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New RSPB 2050 energy scenarios

By Dave Elliott

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has produced a study of ecologically sound energy resources for the UK, looking at the spatial aspects and local impacts. In total, the spatial analysis indicates that between 5,558 and 6,277 TWh/year could be generated with low ecological risk by renewable energy technologies in the UK. The UK’s annual energy consumption in 2014 was 1661 TWh, so that, if appropriately sited, approximately four times this level could be generated from renewables with low impact risk.

The results show significant scope for the increased use of all renewable technologies analysed within areas of low ecological sensitivity. In particular, there is a large potential for onshore wind and solar farms, two currently contentious options in land use/impact terms. RSPB estimates that solar farms could generate up to 246 TWh/year with low ecological risk, taking account of impacts on food production and land-use change.  Onshore wind  could they said supply up to 140 TWh/year- six times the current level, ‘with low risk for wildlife and protected landscapes’. Combined, the joint generation potential for these two established technologies is equivalent to approximately a quarter of the UK’s current annual energy consumption and more than the current annual electricity consumption. So there could be significant exports- via more interconnectors.  They did not map rooftop solar as part of this research, but estimated this could contribute a further 182 TWh/yr. Small-scale renewable energy schemes such as rooftop solar typically involve low ecological risk, and also offer opportunities for public engagement in climate action, for instance through individual or community ownership.

Moving up scale, the results show a very high potential for offshore wind technologies with low ecological risk, generating up to 5,673 TWh/year, equivalent to almost three and a half times the UK’s total current annual energy consumption. The majority of sea areas identified as suitable are far from the shore, so in the case of offshore wind would require the commercialisation of floating turbines which can be used in deeper waters. But, they add, it is important to note that data on the distribution of marine species is limited, therefore exact figures could change substantially as data improves, and understanding of the ecological risks (or other constraints) associated with floating wind technology increases.

Using the DECC 2050 Pathways Calculator, but only some of these huge potentials, they look at three distinct 2050 scenarios: Mixed renewables (on and offshore), High Marine Renewables (with 50% of electricity coming from floating wind) and High Onshore Renewables (33% from onshore wind and PV), with in the first renewables supplying 70% of total UK energy (with 459TWh of electricity), the second 88%  (with 445TWh) and the third 56%, CCS in each case supplying most of the rest. Overall, with low carbon CCS included, the scenarios supply 81-91% of energy. However, RSPB say CCS is a long shot: ‘priority should be given to renewable energy, energy storage, demand reduction, demand-side response, interconnection and smart grid development, as there is a higher degree of confidence that these options can reduce emissions with low ecological risk’. Transport and heating are electrified, with CHP and heat pumps playing key roles. They say that ‘Any use of biomass as a transport fuel must be subject to robust sustainability standards, and should be prioritised for use in sectors that are most difficult to decarbonise through other means, such as aviation and shipping.’

Looking at bioenergy in general they say  that although it could play a role in the UK’s energy future in harmony with nature lifecycle emissions assessments should be carried out to ensure genuine emission reductions, and must take into account the carbon released when biomass is combusted’ and ‘the use of biomass should be limited to available sustainable supply based on a cap, ensuring that bioenergy crops do not replace natural habitats such as species-rich grasslands– a process which could be supported through strategic spatial land-use planning.’ They add ‘subsidy regimes should prioritise the most efficient technologies such as small-scale combined heat and power (CHP) genuine wastes and residues should be prioritised, in accordance with the waste hierarchy’.  Finally, ‘any bioenergy feedstocks imported from overseas are subject to similarly robust sustainability criteria, to protect wildlife and ensure genuine emission savings’.

The RSPB conclude thatWith careful planning, it is possible to meet the UK’s climate targets by using high levels of renewable energy, whilst avoiding significant negative impacts on nature.’ And the UK should ‘set the ambition: 100% low carbon energy by 2050’, and to help that they look to massive strides in demand reduction and energy efficiency’, with a 30% saving overall by 2050.  However, Research is needed into the impacts of technologies, and to determine where the sites most in need of protection are located – particularly at sea.’ For example ‘There are opportunities for new technologies, such as floating offshore wind turbines, tounlock substantial renewable energy capacity, potentially with low ecological risk, but this requires greater investment in ongoing ecological research and monitoring’. In addition Research and development of technologies such as energy storage and smart grid networks are critical to ensure long-term security of supply’.

The use of the DECC calculator, with its stress tests and cost estimates, lends credibility to the exercise, with all the RSPB scenarios passing the security of supply stress test and the costs of the three low impact scenarios being similar to other example decarbonisation pathways provided in the Calculator tool, although all came out higher than a business-as-usual approach: Mixed Renewables 8.2% more,High Marine Renewables 9.5% more, and High Onshore Renewables 9.4% more. However, it is noted that given that these are hypothetical future energy systems ‘the assessments of costs and security of supply produced by the DECC Calculator should be regarded as indicative only’.

Certainly it is a pretty bold set of plans, with reliance on technologies like floating wind turbines that, although promising (with for example a 7MW unit now on test off Japan), are as yet unproven on large operational scale. However, that is arguably even more the case of some nuclear scenarios, based on as yet unbuilt and untested reactor types. There is no nuclear in any of the RSPB scenarios. What it does have is a clear commitment to low eco-impacts and that is a valuable contribution.

That said, it’s high level analysis and high renewable targets might perhaps be thought to have been a little undermined by recent reality on the ground- or rather at sea.  RSPB Scotland sought a Judicial review of consents for three offshore wind projects, 2.3GW in all, and won a retraction, although there may yet be revisions and new rulings: 

Nationally, RSPB says Climate change poses the single greatest long-term threat to birds and other wildlife’, and it clearly favours renewables, including offshore (and onshore) wind but only in the right place. So the fact that it has opposed some projects should not be too surprising and may not detract from its wider policy. Indeed, it might lend it more environmental credibility.

With renewable costs falling rapidly, the next hurdle is political credibility. Well, for what it’s worth, Jeremy Corbyn, the recently reconfirmed Labour leader, has produced a scenario in which the UK gets 65% of its electricity by 2030 and possibly 85% later: 

I will look at it in my next post.

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