Lake District

The next government must be greener

If the last government was the ‘greenest government ever’, then the next must be even greener.

As we enter the final days before the general election, it is difficult not to feel the sense of uncertainty which clouds both the actual event, and the next five years that are dependent on its outcome.

With no party expected to secure an overall majority, we are set for a second consecutive coalition – the composition of which is difficult to accurately predict.

But there is at least one thing which we can be certain of in the next five years.

By the year 2020, the UK must be producing at least 15% of its energy from renewable sources. This overall energy target includes transport and heating as well as electricity generation.

Based on recent figures, the growth rate of around 16% required to achieve this target is one of the highest for any member state in the European Union.

This is by no means an easy feat, and the next government must show strong leadership and ambition on renewable energy from the outset.

Major capital investment is urgently required, as is a stable regulatory framework which provides investors with the necessary long-term certainty.

But increasing the proportion of energy generated from renewable sources should not be viewed as a painful transition towards an arbitrary target, imposed upon us by faceless bureaucrats in Brussels.

The growth of green energy in the UK in fact goes hand-in-hand with cheaper energy bills, greater energy security and more skilled jobs across the country.

Need for certainty

The renewable energy targets include electricity generation, transport and heat. All three are strongly interlinked, and any under-investment in one sector has significant consequences for the others.

Currently, only electricity looks set to potentially exceed its targets, but in order for this to happen, it is estimated that £42 billion extra is needed by 2020 in this one sector alone.

Moreover, while growth in the renewable electricity sector has increased on average by a staggering 20% year-on-year between 2009 and 2013, major uncertainties are all too present.

To take just two examples, the Renewables Obligation is due to close to all new entrants into the market from 2017 and the first Contracts for Difference have only just been awarded.

Outside of the electricity sector, heat has grown on average 11% year-on-year between 2009 and 2012, and for transport, biofuel consumption has increased by 4% between 2009 and 2013. Both fall far short of being on course to meet the 2020 targets.

A five year debate on the environmental effects of certain biofuels has damaged confidence in the sector to the extent that there were no new investments whatsoever identified in transport biofuels in 2014.

It is hoped that the EU Environment Committee’s (ENVI) recent endorsement of a compromise agreement on the issue will lead to improved certainty in the biofuels sector.

What all this demonstrates is an urgent need for a more coordinated long-term approach, which is lacking in current policy.

Indeed, this was identified by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, who in their final report of the last parliament pointed out that it is possible to meet our renewable energy targets in a cost-effective manner with more effective long-term planning. 

The renewable energy sector has a key role to play in improving the resilience of the electricity system, but in order for this to happen, long-term regulatory certainty and a levelling of the playing field between varying technologies and sectors is absolutely vital.

Support for storage

One area where this is especially the case is energy storage. When combined with Solar PV in particular, energy storage technologies have immense potential to revolutionise the UK’s energy mix, bringing down energy costs, improving energy security and increasing renewable capacity available on demand.

The technology is not yet commercially competitive in the UK, but we can fully expect rapid progress in the next five years if the political and regulatory environment is right.

To enable energy storage to make the transition from ‘technology with potential’ to ‘technology that makes a valuable contribution to the UK’s energy framework’, more funding for research and development of storage is required. 

Moreover, the regulatory situation must be made more amenable to emerging high potential technologies such as storage.

While we do not necessarily believe that the most effective way of doing this is to place storage under the Contracts for Difference regime, the next government should as a matter of priority undertake a review of the energy market framework to remove regulatory barriers to progress.

Green jobs

The development of renewable energy in the UK is not just about meeting targets. Our transition towards a greener energy mix is creating thousands of highly skilled jobs up and down the country.

In the UK as a whole, employment in renewable energy increased by 9% across all sectors, bringing the total number working in the industry to 112,026, with key areas of skills growth being located in the North West and North East as well as in London.

To put this into perspective, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported average employment growth across the UK economy of 1.2% during the same period.

Imagine what could be achieved if renewable energy development is a genuine top priority for the next government.

Importance of the consumer

We are also clear that if renewable energy is to reach anywhere close to its potential, consumer understanding of the costs and benefits of decarbonisation is vital.

The next government must explore ways it can improve its communication to the public around renewable generation, to bring transparency and clarity around the key decisions it will need to take in order for the UK to meet its 2020 targets.

Moreover, much more could be done to improve understanding among the public on how they can produce their own renewable electricity and heat.

There is considerable potential to improve consumer take-up of the domestic renewable heat incentive and solar feed-in tariffs to enable individuals and communities to power their homes in a cheaper and greener way.

Looking ahead

Renewable energy holds the key to the UK successfully decarbonising its energy mix, and achieving its 2020 targets.

Where support has been stable and sufficient, there has been considerable success, but where there has not, technologies have either stalled or gone backwards.

While much was achieved under the last government, more investment and support for high potential technologies is crucial if our industry is to thrive and continue to provide vital jobs around the country.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Information Daily, its parent company or any associated businesses.

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