Winds of change

The UK has the best wind resources in the world and could run entirely on renewables by 2050. But will capricious government policy help or hinder progress?

“Clear and present warning”: the headline the Hindustan Times ran following the Kerala floods this August left no doubt about the disaster’s cause. “If we continue with current levels of emissions – which is not unlikely – we will have unmanageable risks,” Kira Vinke, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, told the paper.

The monsoon rains unleashed nearly three times the normal amount of water, leading to the displacement of 1.3 million people in the southern Indian state.

Storms and hot summers are just the tip of the iceberg, which we know to be melting in the age of climate change. But stories such as these give us an important context in which to discuss renewables – the chief weapons in the fight against climate change.

Whereas fossil fuels, which we burn for power generation or heat production, release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, trapping heat and making the Earth warmer, renewable energy offers a worthwhile alternative solution.

Wind is the biggest renewable energy source in the UK. Photograph: iStock

Renewable resources are naturally replenished and they include wind, solar, hydro, tidal, wave and geothermal energy. The use of renewables has risen in recent years to compete with fossil fuels, as countries try to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions to meet their climate change targets.

A fossil free future?

The pace of change is exciting. Many countries could be run entirely on renewable energy by 2050, according to a roadmap developed by scientists. Published in Joule in August of last year, the research led by Professor Marc Jacobson of Stanford University said that “if fully implemented by 2050, the roadmaps will enable the world to avoid 1.5°C global warming and millions of annual air-pollution deaths.”

The UK is ideally poised to benefit from the technologies in renewables being developed. Indeed, this is already happening. Nearly a third of the UK’s electricity between April and June 2017 was generated from renewable sources – a new record, and up a quarter on the same period the previous year, according to the government’s energy trends statistics.

The UK is considered one of the best locations in the world for wind power, with high average wind speeds. Solar has done well too. Hot weather this year saw solar briefly take over from gas as the number one energy source, according to a Guardian report.

Government policy impacts

These developments are good news for the environment. But the positive news hides troubling present concerns. Chief of the concerns is a perceived lack of government support for growth of renewables and what impact this is having on progress.

The investment in clean energy is today at the lowest point it’s been in a decade, with a 94 per cent drop in new developments for onshore wind, the Independent reported in May. It follows moves made by the government in 2015 and 2016 to cut subsidies for onshore wind and solar energy – two of the biggest sources of renewable energy in the UK. Further, in 2017 came the announcement that there will be no new subsidies for any clean power projects until 2025.

The UK is facing a 'cliff edge' in solar energy use, according to an industry insider, following a fall in government investment. Photograph: iStock

Andy Brown, head of onshore projects at big energy firm, Npower’s parent company, RWE Innogy UK, explains the impact it’s had: “We’re looking at a cliff edge in onshore wind and also in solar. The sudden withdrawal of support for onshore wind and solar and to a degree hydro as well is just beginning to bite.”

RWE is Europe’s third-largest renewable energy producer and the onshore arm has helped to make wind harnessed on land the biggest renewable energy source in the UK. Now, Brown says he’s looking at how he can redeploy his teams into other areas. “We threw away 35 projects at the point that the subsidy was removed (in 2016). Other companies will have done the same. Billions of pounds’ worth of onshore wind schemes, which were popular, which would’ve got planning, which nobody had any problem with, were scrapped in a matter of months.”

Government policy on this needs to be examined. To many observers, recent policies make no sense. The decision to cut subsidies for onshore projects, was, wrote Damian Carrington for the Guardian in 2015: “pure politics”: “Too many Tory voters dislike the look of turbines and their party delivered for them, whatever the fallout.”

Indeed, according to the government’s public opinion tracker survey results released this April, public support for onshore wind is actually 76 per cent in favour, and has never fallen below 64 per cent in five years of measuring. Government’s assertions that the subsidies were pulled to protect consumers from paying high energy bills – the cost of wind power onshore has been passed to consumers in the bills – does not compute either because onshore wind is super cheap to make.  “Onshore wind power is the cheapest low-carbon electricity, so unless lost wind farms are being replaced by high-carbon electricity from coal or gas, bills will go up,” Carrington said. (Ofgem actually raised the cap on energy bills for consumers for the second time this year in August.)

Offshore – new support

The industry says that what’s needed now is for government to give consistent support for renewables. At the moment, its favoured renewable is offshore wind. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announced in July that it would help to support the construction of 7GW (gigawatts) of operational offshore wind capacity – the largest amount of any country – which could generate approximately 20 per cent of UK power.

It’s a big turnaround, as the UK onshore sector has nearly twice the operational capacity of offshore wind currently, according to RenewableUK. 

“The government seems quite happy to support offshore because nobody cares what they look like," says Andy at RWE, showing only a hint of the frustration he must feel at the sudden change of direction. "They’ve stood by their pledges [so far] and that’s great. We’ve got a very good wind resource. But that support does need to continue into the future.”

