Renewables now supply around 33% of UK electricity, but the regional inputs per capita are very uneven. Most of the 43 GW or so of UK renewable capacity is in England – more than 25 GW, led by wind and biomass. But in 2017 Scotland, with 7.5% of the total UK population, got 68% of its power from its 10.5 GW of renewables, with 73% of that coming from wind. Around 12 GW more is on the way, so Scotland may yet meet its ambitious 100% by 2020 power target.
Wales, with about 4.5% of the total UK population, received the equivalent of 48% of its electric power from 3.2 GW of renewables in 2017. The devolved Welsh Government wants to see that rise to 70% by 2030. And it could get to 100% by 2035, according to the Institute of Welsh Affairs, with 4 GW of tidal, wave, and floating wind, 2.7 GW of photovoltaics (PV), 2.5 GW of wind onshore, and 1.7 GW offshore, plus smaller inputs from biomass/biogas and mini hydro.
Northern Ireland, home to around 2.9% of the UK population, had 1.6 GW of renewables in 2017, supplying 20% of its power. Of that 1.6 GW, 82% came from wind, with some hopingthat Northern Ireland can get to 40% renewables by 2020, and 70% by 2030.
There are no comparable percentage statistics or targets for how much of England’s electricity supply comes from renewables, at least I can’t find any. In most official statistics England is lumped in with Wales or as part of the UK or Britain. From what I can tell from what’s available, England gets around 20% of its power from renewables. It’s hard to be exact since, amongst other things, it imports power from Scotland.
According to BEIS data, in 2017 Scotland generated 51.7% of total UK renewable electricity, with Northern Ireland providing 34%, England 26% and Wales 20%.
While, combined, the UK is doing quite well on power, the English share per capita is low. And even getting to that has been a struggle — one that’s continuing, with new onshore wind projects still blocked across the UK by the Westminster government, apart from on remote Scottish Islands. The UK government says it has to avoid passing large costs on to consumers and so has cut support for renewables like onshore wind and PV, which it says no longer need subsidies in any case.
Some projects may still be successful, but the case for full-on subsidy cutbacks for renewables is debatable. Especially since nuclear is set to get lavish Contract for Difference (CfD) subsidies for Hinkley, and the plan seems to be to continue with that for future nuclear projects via a new regulated asset base (RAB) model for private finance. The idea is to allow power companies to charge consumers for capital projects before they are built — in effect consumers take the investment risk. The government intends to publish its assessment of a nuclear RAB “in the summer” after consultation as part of the Infrastructure Finance Reviewannounced in parallel with the Spring Statement. With investors getting increasingly risk averse and the costs of nuclear projects rising, RAB may be the only hope for new nuclear. Even then its outlook’s not certain, as Hitachi and Toshiba’s recent decisions to pull out of UK nuclear projects indicated.
The situation looks very different for renewables, as costs continue to fall, as does electricity use. The cost of new balancing technology to deal with the variability of some renewables is also falling. That’s true not just for batteries for short-term storage, but also for Power to Gas hydrogen production for longer-term storage using excess renewable power intermittently or even continuous production from dedicated renewable projects. P2G does seem to be moving forward, with new studies suggesting it is already competitive in niche markets and could be so across the board in around ten years. That would be pretty good going for a technology that only emerged from the lab relatively recently, if you date it from the first ITM Power prototypes. A bit gloomily, a study by the UK’s Imperial College London says that it can take decades to move from the early R&D phase to full scale adoption. P2G seems to be doing better than that; it’s moving up its learning curve fast, aided by commercial-scale deployment.
Overall, despite the imbalances and the cutbacks, it looks like the future is bright for the new green energy technologies, with rapid change likely. By 2035, the UK might get 50% or even 60% of its electricity from renewables, and much more later. Rapid technological deployment can of course have problems, for example in terms of the jobs lost as the energy system changes and old technologies are replaced. But there will be new jobs, although also sometimes a need for retraining and transitional support. We need a Just Transition.
As I noted in my last post, as part of that, there will also be wider transitional issues, given that there may be some interim extra costs. It will need careful handling to avoid inequitable social impacts — any short-term costs must be fairly shared. However, the longer-term economic benefits should be increasingly positive as expensive fossil fuel use is avoided and the social and environmental costs of using fossil fuels fall. It already seems to be the case that efficiency upgrades have helped the economy, and as new smart energy supply and management systems spread, the economic benefits should expand.
All this assumes it is done well. And also takes on board heat and transport issues — a big weakness so far. They can be quite tricky to deal with, as Northern Ireland found with its version of the Renewable Heat Incentive and France’s President Macron discovered with his proposed vehicle fuel tax rise. Subsidy handouts and taxes can both be problematic, with the rise of populist backlashes from those who feel they have been left out or left behind adding a new dimension and feeding back, around the world, into political reaction against ostensibly progressive change.
Moving aheadIn the UK context, it is good that much of the growth in renewables is in the north — in Scotland and the North East, with Humberside doing well from offshore wind. Along with policy, geography does play a key role. What we must now wait to see is if offshore wind can successfully go further out to sea. The Dogger Bank zone is under development; its furthest reaches are 100 miles or more out. We must also wait to see if the government will relent on land-based wind or whether it, and PV solar, will be able to move ahead fast unaided. And also what happens to green heat. Scotland has set a target of getting 50% of all its energy, including heat, from renewables by 2030 but so far, apart from some indicative electricity projections, there are no UK-wide post 2020 renewable energy targets.
Plenty to get on with, as a recent UK energy plan produced by Greenpeace suggests. This calls for 45 GW of offshore wind, 40 GW of PV solar and 30 GW of onshore wind by 2030, along with major smart grid balancing systems. The wide-ranging new climate plan produced by the government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change (which I looked at in an earlier post) also has renewables ramping up fast, so as to get the UK to net zero emissions by 2050 with, for example, maybe 75 GW of offshore wind by then.
In my next post I look at a recent study of what might be needed for the rapid acceleration of renewables. That was one of the elements in the Climate Emergency motion passed by the House of Commons on May 1st in the wake of the Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests. XR called for “zero carbon by 2025”. A way to go on that but the political mood does seem to have changed, with a commitment being made to getting to zero net carbon by 2050. However, the government’s plan to jack up value-added tax (VAT) on materials used for energy systems like PV solar from 5% to 20% seems to belie that, at least in the short term. The abolition of the feed-in tariff (FiT) system likewise, though the new Smart Export Guarantee for small projects, now set to run from January 2020, may compensate a bit and give PV a small boost. The Labour party, meanwhile, says it will fit solar panels on a million social homes and those of low-income households to tackle fuel poverty, and will enable installation on 750,000 more homes through a programme of interest-free loans, grants and changes to regulations. It’s part of Labour’s aim to generate 60% of energy from renewables and low-carbon sources by 2030. Some big changes ahead, maybe, with Labour also planning to nationalize the grid system…