Tuesday, 1 October 2019

A new UK Renewables programme

 Renewables are doing quite well in the UK, supplying around 33% of is electricity, but there are worries as to whether the energy transition can continue. Business Green’s editor recently said ‘The policy framework that delivered the first phase of this historic transition is fast running out of road…those Ministers hailing the success of the UK's clean energy transition have been dining out on the policy decisions made by their predecessors. Since 2015 there has been a steady erosion of this policy framework’.

The UK is still well behind most other European countries in terms of the percentage of total energy supplied from renewables (around 10%), but it is catching up, helped by the large offshore wind programme. Some of problems have been due to the funding schemes used. While competitive mechanisms have their place, the UK experience with developing renewables has been mixed, with some at least of the mistakes arguably being due to an over zealous political belief in the efficacy of markets as a way to identify winners and get prices down rapidly.

It is true that we need to get costs down. Fortunately, that is happening- the technology is getting cheaper as the market expands.  We can argue about whether that is because of the competitive pressures, or due to the subsides, but the key thing now is - can can we ensure that falling costs compensate for the rising cost of rapid capacity expansion that is needed, so that consumer backlashes are avoided? Or must we expect to pay more to get to a green future? The signs are that the transition should not cost more, if well planned. Indeed, there are options for reducing costs at the local level via peer to peer trading: see the examples in the appendix below. Longer term, the develop of smart more efficient energy system should cut cost significantly.   

Replacing nuclear

More immediately, with the UK nuclear programme now in tatters, the issues of what to do next takes on a new urgency – with renewables waiting in the wings to help.

RenewableUK says that around 4.5GW of on-shore wind projects already have local planning permission but have been blocked from CfD support. SSE’s CEO has also argued that we need to be more ambitious about offshore wind . PV solar can also be expanded, particularly at the local community level with a FiT-type support scheme. Tidal Current Turbine technology needs more support (the 399MW Meygen scheme in Pentland Firth is stalling for lack of funding), wave energy possibly too, although it is less developed. Biomass AD, using wastes (not forestry wood combustion as at DRAX) needs more support, and CHP too, as part of an expansion of heat networks.

The power, heat and gas networks need reconfiguring to help deal with variable renewables with more electrical storage, more gas storage and more heat storage being added to increase system flexibility.  A key to that will be “Power to Gas” conversion of the regularly surplus power outputs that will be available at times from renewables into hydrogen gas for later use to generate power when renewable inputs are low. Some of this synthetic green gas could also be used, along with biogas, for direct heating and for heavy transport vehicles.  The UK has been a pioneer in this Power to Gas area. It is part of the shift to a new more efficient and flexible way of balancing variations in demand and supply.

As the head of the National Infrastructure Commission has said, all of that (and much else) needs revisiting and a new approach devised. Hopefully we can come up with one that will be more coherent and effective than those in the past.

The state of play

The current situation is that the FiT system has been abandoned and no further new allocations under the CfD will be allowed, after one last round of auctions, with, otherwise, all new spending on the various green levies having been frozen until after 2025. The expectation seems to be that renewables like on shore wind and PV, and soon offshore wind, should be increasingly able to stand on their own feet without subsidies.

That won’t be easy- given they they face other energy options which continue to get subsidies, like nuclear, outside of the competitive system. Subsidies for new technologies are useful: for renewables, project prices have fallen faster than they would have without the support systems. However, the successfully emerging technologies (wind and solar) still need access to the market that the CfD provides even is no subsidy is provided.  Moreover, what of the newer less developed options?  If the aim is to expand renewables overall, and to do so rapidly, then continued support for the new technologies, like wave and tidal power, would be wise, so as to reduce their costs.  Unless that is you believe we should just stick with the currently lowest cost options- and that wave and tidal have missed the boat. 

While short-termism has its appeal (go for the current cheapest), so does diversity, spreading risks across a wider range of options. New or improved technologies continue to emerge. They too may get cheap, as PV and wind have done.  It would be unwise to foreclose green energy options.

