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Alternative Energy | UK independence

Renew energy1 cropped

On 24 June 2016, British citizens woke up to the news that – for better or worse –  they would be forging their own way in the world.

Among the jubilation and the hand-wringing following the European referendum result there were more opinions than facts, and not much has changed in the months that have followed. But is it time to see the positives rather than view the inevitable challenges with doom and gloom?

After all, with the upheaval comes an opportunity for reinvention. And what better role to choose than that of world leader in the rapidly emerging field of alternative energy source development?  

Developing nations in the lead

A recent report from clean energy investment tracking body Climatescope says that developing nations are taking the lead in renewable energy production. The same study found that in areas with low access to electricity, solar technology has boomed. Self-sufficiency is on the rise.

But, there are unique opportunities in Britain. Its coasts are a reliable, renewable energy source which is just beginning to be explored. Some estimate that Britain could have as much as 50% of Europe’s tidal energy resources.

Although the industry is just beginning to take root, projects such as the MeyGen tidal power development in Scotland  – which has just received the go ahead for its next phase – and the Tidal Lagoon Power project in Swansea Bay show that if taken seriously enough, tidal power could provide a steady, reliable energy supply.

In the past 10 years while we’ve been talking about Hinkley, nuclear has got more expensive and slower to build, and the alternatives have got cheaper

Andrew Smith UCL

What is more, our shores give us a natural stage on which to lead the way with our expertise. As Tidal Lagoon Power director of engineering and construction Mike Unsworth says: “Developing tidal lagoons which exploit our tides around our island coastline basically ensures we are generating our own, home-grown, secure and sustainable energy.”

Boundaries are also being pushed with other renewables in the UK. Thames Water is building Europe’s largest solar photovoltaic farm in a London reservoir.

And yet Britain is also forging ahead with the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station which – while bringing 64% of the project’s £18bn value to the UK supply chain – relies on Chinese and French expertise. On top of that, a report published last autumn by University College London predicts that Hinkley Point C could be obsolete within a decade of opening in 2025.

Does Hinkley make sense?

“Technically and economically, Hinkley no longer makes sense,” says Andrew Smith, principal research associate at the Bartlett School, UCL’s built environment centre . He is also deputy director of the Energy Epidemiology Research Centre.

According to Smith, Hinkley appeared to be a good decision in the early noughties when it was first discussed. But a lot has happened in the fields of nuclear and alternative energy since then.

“The lines have crossed in a way. We’ve gone from a position where new nuclear looked like it was going to be modular and quick to build and the supply chain would grow – and it would be affordable – and wind and [solar] photovoltaics looked like they were slow-growing and looked more expensive.

We’ve got special conditions around the UK that allow us to lead in so many of these different fields, from tidal to wind and solar

“And then in the past 10 years while we’ve been talking about Hinkley, nuclear has got more expensive and slower to build, and the alternatives have got cheaper, and the supply chains have grown much faster – of the order of 20% or 30% a year,” says Smith.

Indeed, even small modular reactors (SMRs) seem to be facing problems. While they could meet some localised energy needs, production costs – and negative associations from the public – have slowed growth.

So what is the point of pushing forward with Hinkley? Past ICE President, energy expert and Aecom energy development director Richard Coackley thinks that Hinkley is important for providing baseload capacity, and that the UK needs a diverse energy mix.

“We need a selection of energy sources,” he says, stressing that diverse energy sources – including Hinkley – are crucial to the UK’s efforts to innovate.

We’ve got special conditions around the UK that allow us to lead in so many of these different fields, from tidal to wind and solar

Richard Coackley, Aecom

“Diversity across the energy mix means that we are keeping ahead on intellectual property and so we’re leading the way across the world. We’ve got special conditions around the UK that allow us to lead in so many of these different fields, from tidal to wind and solar – all those things are just so important to increase the UK’s energy security,” says Coackley.

While tidal power could provide a steady supply of energy, the technology is still in its infancy. And Hinkley will provide stability at a time when the National Grid is having to adapt to the disruptive increase in renewable technology, which – while good for meeting carbon reduction targets – brings an element of instability to electricity supplies.

Traditionally, electricity generation has followed a stable path from generation to consumption. It has also been relatively steady and easy to control. But renewables are unreliable – the sun has to shine for solar panels to generate power, and the wind must blow for a wind farm to provide energy.

The biggest challenge over the next few years will be in trying to counter this unreliability. Storage technology is taking centre stage, and batteries are getting special attention.

