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Delivering the goods – clean energy policy

By Dave Elliott

‘Delivering Energy Law and Policy in the EU and the US’, edited by Raphael J. Heffron, Gavin F. M. Little and published by Edinburgh University Press, is a compilation of short chapters from a very wide range of academics that reviews the state of play in the energy policy field in the West. As the editors note, one issue that emerges is the slow progress in relation to the adoption of new cleaner, greener energy options, which they say ‘encourages incumbents and in essence maintains their status’.  The reviews in this book look at what has been done so far and at what could be done to move things on in the future, via new policies and legislation.

The way ahead, in terms of dealing with climate change, might seem obvious enough. However, there are some conflicts. For example, views differ as to which ‘old’ technologies are part of the deadwood of the past that blocks the transition to the future. Clearly coal is given short shrift in this book, but shale gas and CCS are included as new options, as are new nuclear technologies, Small Modular Reactors in particular. The inclusion of the latter does highlight one of the fault lines that exist in energy policy. Whereas some contributors look to a nuclear revival, others see it as heading for terminal decline. Policies for the future look very different depending on which of these views is adopted. A familiar story!

Another fault line explored in the book concerns markets and support systems for renewables: some, motivated primarily about climate issues, look to interim subsidies, others, worried about costs, want to shift rapidly to full market competition. Feed-In Tariffs (FiTs), as initially adopted across the EU, are certainly very effective at getting capacity built, but can pass high costs on to consumers, so that, politically, they may not be sustainable. The big issue is whether competitive auctions, as now favoured in the EU, will avoid that problem, while still leading to some capacity growth. They may not.

Consumer reactions are portrayed in this view as essentially resistive, for example, to cost rises, but that is too simple. FiTs have enabled many consumers to get into generation, via PV, themselves. Consumers are becoming active, not just passive subjects of efforts to change their energy use patterns, the latter being the main focus of the chapters on consumers in this book.

Despite some shortcomings like this, and the absence of much on the key emerging issue of grid integration and system balancing (other than some chapters on storage), there is some interesting material in this reader, covering as it does, a wide range of academic interests and policy, climate legislation and initiatives, including some helpful national case studies. 

It is certainly good to be reminded of the progress that has been made in some areas. However, much more is needed, as the IEA makes clear in a recent report on air pollution. That is now moving up the agenda, unsurprisingly, given the air quality and linked health problems in rapidly industrialising countries like China and India. The IEA data show that China leads in total global emission of pollutants, with its industry producing 65% of its SO2 acid gases.

The IEA offers a global Clean Air Scenario and what it calls ‘a pragmatic and attainable strategy to reconcile the world’s energy requirements with its need for cleaner air’.  That also leads to reductions in CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions, with renewables playing a major role, alongside emission clean-up technology, efficiency increases and energy saving. It does include nuclear, which of course has its own emission risks and impacts (radioactive materials and also greenhouse gases from uranium ore mining and processing), but in the energy supply part of the scenario renewables dominate, expanding their contribution by 10% p.a.  up to 2040 (hydro and a small extra biomass contribution included), compared to only 2.3% for nuclear.

The IEA doesn’t put a figure to it, but the huge savings in avoided health costs would, long term, seem to more than compensate for the costs of the changeover.  It’s a bit of policy that could well do with being delivered, and fast. As the IEA notes, around 6.5 million premature deaths each year can be attributed to air pollution, with energy production and use being by far the largest man-made sources of air pollutants.

As the IEA notes, the measures it would like to see to deal with air pollution will mostly also help reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that are said to lead to climate change. In terms of health impacts, quite apart from direct economic impacts, slowing that is also urgent. But even in simple direct global warming terms, recent UN-backed studies have suggested that rising average temperatures and local hot spots may cost the world economy £1.5 trillion by 2030 as it becomes too hot to work in some heat stressed regions: and

When the rising economic, social and health cost of using fossil fuels are added in to the assessment of energy options, the initial cost of making the transition to clean energy looks less like a burden and more like a sensible, and increasingly urgent, investment. Indeed, long term, with renewable costs falling fast (see my last post), the net cost of making the transition, including the cost of balancing variable renewables, could be less than continuing as at present. While investing substantially in new fossil plants may not be wise, especially if it detracts from investing in renewables, some clean-up work may have to be done on old plants and some new cleaner gas-fired plants developed, as an interim measure: even in ambitious green energy scenarios, fossil fuel use will still be with us for some while. Plenty of room for debate there, e.g. over the role of CCS!

Whether nuclear power will or should be with us as well on any significant scale also remains an open question. The prospects do not look good, at least in the West and even in the East, renewables are expanding much more rapidly, with wind plant output having overtaken that from nuclear in China and also in India in 2012, and still expanding:

I will be looking at the nuclear issue once again in my next post. While some still look to growth, the reality in many places seems to be one of delay, rising costs and non-delivery.

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