A new plan

At present there are no UK renewable energy targets, just indicative BEIS scenarios, which suggest the UK could get up to 50% of its electricity from renewables by around 2035. There are more optimistic views some looking to 100% of all energy by 2050, assuming proper attention is given to demand reduction and energy saving. Labour’s last manifesto was backed up by a plan to ‘ensure that 60% of the UK’s energy comes from low-carbon or renewable sources within twelve years of coming to power.’

This ‘60% by 2030’ low-carbon energy target excludes transport, but includes nuclear, a very contentious issue.  The costs are rising and public support is low- 38% in the 2018 BEIS survey compared to 85% for renewables.  A large nuclear programme would also make it very hard to balance the expanding renewables programme- nuclear plants cannot vary their output regularly and quickly to balance variable renewable input. They just get in the way of the new more flexible supply and demand system that is needed.
There was also talk in Labour’s plan of ‘support the development of tidal lagoons, starting with approval of the Swansea Tidal Lagoon’ which is debatable. The latter is very expensive. Tidal current turbines are far superior and faster to install. Small tidal barrages (e.g. on the Mersey) may have role to play, as they are able to help with balancing, but large barrages are expensive and can have major environmental impacts. Wind and Solar are better bets with clear potential for expansion, though tidal may be able to make a small contribution by 2030.

A detailed plan is now needed, facing up to all these and other choices, including on the demand side. One such plan has been outlined recently by Greenpeace. It assumes the Hinkley project goes ahead, but not the other proposed new nuclear plants. It calls for rapid expansion of wind and solar. It is a useful starting point for discussion.

Rachel Reeves, Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee says ‘...it’s vital the Government comes forward with a Plan B to plug the energy gap. This alternative plan must ensure security of supply and address the pressing need to decarbonise the UK’s power generation. Renewable energy offers significant opportunities for UK jobs, for business, and for industry and Government must take a fresh look at creating the right environment for attracting investment in future energy capacity, including renewables.’

That is a good summary of the challenge, and the opportunities that we need to grasp. Labours Bringing Energy Home report is not a bad start- but it’s only a start

The above was produced earlier this year by Dave Elliott as part of lobbying activities focused on the Labour Party. It has continued to push ahead with renewables well, but still seems all over the place on nuclear – it’s out, no it’s in.  The Green New Deal proposal, backed at Conference, though very positive on renewables, is a bit vague on nuclear.  Odd when most of the media has given up on it as a dead duck, Hinkley especially. But that’s the right wing press. New Statesman meanwhile ran a double page Nuclear Industry Association advertorial! The debate continues.

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Let the sun take the strain

The Sun newspaper recently ran an article claiming that Britain will face power cuts unless the government steps up plans to build more nuclear energy plants’(1), a view reflected in a parallel Daily Mirror article which talked of fears over ‘energy shortage and lights going out' (2). This was in response to fact that the Conservative government has been unable to get private sector financial support for some of the new nuclear projects it wanted to see built, despite being able to tap consumers bills for some of the large extra cost. Labour said it could do better – in effect by using taxpayers money to partly fund new nuclear (3).

What seems to have escaped them both is that electricity use has fallen significantly in the UK in recent years- so we don’t need costly new nuclear plants. UK electricity use is now back to 1994 levels, around 15% down, in part due to the success of energy saving programmes and despite 18% economic growth over the period (4).

It is true that, as we phase out coal use (all of it is planned to go by 2025), and as the old nuclear plants close, we will need more energy inputs, but there is no shortage of low cost green energy options. As the government Business and Energy Secretary Greg Clark said ‘The cost of renewable technologies such as offshore wind has fallen dramatically, to the point where they now require very little public subsidy and will soon require none’ (5).

