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Devolving power

By Dave Elliott

‘Distributing Power: A transition to a civic energy future’, a report on research by the EPSRC-funded Realising Transition Pathways Research Consortium of 9 UK universities, argues that up to 50% of electricity demand in the UK could be met by distributed and low carbon sources by 2050. The report assesses the technological feasibility of a move from the current traditional business models of the ‘Big Six’ energy providers to a model where greater ownership is met by devolved governments, municipalities, co-ops and communities. And it looks in details at what types of governance, ownership and control a distributed future would need.

The research consortium had developed three notional transition pathways up to 2050:

Central Co-ordination: a transition led mainly by the government, with large scale nuclear (30GW), fossil CCS (30GW) and wind (38GW) projects emphasized, renewables overall being at 65GW, and electricity demand rising

Market Rules: Led by companies within a broad policy context set by the government, again with large scale nuclear (26GW), CCS (44GW) and especially wind (53GW) being prominent, renewables overall rising to 80GW, but electricity demand still increasing.

Thousand Flowers: Civil society plays a large role in delivering distributed low-carbon generation, with smaller community-scaled renewable energy projects predominating, very little nuclear or CCS, and demand falling.

The ‘Distributing Power’ report focuses on the last one. In it, there is 149GW of generation capacity in all, by 2050, 112GW of it using renewable sources, while annual electricity demand falls to 310TWh, down from 337TWh as in 2010. Combined Heat and Power (CHP) using renewable fuels dominates supply, generated from 44GW of community-scaled biogas-fired CHP and some domestic-scale micro-CHP. On-shore wind comes next at only 21GW, PV is at 16GW and offshore wind 8.4 GW, and there are small hydro, tidal and wave inputs and an even smaller biomass generation input. Unabated coal and gas are phased out entirely by 2030, nuclear declines to 5GW, about the same as the small coal and gas CCS elements.

So it’s a very local CHP/district heating (DH)-based approach, with distributed generation providing 50% of final electricity demand, and DH supplying most (60%) of the heat. But it’s not a totally decentralised system: there are some large plants still and a new smart grid/DSM systems and grid upgrades would be essential for balancing the variable renewables. The report notes that modeling tests show that the proposed system can do that, with no need for extra storage (which it sees as costly and bulky), but some more interconnectors, to add to flexibility. In addition ‘prosumers (consumers who produce as well as consume electricity) become key actors in this pathway’ this ‘ leading to significant reduction in overall demand’.  So, although there would be some domestic-scale generation,  it seems that their focus would mainly be on the demand side, with citizens being engaged, ‘whether through increased efficiency measures, demand response, or smart metering’, aided by price incentives ‘to achieve buy-in to demand side participation’.

This seems to be some way from the prosumer experience in Germany, where many consumers have bought into PV. Perhaps that explains why there’s relatively little PV in the Thousand Flowers scenario (a 4.8% overall contribution). The report does accept that there are other possible pathways with more solar and wind. But the main emphasis is on the transition process and its institutional requirements. It opts for a mix of Local Renewable Schemes, Regional Energy Partnerships, and Energy Service Companies. The big question is – could they do it? The report says yes, given the right support structures, especially at the municipal level, so as to get the UK to near zero carbon by 2050.

The Thousand Flowers pathway has some similarities to the ‘Patchwork 2050 decentral pathway explored by the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) in their recent report ‘Options Choices Actions: UK scenarios for a low carbon energy system transition’. That too has local CHP/DH networks playing a significant role, but not to the same degree as in Thousand Flowers. And to compensate it has more wind (75GW) and solar (28GW) and more nuclear (16GW). The ETI’s parallel ‘Clockwork’ scenario, in which big companies and government play a central role, is more conventional. It has less renewables (they stay at roughly the level reached by 2020), but more nuclear (40GW by 2050) and fossil-fueled plants with CCS, though gas is phased out for direct heating. Larger scale CHP/DH does however play a role, co-ordinated by central government. And it has some large biomass with CCS ‘carbon negative’ plants.

The ETI report claims that under either of their two pathways ‘the UK can achieve an affordable transition to a low carbon energy system over the next 35 years. Our modeling shows abatement costs ranging from 1-2% of GDP by 2050, with potential to achieve the lower end of this range through effective planning’. And it says that ‘it is critical to focus resources in the next decade on preparing these options for wide-scale deployment. By the mid-2020s crucial decisions must be made regarding infrastructure design for the long-term. High levels of intermittent renewables in the power sector and large swings in energy demand can be accommodated at a cost, but this requires a systems level approach to storage technologies, including heat, hydrogen and natural gas in addition to electricity’. It insists that we should not delay: ‘It would be a mistake to think the country can wait until efficiency measures have been exhausted before we turn to alternative, low carbon solutions. If the UK waits until the mid 2020s, a lack of supply chain capacity is likely to mean that preferred solutions have to be supplemented by second-choice technologies at far greater expense. In our model, failure to prepare properly leads to a significant escalation in the cost of abatement action by 2050 (to around 3-4% of GDP).’

In both ETI Pathways, grid balancing is taken seriously, with demand-side management playing a role, and the ETI is reasonably neutral about the technology options, saying that ‘key technology priorities for the UK energy system include: bioenergy, carbon capture and storage, new nuclear, offshore wind, gaseous systems, efficiency of vehicles and efficiency/heat provision for buildings. CCS and bioenergy are especially valuable. The most cost-effective system designs require zero or even “negative” emissions in sectors where decarbonisation is easiest, alleviating pressure in more difficult sectors.’

However, the inclusion of extra nuclear, and its emphasis on large CCS and bioenergy (e.g. large scale bio-conversion), puts their approach, at least in Clockwork, at the ‘hard’ centralized end of the technology spectrum, and as such it may not be welcome by many greens, who may be more drawn to the Thousand Flowers, although ETI’s Patchwork does have its attractions, including plenty of surplus wind-generated electricity for making hydrogen to use to balance the grid when wind is low! Then again CHP/DH could also do the same, and that’s in all the scenarios, although more of it, with many smaller-scale community units, in Thousand Flowers.

Will any of these pathways materialize? Some seem very radical, Thousand Flowers especially, implying a major social as well as technical change, almost socialistic in terms of new patterns of ownership and control. At present the UK seems to be heading in almost the opposite direction, maybe to ETI’s Clockwork, but with an election coming up, who knows. While that plays out, in my next few posts I will look at the situation elsewhere around the world, starting off in Asia.


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