Can we install enough renewable energy to meet demand?

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By Jon Crooks

With a review of the proposed Hinkley Point C power station in Somerset due next month and repeated promises of more detail on the UK’s broader energy policy by the end of the year, this final blog in the series looks at whether we can install enough renewable energy to meet current and growing demand for electricity through the electrification of other sectors within the time frame needed and asks, do we need new nuclear power stations like the one proposed at Hinkley in Somerset? 

As mentioned in the first blog of this series, recently published figures from the new Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) showed that the renewable energy share of the electricity sector was up 5.5 percentage points from the previous year to 24.6%. This is great news, make no mistake. As Carbon Brief summarised in their review of these figures:

“Wind, solar and biomass all contributed to the rising share of renewable electricity. Onshore wind generation increased by 23% on a year earlier, while offshore wind and biomass grew 30% as new windfarms were completed and Drax continued its conversion from coal to wood pellets.”

It’s clear therefore that we are already replacing coal with solar, wind and biomass. If this can become a trend (a 5% increase in share each year), then a move from 25% in 2015 to 30% in 2016 is possible, which if we then extrapolate over the next 15 years would mean 50% of our electricity generation could come from renewable energy by 2020, 75% by 2025 and by 2030 we would be getting all our power from renewable sources. We just have to keep building capacity at the current rate. Don’t we?

Increased urgency

Recent figures – based on Met Office data – prepared by meteorologist Ed Hawkins of Reading University show that average global temperatures have already been more than 1C above pre-industrial levels for every month except one over the past year and peaked at +1.38C in February and March. Keeping within the 1.5C limit will now be extremely difficult, say scientists, given these rises.

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These alarming figures will form the backdrop to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change talks in Geneva this month, when scientists will start to outline ways to implement the climate goals set in Paris. Dates for abandoning all coal-burning power stations and halting the use of combustion engines across the globe – possibly within 15 years – are likely to be set.

The transport sector has seen an increase in demand, driven by cheaper oil prices, and if we are to switch all our transport to electric power over the next 15 years, demand for electricity will clearly increase if all else remains constant – though it is worth pointing out that a battery-powered vehicle is approximately five times more efficient than a petrol-fuelled vehicle.

The same applies to heating and cooling of buildings, where we must move away from fossil fuels quickly and this will mean an significant element of electrification will be required.

This means that we will either need to step up the current pace of building renewable energy capacity to meat the increased demand, look to build new nuclear power stations or greatly improve energy efficiency. So what is the answer?

Nuclear power

22% of our electricity currently comes from nuclear reactors, but the UK’s nuclear power stations will close gradually over the next decade or so, with all but one expected to stop running by 2025.

Several companies have plans to build a new generation of reactors and I’ve long thought that we need this to happen, even if just as an insurance policy against not being able to decarbonise through renewable energy alone. But a number of things have emerged recently to change my mind. I’m now convinced that nuclear power is not the answer.

Firstly, nuclear energy results in 9–25 times more carbon emissions than wind energy, due to the mining, refinement, and transportation of nuclear fuel; the much longer time involved in building a nuclear facility (approximately 4 times longer than wind or solar facilities); and larger building footprint.

Secondly, I think we can and will move faster in terms of renewable energy deployment. Whilst my crude calculation above assumed a 5% increase required year on year to meet current demand, the reality will be more exponential as we have already seen:

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Source: DUKES 2016 Chapter 6: Renewable sources of energy

We’ve already seen a further acceleration in investment activity since the signing of the Paris Agreement at the end of 2015 and the more money that flows into renewable energy projects, the more the price falls, the more it then becomes an even more attractive investment, and so on. Can you look at the above graph and see this playing out any other way?

UK Case studies

A report, produced by the RSPB (pdf),  concluded that approximately four times the UK’s current final energy consumption could be generated from renewables, with low ecological risk.  Of particular interest, their results showed 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 final energy consumption in 2014.

The Centre for Alternative Technology prepared a plan (pdf) entitled Zero Carbon Britain 2030, which was updated in 2013.  The report details a comprehensive plan through which Britain  could reduce its CO2-equivalent emissions 94% by the year 2030 (for all sectors, not just electricity generation).  The report proposes to achieve the final 6% emissions reduction through carbon sequestration in forests and peatlands.

