Renewable energy: boosted or becalmed?

“… 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?

Falling short

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%.”

Falling costs

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”.

Government policy

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.


If you enjoyed this article, you might also find this blog post of interest:

Is the sun setting on the UK’s onshore wind industry?

Inventive eco-solutions to the planet’s environmental challenges

Nappies made from jellyfish; drones that make electricity; a flame-free alternative to cremation. Unlikely as they may seem, these are just three of the ideas that are emerging to tackle some of the environmental challenges facing the modern world.

Those challenges are many and growing. Climate change, deforestation, water scarcity, rising levels of waste, and dwindling energy supplies all pose threats to health, wellbeing, quality of life, and even to the existence of humanity.

While national and local governments have responded to these challenges by passing legislation and investing in sustainable initiatives, entrepreneurs are coming up with some intriguing eco-friendly ideas.

Taking the sting out of waste management

An Israeli company has found an inventive way to simultaneously tackle a growing global menace in the world’s oceans and a pernicious waste issue. Increasing levels of ocean acidification – sometimes called climate change’s evil twin – have resulted in an explosion in jellyfish populations. Now, scientists working with Tel Aviv-based startup, Cine’al, have found a way to turn jellyfish into a super-absorbent material called “hydromash”. Within next year, the company plans to market nappies, tampons and bandages made from hydromash, which takes less than a month to biodegrade (compared to the hundreds of years for synthetic disposables to break down).

Will consumers take to products made from jellyfish?  Cine’al’s chairman thinks so.

“I’m not worried about this, and in many products it’s likely that the consumer won’t even know about it, similar to many other products with ingredients that are derived from animals and plants.”

 Lift-off for airborne energy

In March of this year, wind farms in Scotland set a new record for the amount of electricity sent to the national grid, generating the equivalent of 58% of Scotland’s entire electricity needs for the month. In recent years, Denmark has also reported impressive achievements from its investment in windfarms.  Such examples demonstrate the potential of wind power, which is more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels.

But conventional wind power equipment is expensive to set up, with the foundations and towers for the turbines making up around 30% of the capital required. However, an alternative may soon be breezing onto the wind power scene.

In April, German energy giant E.ON announced plans to invest €3 million in developing the commercialisation of autonomous flying drones to produce electricity. The technology – which uses a kite-like sail to harvest the energy of high-altitude wind currents – is still in its infancy. But E.ON clearly believes in the potential of airborne power. Last year the company invested €5.9 million in a Scottish developer which plans to create a kite-driven power station.

 Ashes to ashes – without the global warming

Benjamin Franklin, famously observed that death and taxes are the only certainties in this world. As a prolific inventor with an interest in energy conservation, he might have been cheered to learn that 21st century entrepreneurs have discovered an eco-friendly way to deal with one of those certainties.

Resomation (also known as biocremation) is a process that uses water and potassium hydroxide to break down organic materials within a few hours, but without the environmentally harmful greenhouse gases generated by conventional cremation methods. The resulting water can be funnelled into municipal water treatment facilities, while the ashes are returned to the family of the deceased.

The idea has already been applied commercially in the United States, and is now set to be introduced to the UK. In March, the Rowley Regis crematorium in the West Midlands received approval from Sandwell Council to install resomation equipment. The council noted that:

“…resomation allows individuals and families to express their environmental concerns and values in a very positive manner with one of their final actions in life.”

Innovative remedies for a planet in need

While these examples may seem odd, and even unnerving, it’s worth remembering that ideas once considered implausible, dangerous or downright daft are now becoming more widely accepted.

Forty years ago, recycling was regarded as something of an oddball activity. Today, it’s seen as imperative for households, businesses and local authorities. Similarly, vegetable oil has advanced from a purely experimental fuel to a cleaner alternative to diesel.

It seems that, when it comes to the environmental challenges facing the world, necessity really is the mother of invention.


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Is the sun setting on the UK’s onshore wind industry?

