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Wind power key to UK's desperate renewable energy bid

A fresh blow to the government, as it were

By John Lettice, 27 Jun 2008

Analysis Good news and bad news. This week's government strategy document-cum-consultation on renewable energy, and on how the UK proposes to meet its EU obligation to derive 15 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, shows clear signs of practicality and joined-up thinking. But making it to the magic 15 requires several desperately optimistic assumptions, and the gloomy subtext is all too evident.

Check out the language. It's a "very challenging target" that will require "action at all levels... if all the options set out in this document were successfully implemented... our scenarios suggest it will be possible to reach 15 per cent renewable energy in the UK by 2020. This is at the top end of the range of possible outcomes and would require a very rapid response from suppliers, with a step change in the rate of building renewable technologies."

So even the authors think we're screwed. But mainly from the point of view of hitting the 15 per cent on time - if you're not wholly convinced that the world is going to end if we're not wind farms a go-go by 2020, then you might reasonably welcome the signs of progress evident in the document. It is, incidentally, written from the standpoint that we should address the issues of anthropogenic global warming and energy security, so even if you don't buy the first you might possibly worry about the second.

It's a big document, but whichever way you approach it the answer comes down to two things - wind and, er, biofuels. We need, it says, 14 GW of onshore wind generation compared to the 2 GW we have today, and about the same in offshore wind. Other forms of generation - biomass, microgeneration, sewage and landfill gas, hydro and wave power - make up the balance of the 35 GW plus renewables generation requirement, but wind is by far the chunkiest of the lot, and there's a good bit of optimism involved.

The Renewables Advisory Board, which produced a summary "2020 vision" document earlier this month, is claimed by yesterday's document to have "estimated that around 13 GW of onshore wind could be deployed by 2020." Er, up to a point. The RAB document said a target of 13 GW of onshore wind would have to be achieved by 2020 in order to make its figures work, and that this would mean bringing slightly less than 1 GW p.a. of onshore wind on-stream. Really, RAB was setting a challenge that would have to be achieved via government action, and yesterday's document was about the government explaining how it might do this.

Three main mechanisms are to be used to tackle the renewable generation target - the Renewables Obligation, connectivity with the electricity grid, and speeding up the planning process. There's also some reference to energy efficiency, on the basis that getting overall consumption under control makes the hill easier to climb, but in the main that will wait until later in the year, when the government "will consult on a new strategy to achieve a step change in household efficiency." For the moment, however, the strategy is concentrating on the supply side.

No to feed-in tarrifs

The Renewables Obligation obliges electricity suppliers to source an increasing proportion of their electricity from renewable sources, and as it currently stands it is predicted to result in about 14 per cent of consumption to come from renewable sources by 2015-2020. In order to meet the EU obligation, says the document, "we will need to at least double this figure."

This could be done via sticks, carrots or a combination of the two, but the non-negotiable bit is that the Renewables Obligation "will nevertheless need modifying, including significantly increasing the level of the Obligation (e.g. 30-35 per cent), and extending its end date. On the assumption that the RO is maintained, we would like your views on any further changes required."

Alongside that bit of non-negotiability the report pretty much rejects a feed-in tariff scheme (guaranteeing small renewable generators a rate for electricity) to encourage microgeneration as part of the RO. "Our analysis indicates that, while feed-in tariffs could in some circumstances have theoretical financial advantages, these benefits could be within the margin of modelling error and would be small scale for the deployment required. More significantly, it is less likely that a new system of feed-in tariffs could achieve the target by 2020, due to the delay and uncertainty that a change of support scheme (which could take several years to introduce) would necessarily entail."