“It’s not about, ‘here’s loads of money, here’s no money, here’s loads of money…’, which is the way that we’ve been operating as a country for years. One of the downsides of that is that you don’t get any industry, because who’s going to invest in a country that’s got this sort of Jekyll and Hyde approach for renewables?”

The ‘cannibalisation’ effect

The investment into renewables has fallen – by 56 per cent in the UK last year according to analysis by Bloomberg, the biggest drop worldwide – but what is also interesting is how this is driven by economics as much as by government policy.

When there is an abundance of anything in a market, it drives the price of the goods down and it’s the same for renewable energy, which investor Dominic James at Cazenove in London explains has been in high supply over the past few years. “Electricity price is volatile and can fall due to many factors including the abundance of renewable supply, which has come on stream massively in the last five years. A hot sunny summer with a daily breeze likely has meant renewables have been running at full capacity.”

Indeed, wind farms were controversially reported to have been paid to switch off last year because there was excess energy in the system, something one report called the ‘cannibalisation’ effect, where higher renewables capacity pushes power prices so low they each veer into negative territory. The report from Cornwall Insight said that for solar and new wind projects in particular “falling wholesale prices…could damage their economic viability.”

James confirms: “When the electricity price is weak there’s less profit to be made and thus less incentive to build any new capacity unless the government subsidise it.” 

HSE has turned its attention to offshore wind in the past year after the government pulled the plug on its support for onshore to focus on wind farms in the sea

Andy says the low wholesale electricity price combined with the lack of government support has dealt a heavy blow to his business: “We’re trying really, really hard to do some unsubsidised schemes, based on the very, very low prices that we expect them to actually generate into.” But: “If the wholesale prices go down, or if the view of the future gets more towards low electricity prices, they will never get through.” In fact, he adds: “Nobody will build anything. The only people who are going to build are maybe nuclear because they’re getting a massive subsidy, which is colossal compared to wind.”

There’s also the looming reality of Brexit. Much has been said about how industries like car manufacturing could suffer when we leave the EU, as the supply network is so woven into Europe. The same is true for renewables, as many of the parts used to build wind farms and solar panels come from abroad.

“Everything’s imported from countries which have had a consistent support mechanism for renewables such as Denmark and Germany. We have to import the turbines,” says Andy. With Brexit: “We’re exposed to the currency. And so if the pound gets weaker, more schemes drop off the list.” James adds: “When the pound is weak (because of issues related to Brexit) perhaps the cost of buying German windmills and Chinese solar panels becomes a little too pricey to justify spending on new projects.”

Heat and Transport – targets missed

Renewables is not just about using energy for electricity, but also for heat and transport. Renewable heat technologies include renewable biofuels, solar heating and geothermal heating. While solar panel trains are already in operation in sun-blessed India, in the UK it’s biofuel where the attention is focused.

The Department for Transport, for example, is currently consulting on plans to introduce E10 fuel – which contains more bioethanol than traditional petrol – to the UK market. Transport minister Jesse Norman said: “This government is ambitiously seeking to reduce the UK’s reliance on imported fossil fuels and cut carbon emissions from transport.”

However, when it comes to heat and transport renewables, the UK is not performing well. A European Commission report released in February 2017 showed that the UK was ranked 24th out of 28 EU countries for renewable energy consumption overall – a result of the total being dragged down by low output in heat and energy renewables, explained Dr Nina Skorupska, chief executive of the Renewable Energy Association: “While we are likely to meet and even overshoot on power, much more progress needs to be made on transport and heat,” she told the Independent. The UK registered just 8.2 per cent of energy from renewables, hardly beating the tiny country of Luxembourg, which came last at five per cent.

The UK was recently ranked 24th out of 28 EU countries for renewable energy consumption. Source: EUROSTAT

Green campaigners and MPs are worried. The Energy and Climate Change Committee warned in a 2016 report that unless the government makes major policy changes, we will miss targets on climate change. “The experts we spoke to were clear. The UK will miss its 2020 renewable energy targets without major policy improvements. Failing to meet these would damage the UK’s reputation for climate change leadership,” said Committee chair Angus MacNeil MP.

Targets refer to the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive, which sets a binding target of 20 per cent final energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020. Leaving the EU throws meeting these into further doubt. But failure to replace them must not be an option said MacNeil: “If the UK reneges on these targets, it will undermine confidence in the government’s commitment to clean energy and the climate targets agreed in Paris.”

So, the story of renewables is an exciting one, full of promise and hope for the future. The idea that we have the technology and means to run entirely on renewables in our lifetime is wonderful – it is a chance to save ecosystems, to clean the oceans and the air and to stop sea levels rising. But it will need the backing of government and it will need them to put the planet first. “Everyone knows that 70 years from now we’re going to run this planet on sun and wind, the question is whether we’re going to be running a broken planet,” summarises Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, a global grassroots climate movement. It is really simple, so we only have to hope that politics and the drive for profit do not get in the way.