 

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In its 2015 election manifesto, the Conservative Party made a clear promise:

“We will halt the spread of onshore windfarms”

Soon after winning the election, the Conservative government followed through on this commitment, introducing three key changes concerning onshore wind in England and Wales:

  1. New planning guidance was issued stating that onshore wind farms must be sited in areas “identified as suitable for wind energy in a local or neighbourhood plan”, and that any objections from local communities to proposed developments must be “fully addressed”.
  2. Energy secretary Amber Rudd announced the phasing-out of renewables subsidies, with onshore wind subsidies ending a year earlier than planned, in April 2016.
  3. The government’s 2015 Energy Bill (England and Wales) included a measure to devolve powers to determine major onshore wind farm applications (with a capacity of more than 50 megawatts) to local authorities.

Onshore wind in context

Since the construction of the UK’s first commercial wind farm in 1991, onshore wind energy has grown to become the country’s largest source of renewable energy generation. With more than 8GW of operational capacity, onshore wind accounted for 11% of the country’s electricity last year, reaching a record 17% in December.

An Office for National Statistics survey reported that, in 2014, about 3,000 businesses were operating in the onshore wind sector, which employed 6,500 people across the UK – 3,000 in England, 2,500 in Scotland, and 500 each in Wales and Northern Ireland, generating £2.8bn.

Renewable UK, which represents the wind and marine energy sector, argues that onshore wind is an environmentally-friendly and cost effective form of energy:

“A modern 2.5MW (commercial scale) turbine, on a reasonable site, will generate 6.5 million units of electricity each year – enough to make 230 million cups of tea.”

In recent years, higher capacity turbines and improvements and reductions in installation, operation and maintenance costs have made onshore wind more economically attractive. The European Wind Energy Association claims that onshore wind is now the cheapest form of new power generation in Europe.

Responses to the policy changes

In its manifesto, the Conservative Party acknowledged that onshore wind makes a meaningful contribution to the country’s energy mix, but observed that onshore windfarms often fail to win public support, and are unable by themselves to provide the capacity that a stable energy system requires. The government has since underlined that there is no longer any need for subsidising onshore wind and that the £800m in subsidies added about £10.00 to an annual household energy bill.

An article in The Economist agreed that subsidies for renewables were too generous and pointed out that onshore wind is an unreliable energy source. This was echoed by former environment secretary Owen Paterson, who said:  “There is absolutely no place for subsidising wind – a failed medieval technology which during the coldest day of the year so far produced only 0.75 per cent of the electricity load.”

However, environmental campaigners, such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Jonathon Porritt, argued that scrapping support for wind turbines, rather than phasing them out, would increase the cost of meeting carbon reduction targets, or increase the risk of missing them. This, in turn, they said would lead the UK to pursue more expensive decarbonisation options, resulting in additional costs to consumers.

Meanwhile, energy companies warned that the policy changes had made some renewable power projects “uninvestable”.  In October 2015, the Financial Times reported that one renewable energy company had scrapped nine onshore wind projects in England in the previous four months, halting investments of more than £250m. The company said it had instead switched its investments to projects in the Netherlands and Germany.

In Scotland, which has 61% of the UK’s onshore wind capacity, the Scottish Government has stressed that it continues to support onshore wind and other sources of renewable energy. In December 2015, Scottish chief planner John McNairney wrote to Scotland’s heads of planning explaining that the administration has not changed its stance on onshore wind farms or energy targets.

The planning changes

With regard to the planning aspects of the policy reforms, the Royal Town Planning Institute questioned the need to enable major wind farm projects to be decided locally, given that local planning authorities already have final consenting power for onshore wind farms under 50 megawatts, which make up the majority of applications.

In July 2015, Planning Resource reported that the policy was already having an impact. Kieran Tarpy, managing director at planning consultancy Entrust, said that within days of the new guidance being announced one council had refused a planning application based on the need for community backing. He predicted that the policy changes would have a “dramatic impact” on the number of proposals going into the system.

However, last month, Planning Resource reported that some local authorities, including councils in Hull, Cumbria and Devon, have drawn up draft policies to allocate areas as suitable for wind energy.

The UK government may still be committed to halting the spread of onshore wind farms, but it appears that rumours of the death of onshore wind have been exaggerated.

Blustery conditions: conflicting priorities in wind farm planning decisions

by Laura Dobie

The recent decision by the Secretary of State to refuse planning permission for Spring Farm Ridge wind farm brings into focus the tension between government policy and targets on renewable energy, and opponents of these schemes who are concerned about the possible negative effects of renewable energy developments, in particular on the environment.

