“… in terms of the electricity market we are at a moment of significant transition. The economics of every other potential source of supply will be measured against the falling costs of wind and solar…”
– Financial Times, 16 October 2017
“Spending on renewables in the UK is set to plummet 95% over the next three years…”
– New Scientist, 5 August 2017
So, who’s right? Are we entering a golden age of renewable energy, or is the growth of renewables faltering?
One view, characterised by a New Scientist article published in August, is that renewable energy isn’t taking off fast enough to avoid major global warming. While acknowledging that globally renewables are growing extremely fast, largely thanks to China, the article notes that wind, solar, geothermal and bioenergy supply just 8% of the world’s electricity, and only 3% of total global energy use:
“Even counting hydro and nuclear, just 14% of or our energy isn’t from fossil fuels – and this figure has barely changed over the past 25 years.”
The article goes on to point out that most subsidy-free renewable projects remain unprofitable, even as they scale up. And the intermittent and variable nature of renewables calls into question the feasibility of getting all our electricity from wind and solar power.
An “unprecedented acceleration”
Others see the future of renewables in a rosier light. The International Energy Agency’s 2017 review of renewables noted that, as costs decline, wind and solar are becoming increasingly comparable to new-build fossil fuel alternatives in a growing number of countries.
The report highlighted the dominant role of China, which is responsible for 40% of global renewable capacity growth, and is also the world market leader in hydropower and, bioenergy for electricity and heat, as well as electric vehicles. But the IEA also noted the strong growth of renewables in India and the United States. And although the report indicated that renewables growth in the European Union would be 40% lower between 2017-22, compared with the previous five-year period, it pointed to significant progress in some EU countries concerning wind and solar power:
“By 2022, Denmark is expected to be the world leader, with almost 70% of its electricity generation coming from variable renewables. In some European countries (Ireland, Germany and the United Kingdom), the share of wind and solar in total generation will exceed 25%.”
Further signs that renewables are reaching a tipping point came in September, when the cost of offshore wind power in the UK reached a record low. The results of competitive auctions for new wind farm contracts to provide clean electricity showed that, for the first time, the cost of generating energy from offshore wind farms fell below the price that nuclear reactors will charge in future. The new wind farms will power the equivalent of more than 3.3 million homes.
The news prompted Liberal Democrats leader Vince Cable to call for a radical reappraisal of the government’s energy policy, while The Economist Intelligence Unit said the development showed “the trajectory of cheaper renewable technologies is irreversible”.
However, while welcoming the announcement, cautious voices argue that renewables will not fulfil their potential without significant increases in government support. The Green Alliance – a UK environmental policy think tank – has called on the UK government for a rethink on renewables:
“…we are still in the midst of a renewables policy freeze, in place since 2015, under which onshore wind has been banned, solar auctions have been curtailed and energy efficiency measures have slowed. A rapid thaw is needed soon, the government can allocate the final five per cent it needs to spend to meet its climate targets (roughly £0.6 billion) to avoid the clean power gap that the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) warned of in its recent progress report.”
In October, the government published its Clean Growth Strategy, which sets out its proposals for decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy through the 2020s. While the Green Alliance welcomed the strategy’s aim to “secure the most industrial and economic advantage from the global transition to a low carbon economy”, the renewables sector was disappointed that the document contained little on the role of onshore wind to help move the UK towards its goal of reducing carbon emissions.
Putting things into perspective
Nearly a third of the UK’s electricity between April and June this year was generated from renewable sources – a new record, and up a quarter on the same period last year. But, while it’s clear that renewables are playing a greater role in UK energy generation, it’s important to maintain a sense of proportion. As the Financial Times has noted:
“Wind and solar are focused almost entirely on the production of electricity, which represents around 40 per cent of final energy demand worldwide and accounts for a slightly higher proportion of total emissions. The main areas of energy consumption — heat, transport beyond light vehicles and industrial use including the production of steel, cement and petrochemicals — are as yet largely unaffected.”
The outlook for renewable sources appears bright, but there’s clearly a long way to go before renewables can overturn the dominant position of fossil fuels in powering the planet.
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