Renewable energy: a key climate solution

Nathan Bennett is Senior Public Affairs Manager at RenewableUK . He tweets at @nathansbennett. This article was originally featured in the last issue of our magazine New Ground, exclusive to SERA members. Below, he argues that we need stronger political will to decarbonise our economy and a faster transition to renewable energy than the current pace. Nathan says that this urgency becomes clearer when you realise how much of the transformation in the wider economy to reach net zero is predicated on increasing and decarbonising the energy sector first.

On the face of it, decarbonising our energy system should be the easy part of moving to a net zero economy. Renewables are the good news story. The reason we all sighed in relief at the end of the Attenborough documentary as he comfortingly told us there is hope; as the cost of wind and solar has fallen dramatically in recent years, and onshore wind is now the cheapest source of new energy on offer to us. Renewables are the golden opportunity to have green jobs, clean energy and lower energy bills.

But shifting to an energy system powered by clean electricity is not without its challenges, and it’s certainly not devoid of political choices. The challenge is the scale of change and the speed we need to deliver it. The Committee on Climate Change say we need to quadruple the amount over power we get from renewables to reach net zero emissions. That means a huge increase in our renewable energy capacity, nearly trebling the amount of onshore wind capacity and an even higher increase in offshore wind – the CCC says 75GW of offshore wind might be needed by 2050 compared to just over 8GW installed today. 

The numbers may sound enormous, but with a long-term approach from Government - industry is confident we are up to the challenge. The clearest example of the potential of this kind of approach is in offshore wind where a stable, long-term policy framework is enabling over £48bn of investment by companies in new projects that will mean offshore wind provides at least a third of UK power by 2030. 

New renewables deployment is not just achievable, it’s desirable. The costs of onshore wind, for instance, have fallen so far that energy bills would be £50 cheaper for every home in the country if we developed onshore wind at the level recommended to reach net zero. Industry experts expect offshore wind to follow this path in the 2020s, alongside solar power. To put it into context, the CCC estimates that mainstream renewables like solar, offshore and onshore wind – which are already competitive with or cheaper than fossil fuel generation – will be at least a third and up to half the price of fossil fuel and other low carbon power sources by 2025. Similarly, investing in our energy networks and developing new markets for flexible, smart energy services could reduce average household energy bills by £30-90 annually, according to the National Infrastructure Commission.

However, policy on renewables needs to progress rapidly in the next few months. This urgency becomes clearer when you realise how much of the transformation in the wider economy to reach net zero is predicated on increasing and decarbonising the energy sector first, particularly the electrification of transport and heating. The recent Progress Report from the Committee on Climate Change showed that in the last year, the government has only fully implemented one of 25 policies recommended by the Committee to meet our existing carbon budgets, let alone net zero.

I felt a mixed emotion of sadness and inspiration when I recently met an engineering graduate who is giving up on a career in renewables. She told me she signed up to the course to be a part of tackling climate change but quickly realised that our problem isn’t technological, it’s political, and is now putting all her efforts into campaigning. When it comes to onshore wind, it’s hard to disagree with that young engineer’s diagnosis of the problem. The barriers thrown in the way of new onshore wind has led to installations last year plummeting to the lowest level since 2011. In addition to planning restrictions, onshore wind and solar are banned from bidding for Government-backed power contracts. There are companies and communities that want to build new low carbon infrastructure in places with local support but can’t make that investment unless the Government removes the barriers and creates a level playing field for these technologies.  

And the situation becomes all the more frustrating when you look at where the public are on climate action. The Government’s own polling shows that public concern over climate change is at the highest level on record, as public support for developing onshore wind at 79 percent. And when we dig deeper into polling, we see that support for onshore wind – and renewables generally – is solid across demographic groups, political parties and even across the leave-remain divide. The Government is stacking the deck against onshore wind and as a result, they are needlessly slowing down the low carbon transition and pushing up costs. 

That transition to renewables also gives us the opportunity to do things differently in the energy sector. Instead of building large, fossil fuel power plants next to our big cities, renewables has brought investment across the UK and decentralisation of the energy sector. In offshore wind, for example, 90 percent of the investment in the last five years has been in capacity outside of the South East of England. Onshore wind, with development heavily focused in Scotland. And people now have the opportunity to invest in energy at the community and individual level, be it through installing a home solar panel, building a community turbine or investing in a crowd-funded renewable project. 

Of course, the barriers that these technologies now face are also impacting the development of community and crowd-funded projects. And that’s before we consider the impacts of scrapping of support tariffs for small scale renewables and the proposed VAT hike for solar and batteries. We know that smaller scale technologies aren’t able to match the lowest prices we see for large-scale renewables and the community-led schemes can struggle with the financing and risks that developing renewable energy capacity involves, and current policy won’t change this.  

Similarly, there is a black hole in policy to support the development of innovative renewable technologies like wave, tidal stream and floating offshore wind. Each of these technologies have their own unique benefits in balancing the grid, supporting our path to net zero, and, importantly, providing thousands of green jobs and placing the UK as a world leader in the global market for each.

Building new renewables will require partnership between industry, Government, people working in the sector and the communities where new infrastructure will be based, and will be of benefit to all. Ed Miliband – once a leading advocate for chaos – is right to say we need to change and move beyond nightmarish rhetoric when we talk about climate change. Let’s paint the dream. Jobs in the offshore wind sector are set to treble in the next decade. The high-wage, high-wage jobs, and the investment provided by industry are transforming towns and cities outside London. If you want to see the first signs of this, go to Grimsby, Hull, Lowestoft or the Isle of Wight, where investment in new industry is revitalising historic ports. Firms developing offshore wind have set up a £100m fund to support the competitiveness of the UK supply chain, increased the UK content target for new offshore wind farms, are investing in innovation, increasing exports, and setting targets for women and BAME in the workforce. We could see so much more investment like this and thousands more jobs in onshore wind, floating offshore wind, marine and solar if the Government established a supportive policy framework for them too.

In the face of a climate catastrophe, there are voices calling for decarbonisation to happen much faster. Others are interested in increasing UK content requirements for Government energy contracts, or even local or national content. Is there potentially some room for local co-ownership too? Not everyone in political movements or clean industries or environmental campaign groups will agree on the mix of technologies we need or how Government should prioritise objectives. 

However, we know that if we want energy policy to support wider objectives – like creating high-value jobs, developing new clean industries and community energy – it will require political decisions and investment. The question for politicians is whether they see that investment as a cost or recognise the value it adds to our economy? 

Nathan Bennett, Senior Public Affairs Manager, RenewableUK

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