How the great British weather can help to bridge the renewables gap

Fighting against the windThe climate for renewable technologies in the UK has been notably inclement lately, ever since the summer’s soggy policy announcements resoundingly dampened investors’ and businesses’ enthusiasm. Now, even the usually resilient edifice of government is leaking.

Yesterday, a private letter from the secretary of state for energy and climate change to some of her colleagues in the cabinet inexplicably escaped into the public domain. This was the day before David Cameron set out his demands for EU reform, and two weeks before the Chancellor presents the results of the Comprehensive Spending Review and the Autumn Statement, when the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is expected to face significant budget cuts.

A renewables warning light
In the letter, dated 29 October 2015, Amber Rudd acknowledges in private something she had never yet spelled out in public: that the UK is off track to meet its legally binding 2020 renewable energy target, by a massive 50TWh. As the letter states, this gap could be narrowed to 30TWh if the UK continues to deploy renewable heat over the next five years, meets its renewable transport target and stays on track to deliver 30 per cent of electricity generation from renewables. Nevertheless, the gap is quite large.

Failure to meet the target would expose the government to judicial review and the possibility of ongoing fines imposed by the European Court of Justice. It would also be a big setback for the UK’s efforts to shift to a low carbon economy and play its part in reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions, just as the world passes the unwelcome threshold of one degree of warming.

The 2020 target is still achievable
Rather than shed more tears over the sorry state of the country’s energy policy and add to the downpour, let’s put up an umbrella for a moment and take stock. Here in the UK we have fantastic weather for energy. Why aren’t we making the most of this great British weather to achieve the renewables target? The UK has the best wind resource in Europe. And, even though at times it feels as if we never see the sun, London’s solar panels still manage to generate 65 per cent as much energy as their counterparts in sweltering Madrid.

The 2020 target isn’t technically unmanageable; it’s just that the policy context needs fixing. The government needs to ramp up the UK’s delivery of domestic energy infrastructure through setting out a clear, positive energy policy. As Amber Rudd rightly identifies in her letter, the UK must build more renewable heat capacity and increase connectivity with neighbouring countries to enable electricity trading.

British renewables and efficiency are key
But the UK could do more still. Back of the envelope calculations suggest industry could deploy an additional 2GW of onshore wind, which would deliver around 5TWh of new supply, and it could be cheaper than building new gas-fired power stations to cover electricity demand. We could deploy an additional 2GW of offshore wind, which would deliver around 7.3TWh of new renewable supply, though it would increase the cost. If we could deploy an additional 2GW of solar, this would deliver another 2TWh of new renewable supply.

And, finally, while it might be enjoyable to go for a blustery walk outdoors on a winter’s day, the great British weather needs to keep out of our homes, so we need to return to an effective heat saving strategy. If the UK again delivers the insulation installation rates that we saw under the scheme that ran from 2008 to 2012, it could reduce the capacity needed to meet the UK’s renewables target by a huge 67TWh. We’d meet our targets and keep the UK on the long term least cost decarbonisation track to 2050, as well as helping to tackle fuel poverty.

Making the most of our weather mix
For a country so rich in energy making weather, isn’t it a bit embarrassing to resort to purchasing renewables credits from other countries that have been more successful than us at growing their own clean energy? British renewables and energy efficiency measures can rise to the 30TWh challenge posed by Amber Rudd in her leaked letter. As I’ve indicated, there are already a host of options immediately available (and watch this space for more ideas).

More than three quarters of British people support renewable energy. And even more (79 per cent) support the idea of subsidies for reducing energy waste in homes. So let’s do more to build the UK’s weather mix into the national energy mix, to fill the renewables gap while keeping our homes warm and dry.

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