He could have also mentioned on shore wind and PV solar, now both vying to be the lowest costs energy sources of all, already able to deliver power at around half the cost of the power that  may eventually be produced if the Hinkley nuclear project is completed, which might be sometime around 2027. However, the government has opposed on shore wind and has pulled support for PV solar. So we are left with new nuclear, offshore wind and some large controversial biomass projects, including some using forestry-derived wood pellets imported from the USA.

You don’t have to be an energy expert to see that there are some problems. Offshore wind is fine and there are some very large schemes going ahead. We already get 33% of our power from renewable energy projects like this. We are likely to able to meet at least half our electricity needs from renewables by 2030, and could, given proper support, get to near 100% by 2050.  However, the real problem is not electricity use, but heat and transport energy. We have not done at all well there so far.

The governments plan is to get us to switch from using North Sea gas for heating, to using electricity to run domestic heat pumps- so out goes your old gas fired central heating boiler unit and in comes an expensive new bit of kit. That, it is proposed, will be mandatory for all new houses from 2025 (6). In parallel the governments want to us to switch over to using electric vehicles. All of this this means more electricity will be needed- a lot more (7).  The UK gas grid handles about 4 four times more energy than the power grid and vehicle fuel use is even large than that. Shifting all of that over to electricity supplied by the grid will be hard- if not impossible, even with a lot of new nuclear plants and a major grid expansion programme. 

There is an alternative. If we went for a very large renewables programme, with onshore and offshore wind and PV solar, scaled up to meet power demand most of the time, then, since renewable outputs and demand vary, at times there would be surplus output – when wind and solar was high but demand for power low. That surplus power could be quite large and could be used to make carbon-free hydrogen gas by the electrolysis of water.  That green gas could be stored, with some of it being used later to make electricity again, when there were lulls in wind and solar availability, while some of it could be fed into the gas main, instead of fossil gas, to supply heat. So we would keep the gas grid and you could keep your boiler, although some adjustments would have to be made, as happened when we switched from the old Town gas, made from coking coal, to North Sea gas in the 1970s.

In urban areas there would be a role for heat networks - district heating, fed by biomass or green gas fired Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plants, with large heat stores, these also being topped up by solar heat, as is done in Denmark.  CHP plants are flexible- they can vary the ratio of heat to power out to match demand. That would help with balancing the variable output from renewables.  And needless to say, energy waste would be squeezed out of the system- by improved buildings and the more efficient use of energy.

On the transport side, while electric cars have their appeal, if using green electricity, we should really be thinking more of public transport, trains and trams, and, for larger service and working vehicles (vans, trucks, tractors, buses) biogas and hydrogen are arguably better fuels. In the system outlined above, we would have green gas available for them, which could be toped up with biogas made from domestic food, municipal and farm wastes.  It’s harder to see a way forward for aircraft, which currently use untaxed fossil fuels, but there’s a race on between systems using battery power and those using biofuel/hydrogen. The later can also be used for ships- some already use LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) instead of marine diesel.

The simple message from all this is that we don’t need nuclear- renewables can do it all. It is conceivable that nuclear could do some of it- using nuclear plants at night, when power demand is low, to make hydrogen. However, quite apart from all their other problems, nuclear plants are not suited to frequent rapid changes in power output, so they would be no use in balancing variable renewables. Whereas the system described above, based on direct and indirect forms of solar energy, would do that well- all without the need for fossil fuel, or nuclear power.        

(3) https://labour.org.uk/press/tory-energy-cancellations-risk-power-20-million-homes-rebecca-long-bailey/
(4) www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-uk-electricity-generation-2018-falls-to-lowest-since-1994
(5) www.gov.uk/government/speeches/statement-on-suspension-of-work-on-thewylfa-newyddnuclear-project
(6) www.gov.uk/government/news/spring-statement-2019-what-you-need-to-know
(7) https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-energy-demand/uk-power-demand-to-soar-on-plans-to-end-gas-home-heating-research-idUKKCN1R0003

This was produced initially for the BANNG anti-nuclear group in Essex: www.banng.info

An edited version appeared in their Regional Life section