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.


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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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