as we assess them, we should be well aware of the dangers of what Evgeny Morozov calls “solutionism”. This is the idea we can techno-fix our way out of the dire challenges of a disrupted biosphere. The context in which this “sustainable storage” emerges is about power and money, as much as ingenuity.

Firstly, a startling realisation. You might think the defining technologies of the last 20 years have been portable computing devices, of all sizes and shapes, and the ever-cleverer software that drives them.

True – but what has underpinned their spread and ubiquity is a baser invention: the lithium-ion battery. First produced in 1991 by Sony, it’s the power storage tech that has enabled laptops, smartphones and latterly electric vehicles and robots.

The National: Richard Hammond

However, lithium-ion’s downsides are well-documented. Mining the material they’re made is an environmentally destructive business – particularly cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which often involves child labour. They can burst into flames (Top Gear’s Richard Hammond (above) notably crashed an electric supercar, which spectacularly ignited).

But most crucially, they don’t have enough storage capacity, which means they’re not light enough to power planes or ships. They also eventually expire, degrading themselves after every recharge.

So the hunt is on for much a better overall battery performance than this (and it’s quite a hunt: 200k battery patents have registered in the US in the last decade). Last week, the Drexel corporation announced an accidental, but penicillin-level, discovery.

Working with sulphur in the battery element, Drexel have chanced upon a process where the materials don’t degrade after a recharge. So far, the performance means these new units will weight one third of the equivalent lithium-ion batteries, and will have twice their lifespan.

That’s potentially James-Watt-steam-engine transforming. Land vehicles will be able to go thousands of miles without the need for a recharge (and these batteries may last for up to a decade). This is also efficient enough to electrically power most short-haul flights, ferry services, cargo boats – all currently huge fossil-fuel polluters.

The Drexel scientists are also using this breakthrough to design sodium-sulphur batteries. Yes, that’s sodium as in sea salt, as wildly ubiquitous a substance as sulphur.

As ever, the societal context for inventions like this are important. Is it better that “car-mageddon” – we manic monads, hurtling around congested cities – is humming on electrics, than spewing particulates? Of course. But would it be a step-change better, for all us, if such an increase in storage power gave us near “eternal” and “virtuous” public transport services, taking cars off the roads? Much better.

The National: Elon Musk Twitter

But that means presenting confident collective alternatives to one-eyed visionaries like Elon Musk (above), who push forward electric cars – but then want to build extra tunnels (as he was recruiting for this week) in which they can further congest.

At the battery level, the ideal of renewable storage moves along a graph of ever-greater efficiency – which makes possible the mobile and computational society we desire. (Though you have to watch for the Jevons paradox – the more efficiently you produce your energy, the more demand for energy increases.)

But can we invent energy storage at a much bigger scale? Something which might fundamentally challenge the various toxicities of “baseload” solutions like nuclear, let alone fossil fuels?

This week’s New Yorker devotes a long article to this challenge. And if you pay attention, you will notice a brief mention for a Scottish-based company called Gravitricity. They are part of a global trend of companies who are exploring what is called “gravity storage”.

The principle is simple to explain. When clean energy is plentiful, you use it to hoist giant material blocks up an elevator shaft. (This shaft can go above or below the earth. Some plans envisage 40-storey tower blocks: Gravitricity, with all due ceremony, want to adapt the shafts in disused coal mines). When you need that power to cover gaps in supply, or to supplement the existing flows, you lower the blocks, which drive dynamos and produce the current.

The vertical versions of this are poetically described – like an “alive and moving mountain”. Much will depend on the smartness of the engineering, flexibly responding to available bursts of energy. As ever, the point at which these ingenious enterprises look like they could scale to infrastructure level, can best be grasped by a smart, strategic national government.

Do we have one of those, with enough powers, in Scotland? As a demonstration of strategic competence, opinion seems divided on the Scottish Government’s handling of the ScotWind franchise. Is it a tragic sell-out of a national resource to global corporate interest? Or is it a ten-year development opportunity to develop and integrate a whole range of sustainable production skills and systems?

I agree with my colleagues at Common Weal: the failure to establish a Scottish national energy company over the past five years left us with little of a national stake in the ScotWind market. Yet the constant stream of innovation and enterprise in Scotland’s renewable sector – Gravitricity the latest example – surely makes the case for “better late than never” on a public energy company.

My sources tell me there is a flurry of high-level strategic meetings around indy policy. I hope and trust that the heidyins are placing the prospect of an optimistic nation driven by sustainable energy – both natural and human – at the core of their prospectus.

In these oppressive and stressful times, ingenuity and renewability would be good values to weave into a new and hopeful story for Scotland.