In terms of energy production, the ZCB report proposed to provide 100% of UK energy demands by 2030 from renewable sources.  In their plan, 79% of electricity demand is supplied through wind (72% from offshore turbines, 7% from onshore), 3% from wave, 6% from tidal, 8% from solar, 3% from geothermal and 1% from hydroelectric.

Scotland in particular already has a significant share of the European wind energy market and high winds recently boosted renewable energy output to provide 106% of Scotland’s electricity needs for a day.

The government has just given planning permission for the Hornsea Project Two offshore wind farm. This project could be the largest in the world when completed and have a capacity of as much as 1.6 GW located off the east coast of England. That’s half the capacity of Hinkley in one wind farm.

Dong Energy has recently stated that it is ready to offer the U.K. more offshore wind power should Prime Minister scrap construction of Hinkley nuclear power plant.

“We would be able to further accelerate and expand the build out of offshore wind should there be such a need,” Dong’s Chief Executive Officer Henrik Poulsen said. “Of course, that’s entirely leaving those decisions to the U.K. government.”

Building more offshore wind farms is key to driving down the cost of the renewable energy technology, according to Poulsen, head of the Danish utility, which is the world’s biggest offshore-wind-farm developer.

Energy efficiency 

John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, recently argued:

“The less we use, the easier the problem is to solve. If all street lights were switched to LED bulbs we could take half a GW of demand off the grid with ease. If all homes did the same, we’d save 2.7GW of power at peak use – that’s nearly the equivalent of Hinkley by just changing the lightbulbs.”

In both the RSPB and ZCB studies, it was assumed that the UK would implement ambitious energy saving measures and significantly reduces overall energy demand. Measures such as improvements in the energy efficiency of lighting and appliances and significantly improved insulation in buildings, so that less energy is wasted. The RSPB assumed that by 2050, the UK’s final energy demand would be reduced by more than a third and ZCB suggested it could be reduced by 60% by 2030.

“A low-carbon future is essential. So is energy security and affordable energy. If we are to deliver on all three, there is a huge investment opportunity across renewable energy, interconnectors, energy storage, smart grids and energy efficiency.” –John Sauven, Greenpeace UK

Recomendations

I would like to see the UK Government publish a comprehensive plan, similar to that produced by Zero Carbon Britain that not only sets the goal of net zero emissions by 2030, but paints a picture of what that that will look like in terms of UK energy mix and crucially what policies will be put in place to get us there.

Businesses and investors, crucial to delivering the technology, innovation and capital required to meet this challenge are looking to government to show the way. Here are a few suggestions from me for starters:

  1. The construction of Hinkley nuclear power plant should be scrapped.
  2. Instead the government should give the go-ahead to the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon project, which will provide cleaner, cheaper energy in more abundance and for longer.
  3. No new gas power plants should be given the go-ahead
  4. Primary focus to be on additional offshore wind deployment at a scale sufficient to replace any closing coal plants. The Government’s Renewable Energy Roadmap highlights a potential deployment by 2020 of up to 18 GW of offshore wind (compared to installed capacity at the end of 2015 of 5.1 GW). This would correspond to around 17 per cent of the UK’s net electricity production (compared to 4.8% at the end of 2015), which is OK. But we need to be more ambitious and target 25 GW of offshore wind capacity by 2020 and 50 GW or 50% of our electricity production from offshore wind by 2025.
  5. Financial support for small-scale rooftop solar and community energy projects based on wind, solar and hydro schemes to ensure they are viable and lead to a steady increase in uptake, with subsidies and grants available for energy storage and smart appliances also made available.
  6. Energy efficiency needs to be made a top government priority with re-implementation of the zero carbon homes policy to ensure all new housing is net zero carbon from 2020 and a plan put in place to deliver energy efficiency across the UK’s existing housing stock through a combination of incentives and penalties that gradually improve energy efficiency ratings over a 10 year period.

The above is just a start and will need to dovetail with other strategies in other sectors, delivering zero carbon transport, changes to how we heat our buildings and changes to industry, agriculture, the level and make up of our consumption of food and products, and policies that reduce waste and transition us to a more circular economy.

Watch this short video from Zero Carbon Britain and support the cause:

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One thought on “Can we install enough renewable energy to meet demand?

  1. Pingback: We can have 100% renewable energy and still have ‘baseload’ power | the green economy

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