So stick it is, then. The document says that about 7 per cent of current UK domestic energy bills arises from climate change policies, and it expects this to increase. "Because of the time it will take to accelerate investment, in the short term, up to 2010, the impact on bills will be close to zero. Small increases will then occur in the period 2010-15. By 2020, we estimate that the measures set out in this consultation document, taken together, could result in increases in electricity bills of 10 per cent to 13 per cent for domestic and 11 per cent to 15 per cent for industrial customers; increases in gas bills of 18 per cent to 37 per cent for domestic and 24 per cent to 49 per cent for industrial customers." Petrol and diesel will go up 2-4 per cent and 1-3 per cent respectively, but hey, you may have noticed something there already.

A land fit for wind turbines

These price hikes will go towards the rollout of renewable generation capacity and, as we've already noted, wind is the biggie. But you can't roll the wind-farms out if nobody will let you build them, which is where the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which is being set up via the Planning Bill comes in. The IPC is intended to be an independent body dealing with, and speeding up the execution of, major infrastructure planning proposals. The IPC will have responsibility for planning applications for all onshore wind developments above 50 MW, and offshore above 100 MW. In, um, England and Wales.

But, says the document, "we would expect that a large proportion of onshore wind development will take place in Scotland." There, planning on this scale is handled by the Scottish Government, which has set its own renewables targets and can't be guaranteed to nod through wind-farm applications. The Scottish Government (as you'll note from that link) is aiming for 31 per cent renewables by 2011 and 50 per cent by 2020, and given Scotland's wind and hydro potential it has a reasonable shot at achieving these. Scotland has 6.4 GW of onshore wind in place or in the planning process, and will undoubtedly have more by 2020, effectively producing a significant proportion of the target for the UK as a whole. Gordon Brown may however consider a decade (in the unlikely event of him getting that far) of being patronised by Alex Salmond a high price to pay for helping save the planet.

Effectively, though, the IPC is more likely to be busying itself with offshore wind, and approving nuclear plant and offshore wind projects than troubling the onshore wind target. Offshore is less prone to nimbyism than onshore, or at least it has a different class of nimby. The MoD's concerns about radar interference are to be addressed by the development of an action plan "to identify workable solutions to mitigate the impact of wind turbines on radar systems", while extensions to the Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) are proposed to allow wind farms to be build closer to shipping lanes.

Sustainable transport

The defects of biofuels are now well-established, but it's clear from the document that this presents some considerable difficulties for renewable strategy. At the moment, the EU's Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation requires that 5 per cent of fuel be biofuel by 2010, and 10 per cent by 2020. For the UK this 10 per cent would amount to 20 per cent of the total target, or a 20 per cent hole in the vision if biofuels are deemed to have been a daft idea in the first place.

"We are committed to meeting both our and the EU's renewable energy goals in a sustainable way," says the document, and although it doesn't quite spell it out, and warbles hopefully about "second and third generation" products that somehow won't be a problem, it looks likely that biofuels won't fit the bill.

Which leaves us looking tentatively elsewhere. "At present the main source of renewable energy available for transport is biofuels. However, vehicles powered through the electricity grid using renewable energy may have a growing part to play." And: "Over the next few years, motor manufacturers have committed to developing electric and, potentially, hydrogen-powered vehicles. In widespread use, such vehicles would have the potential to contribute to the EU renewable transport target."

The authors have also spotted the potential of a large fleet of battery powered vehicles to provide storage for renewable energy sources. They "through vehicle-to-grid technologies could help smooth electricity demand." But as yet we don't have any kind of strategy: "The Government is keen to promote all options for future technological development (including electric and hydrogen) and is interested in examining now how the development of electric vehicles and an appropriate charging infrastructure could be accelerated in the UK."

And what will all of this cost? It's something of a movable feast - overall it will definitely cost lots, but the amount it will cost us over and above not doing anything will depend on the price of oil and commodities. The document suggests that the cost of meeting the 15 per cent obligation will be around £5-6 billion a year in real terms by 2020, but this is based on oil at $70 a barrel, while if it were $150 a barrel the relative cost of the renewable strategy "could fall by 35-40 per cent." So the more you end up having to spend on energy, the smaller the more you're likely to have to spend on renewable energy. But it'll still be lots. ®

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