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UK – not a lost cause

By Dave Elliott

Some see the current UK government’s energy policy as doomed – trapped in a commitment to old technology like nuclear power, leavened only by continued support for offshore wind. For example, the FT ran this analysis: ‘Nobody outside the industry now thinks the future of electricity generation is nuclear fission. The cost of building the plants to comply with safety and antiterrorism standards is rising all the time, fears of a runaway price for oil and gas now look silly, while advances in wind and solar technology are destroying those projections of ever-dearer energy … The UK’s energy market is in an unholy mess, with attention distracted by the vacuous debate about switching electricity suppliers. The real costs lie with the “green initiatives” at the other end of the wires. Scrapping Hinkley Point would not solve all of them, but it would be a start. Perhaps best to wait until after June 8 for another U-turn from Mrs May, though.’  FT 26th May

Well, the June election came and went and that didn’t really resolve much in the energy sector or, arguably, elsewhere. However, while Labour may not have won enough seats to overturn the Conservatives, it did very well, and it is likely to play a significant role in the future, given the hung parliament. What might it do?

In a bold political move on energy, in its manifesto, Labour had said it would seek to ‘regain control of energy supply networks through the alteration of operator license conditions, and transition to a publicly owned, decentralised energy system’. Specifically, it looked to ‘the creation of publicly owned, locally accountable energy companies and co-operatives to rival existing private energy suppliers, with at least one in every region’, and to legislate ‘to permit publicly owned local companies to purchase the regional grid infrastructure, and to ensure that national and regional grid infrastructure is brought into public ownership over time’. With an emergency price cap in the meantime – and fracking banned. And an overall 60% by 2030 target for ‘zero carbon’ and renewable energy – though that includes nuclear.

That won’t all now be tested out, but we can be sure Labour will harry the government on its energy policy. And with the Tories in some disarray, new political alignments may emerge.

There was certainly an undercurrent at one of the first energy policy related gatherings after the election. CND’s conference on June 17th ‘No Need for Nuclear: the Renewables are Here’, put the anti-nuclear pro-renewables case strongly, with presentations from a range of academics and left-of-centre speakers, including from the Green Party. Nuclear apart, there was clear support for the Labour programme.

However, there are other views – for example, not everyone backs the nationalisation drive. For example, Jim Watson from UKERC, writing before the election, said: ‘Labour’s plans for energy renationalization are puzzling. They are part of a broader ideological commitment to public ownership that also includes water and railways (the Green Party makes a similar pledge). However, it is unclear why the renationalization of  energy networks would be a good use of public money (or borrowing), or what this move is seeking to achieve.  Although public ownership is starting to come back at the local level, led by some Local Authorities, this is a bottom up phenomenon. The Labour plan to have a public company in every region seems un-necessarily top down, and runs counter to pledges to devolve power elsewhere in its manifesto. UKERC research shows that many Local Authorities are barely off the starting blocks in relation to energy strategies and preparedness. This is not because of a lack of political will – but due to a dearth of powers and funding so they can develop energy saving and local generation projects.

That may be a bit bleak, given the results of a YouGov poll in 2013 which found that 68% of their sample wanted the big energy utilities nationalized, and the scale of grass roots enthusiasm for renewables – they are mostly very popular. Though it has to be admitted that locally-run community projects are still rare in most of the UK, Scotland apart.

However, the prospects for renewables generally look good.  Friends of the Earth (FoE) have come out with a scenario that goes well beyond what Labour proposed. It looks to getting 65% of UK power from intermittent sources by 2030, and a further 10% from less variable sources like tidal, hydro and geothermal, with lots of energy storage (batteries, hydro dams, hydrogen etc.), interconnectors, demand-side response and smart grids to manage demand and supply, and decreasing amounts of natural gas and other technologies as back-up.

It notes that research by the UKERC indicates that the costs of balancing intermittent renewables up to about 50% of the total generation was in the range of £10-£17/MWh and that ‘on the government’s costs, basic estimates suggest providing an additional 50 TWh of new electrical generation in 2025 from onshore wind and solar would be around £500 million per year cheaper than if it was provided by CCGT natural gas, assuming £10/MWh in extra balancing charges’.

Moreover, renewables are likely to be even cheaper than the government’s estimates – making gas, and of course nuclear, look even further out of it, although FoE did make a mistake on load factors – they quote 32% for nuclear (similar to wind), citing this link, which says it was actually 75.1% in 2015. But otherwise it seems a reasonable study, if a little simplified: it’s a broad policy not a detailed scenario. Its message is very clear, including a side swipe against big biomass combustion, as well as nuclear: New nuclear is unlikely to be built in time – and along with many forms of large-scale biomass has significant environmental issues and so should be minimised and phased out.’

On the ground, Hinkley continues to attract criticism, with the National Audit Office seeing it as costly and risky. By contrast, progress continues to be made on renewables. Despite the government reticence and resistance, PV has passed 12GW, with around half of the projects being large (over 5MW) solar farms, while on-shore wind has moved past 10 GW, with Vattenfall’s 75 turbine 228MW wind farm now on-line at Pen y Cymoedd in Wales, with 22MW of battery storage planned.

Offshore, Danish company Dong Energy has installed 32 8MW turbines in Liverpool Bay – the 258 MW Burbo Bank extension. That brings UK offshore wind to 5.3GW in all, with much more in the pipeline. For example, planning permission should now move forward for four offshore wind farms, of 2.3GW capacity in all, off the Scottish coast, following an appeal ruling.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which had brought the original case against the wind farms, claimed that the projects could ‘kill thousands of Scotland’s internationally protected seabirds every year, including thousands of puffins, gannets and kittiwakes.’

The RSPB backs well-sited offshore and on shore wind projects, but has dug in on some others. Hopefully it can help the developers ensure that these new projects avoid major impacts, with further mitigation measures being adopted if needed; the original plans had already been reduced in size and turbine spacing distances changed, but there are disputes on likely impacts. Next up, a series of floating offshore wind systems in deep water is planned. For example, five 6MW floating/spar buoy turbines, constructed in Norway, are to be installed 25 km off the Scottish coast, in a 30MW test project. See this video.

Progress is also being made with tidal stream devices in Scotland. As the first 6MW part of the 398MW Meygen project, Atlantis Resources has installed four tidal current turbines on the seabed in Pentland Firth, between the northern Scottish mainland and the island of Stroma. And Scotrenewables has had successful tests of its 2MW floating unit at EMEC. So there is still all to play for, given the right political direction and support. With Scotland still showing the way! See my next post.

 

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