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Green energy in the UK

By Dave Elliott

UK renewable electricity generation grew by over 56% in the second quarter of 2013, with its share of total electricity generation up to a record 15% from the 10% share in the second quarter of 2012. Projections from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) for the future suggest continued growth is possible, with in one scenario offshore wind reaching 39 GW by 2030, up from 3.6 GW now, and in another scenario, PV solar reaching 10GW and perhaps even 20 GW by 2020, up from 2.6 GW now.  and

However DECC stresses that these are not targets- the market will decide! And an earlier DECC scenario (in its 2013 Energy and Emissions Update), indicted that, after 2020, the rate of expansion of renewables in the UK could fall dramatically.  That’s speculative- it depends on the level of support and on the relative economic success of the options. And also on government policy-it’s not actually a free market, given the subsidy system and its limits.

The governments’ policies for support for new energy technologies operate within an overall cash limit, the Levy Control Framework, which is set to rise in stages to £7.6bn. for 2020-21. That in effect constrains how much can be added to consumer fuel bills by the various green energy supply levies, including the new Contracts for a Difference (CfD) system, which from 2017 will replace the old Renewables Obligation and provide support for renewables, but also nuclear and Carbon Capture and Storage. Allegedly all will receive similar treatment under the CfD. However some divergencies seem to have opened up.

The CfD strike price suggested for the first of the proposed new UK nuclear plants, at Hinkley, would, if agreed by the European Commission, allow it to get guaranteed support for 35 years. That seems likely to be higher that what will may be available or needed by most renewables (on-land wind and PV in particular) by the time the Hinkley plant might start up (2023), if it goes ahead. Moreover, although DECC claims that renewables will be given similar treatment, the proposed CfDs for the renewables are only for 15 years. Clearly, with a £10bn loan guarantee also offered to EDF, the French developer, the Hinkley project has been given privileged status. Several other nuclear projects are in the pipeline, from EDF and other overseas companies, aiming for 16GW in all, and the nuclear industry and its supporters clearly have ambitions for even larger scale subsequent expansion. For example, the UK government nuclear strategy review suggested that 75GW might be possible by 2050, supplying 86% of UK electricity, up from 17% now. If pursued, that would squeeze renewables out, financially and operationally.

For the moment, along with nuclear, renewables are still being pushed strongly, in line with the EU directive of obtaining 15% of UK energy from renewables by 2020. That’s a much lower target than has been given to most other EU countries. For example Austria’s 2020 renewable energy target is 34%, Denmark’s is 30%, Finland’s 38%, Latvia’s 40%, Portugal’s 32% and Sweden’s is 49%, and the overall EU target is 20%. Some of the leaders do benefit from having large hydro and existing biomass inputs, but even if they are excluded, the UK is near the bottom of the list, only beating Luxembourg and Malta.

But it is trying- and is the leader in the expansion of offshore wind and also in wave and tidal power.  Whether these leads will be consolidated remains to be seen. For example, under the initial draft CfD plan, support for offshore wind would be cut by 13% over the next five years (from £155/MWh for projects starting in 2014-15 to £134/MWh for starts in 2018-19). The Committee on Climate Change warned that ‘required investment is at risk under current proposals’. It recommended lesser reductions. DECC initially resisted this call, but last December relented slightly, raising the 2018 price to £140/MWh.  Even so, as the Telegraph noted, while ‘Ministers have previously suggested Britain could have between 11GW and 18GW of offshore wind capacity installed by 2020…scenarios published recently by the government appear to suggest it now envisages only between 8GW and 10GW by 2020’.

Certainly offshore wind development has been hit by some setbacks in the UK. RWE’s 1.2GW Atlantic Array and Scottish Power’s 1.8GW Argyll Array have been abandoned, and RWE’s 1.2GW Triton Knoll project cut back in size. However it is not all over!  Danish developer Dong, which has 3 new projects planned, has bought up the rights to the proposed 560MW Race Bank project, 27km off the Wash, from Centrica, for £50m, despite it having failed to get early CfD backing. Dong says it should get support in a later CfD round and is upbeat about the future of offshore wind: ‘by 2020 our target is that we will be competitive and the need for subsidies will disappear pretty quickly’.

On land wind is also under pressure, with CfD support cut back, new planning controls being imposed and Prime Minister David Cameron telling the Telegraph  that  ‘There’s a limited potential for onshore wind. We’ve just changed the rules, we’ve cut the subsidies and we’ve said that any schemes that go ahead have to give more benefit to local communities. So I wouldn’t expect to see a lot more wind power onshore in the UK.’  So far around 6GW has been installed and earlier plans envisaged around 12GW being in place by 2020.  Given the new planning regime, that may be optimistic, despite on-land wind being one of the cheapest of the new renewable sources, only being beaten by some types of biomass based system.  Support for some of these (e.g. landfill/sewage biogas) has been cut, on the grounds that they are now fully established. DECC seems much more interested in biomass conversion of old coal plants- burning imported wood chips. Not something many greens support.

DECC is also these days keen on PV solar, and although  the Feed In Tariff level was cut, in part this was since its costs have reduced dramatically, and the expansion of PV, has continued. Whether it, and other micro generation options, will benefit much from the CfD system remains unclear-that’s mainly aimed at larger projects. But some interests is being shown in supporting community based projects, although nothing like as much as is happening in Germany and elsewhere in the EU.

While the aim still remains to lead with electricity supplying renewables, in the drive to reach the EU 15% overall energy target (the UK is at 4.1% at present), increasing attention has been paid to green heat supply, notably by the Renewables Heat Incentive.  The commercial version is already up and running, the full domestic version starts this year, with biomass and solar likely to benefit and also possibly district heating networks.

Some of the big unknowns are what will become of marine renewables  (around 1.5GW of wave and tidal stream projects are penciled in for around 2020) and biomass (will farm and community scale AD biomass/waste projects win out?). Also there is the transport side. Will biofuels, biogas or electric vehicles prove popular?  And finally, there’s energy saving- always tragically the Cinderella option, but one which, if taken seriously, could make meeting the renewables percentage targets easier.  DECC has suggested that 40% energy savings are possible in key UK sectors by 2030, including industry, with clear cost and emission benefits

Some scenarios suggest that the UK could get near 100% of its energy from renewables at competitive costs, given the political will. But with nuclear and shale gas favoured, and the European Commission now proposing to abandon mandatory national renewable energy targets for 2030 (a policy strongly backed by the UK), after 2020 there may not be so much incentive for the UK to push for renewables: certainly, unless policy changes, it doesn’t look likely that the UK will reach the 27% target the EC wants to set for the EU as whole for 2030.

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