Government policy on renewable energy

The UK government “is committed to supporting renewable energy as part of a diverse, low-carbon and secure energy mix.” (DECC, 2012, p.4), and recognises the contribution that renewables can make to energy security, the decarbonisation of the economy and sustainable growth. It has a target set out in the 2009 EU Renewable Energy Directive to deliver 15% of the UK’s energy demand from renewable sources by 2020, and it is anticipated that renewables will play a key role in the UK’s energy mix in subsequent decades.

The most recent update to the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s Renewable Energy Roadmap suggests that the UK is making good progress against this target, although it acknowledges that the siting of certain renewable energy projects has caused concern. It recommended that greater numbers of communities should be actively involved in small-scale renewable energy projects and emphasised the importance of ensuring that communities are properly engaged with, and can see the benefits of, renewable energy developments.

Public opposition to wind farm projects

While wind turbine developments can offer a range of community benefits, wind farms have faced considerable opposition from local residents and other stakeholders concerned with environmental and other costs of such developments, particularly their visual impact: optimal sites for developments tend to be in rural, coastal and remote locations in which the natural environment is prized.

While there has been much debate around nimbyism, with suggestions that people tend to favour wind power until schemes intrude upon their local areas, developments may well have an impact at the individual level: a recent study has found that operational wind farm developments reduce house prices in areas in which turbines are visible, in comparison with locations where they are not visible.

In its campaign against a wind farm development, Allt Duine, on the edge of the Cairngorms National Park, the Save the Monadhliath Mountains group has highlighted the potential impact of the scheme on the landscape and wildlife, and also on tourism: the development could have negative effects on the amenity of the area for those who visit the Cairngorms for leisure. While renewable energy schemes can create new jobs in communities, they could also have a negative effect on another major employment sector in rural areas.

It is clear that there are competing interests at stake in the siting and construction of wind farms: the need for a greater proportion of renewable energy in the UK’s energy mix, and the need to protect our natural landscape and heritage assets. The job creation potential of such schemes must also be weighed against the possible adverse impact on the tourism sector.

The Spring Farm Ridge Development

On 22nd December 2014 the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government refused planning permission for a commercial scale wind farm, Spring Farm Ridge, between Greatworth and Helmdon in Northamptonshire, overturning the recommendation of the Inspector.

He acknowledged that all communities have a duty to help to drive up the use and supply of green energy, but that this does not mean that the requirement for renewable energy will automatically take precedence over the environmental protection and planning concerns of local communities.

While the Secretary of State agreed with the Inspector that the benefits and disadvantages of the proposal were finely balanced, he disagreed with the Inspector as to where the balance should lie. The proposal would not accord with the Development Plan and, although there were some material considerations which counted in favour of the proposal, including the renewable energy benefits, the Secretary of State did not consider those benefits to be sufficient to outweigh the likely negative effects of the development, notably identified harm to heritage assets, as well as to the character and visual amenity of the area.

This decision highlights the competing environmental priorities and stakeholder interests which are at play in proposals for new renewable energy developments, and the challenges in determining whether renewable energy benefits should override the negative environmental impacts of these schemes in planning decisions. Perhaps there is a need for greater community engagement and careful consideration of the siting of such developments in relation to the natural environment in order to gain wider public acceptance for such schemes and to improve their chances of approval in the future.

Further reading

Some resources may only be available to Idox Information Service members.

Recovered appeal: land at Spring Farm Ridge, land to the north of Welsh Lane between Greatworth and Helmdon (ref 2165035, 22 December 2014) (2014). Department for Communities and Local Government

Gone with the wind: valuing the visual impacts of wind turbines through house prices (2014). Spatial Economics Research Centre

Renewable Energy Roadmap Update 2013 (2013). Department of Energy and Climate Change

Renewable Energy Roadmap Update 2012 (2012). Department of Energy and Climate Change

Breathing space (natural landscape protection and wind energy development), IN Holyrood, (Renewables No 6 Winter 2013 supplement), pp32-33

Wind trap (opposition to wind farms in Scotland, IN Urban Realm, Vol 3 No 12 Winter 2012, pp87-89,91