“For the electricity system it’s really exciting,” says UK Power Networks low carbon technology and customer engagement manager Adriana Laguna.


Battery interior (uk power networks)

Battery interior (uk power networks)

UK Power Networks’ Grid scale battery

“I think batteries…will play a really key role in terms of the future of the smart grid.”

UK Power Networks is pushing ahead on battery technology. The company has recently completed a trial involving a giant battery which can meet a whole town’s energy needs for a few hours each day (see p26).

Storage has positive implications for the wider energy market too. If storage becomes widely available, the problem of renewable unreliability goes away, meaning more freedom for experimentation and innovation.

“Intellectual property in all these sorts of things [renewables] will be a prime fundamental of actually leading the way as an independent UK,” says Coackley.

Game changer

So storage seems to be the biggest game changer – and potential disrupter – for the energy market, possibly making the argument for Hinkley obsolete.

According to Tidal Lagoon Power’s Swansea Bay chair and former Atkins chief executive Keith Clarke, it is all about the price curve. “The moment you start to get energy storage that’s really cheap, either at a domestic level, or the community level, or a town level, or a regional level – and I think you’ll end up with all of those to different degrees – your argument for a baseload nuclear actually does become irrelevant,” he says.

Clarke stresses that this could have a positive impact on tidal projects such as that proposed for Swansea Bay. “If we [Swansea Bay] had energy storage that was cheap, for three or four hours, we’d become baseload.”

Indeed, the latest capacity market auction brought mainstream storage a step closer with several battery storage projects winning contracts. But battery storage is not the only answer – solutions such as cryogenic technology are being used to address the storage issue too.

Fast changing market

The energy market is changing so fast that it is hard to keep up. However, some feel that government subsidy cuts have had a damaging impact on the renewable sector and its growth.

“The reason it’s [renewable technology] been so successful in expanding very quickly is because the policy support has been there. The policy has been completely changed in the last 18 months or so and it’s really not helpful,” says Renewable Energy Association senior policy analyst Frank Gordon.

Subsidy changes have had a noticeable impact on solar power, with changes to the feed-in-tariff and renewables obligation affecting the sector’s finances the most.

If Britain is to establish itself in the post-Brexit world, it must take its own efforts to innovate a little more seriously. And that means more risk-taking on tidal power projects, more innovation in storage and more support for other renewables.

Failure to do so carries the risk of having to rely on others to lead the way, at a time when the British electorate has voted against just that.


Capacity markets and subsidies

The capacity market is the government’s main tool for making sure that energy is available during times of high demand, for example, in winter.

By buying capacity in advance, the government ensures that there is enough electricity infrastructure to cope with peaks in demand. Essentially it makes sure that any gaps are filled so that the lights stay on.

The capacity market has received criticism for awarding contracts to diesel generation projects, even though the market is part of the government’s decarbonisation plan.

Two new gas power stations got the go-ahead after their backers won energy supply contracts after the government’s most recent capacity market auction in December.



British sea turbine companies are hoping the government will continue to subsidise the technology


Government subsidies for renewable technology were intended to help the markets establish themselves, and were always going to be phased out at some stage.

But there has been concern that support has dropped off too quickly, meaning that industries like solar are not well enough established to thrive without subsidies.

The Feed-in-Tariff (FIT) system was started in 2010, and offers subsidies for electricity generated from some renewables. The subsidies are limited to schemes up to 5MW capacity and are best suited for smaller generation projects, for example solar panels on homes or businesses. The subsidies are expected to be phased out in 2019.

The Renewables Obligation (RO) was established in 2002. It obliges energy companies to buy a certain amount of their capacity from renewables sources and is designed for large-scale generation projects up to 1.5GW. The RO scheme is closing in March .

The Contracts for Difference (CfD) scheme replaces the RO. It involves awarding capped subsidies to renewables suppliers. The CfD is considered controversial by some, as funds are allocated by auction and different technologies compete against each other. Additionally there is a split between non-established technologies such as offshore wind and tidal energy, and established technologies such as solar and onshore wind. The latter two will not be funded for the next auction.



Climatescope report

Developing countries are taking the lead on clean energy and have 18% more renewable capacity than wealthier countries, according to a report from clean energy investment tracking body Climatescope.

In the 58 emerging markets assessed, 69.8GW of new renewable generating capacity was created by developing countries in 2015 compared to 59.2GW by wealthier Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries.  Four in five of the countries surveyed have now set clean energy targets.

Lower solar photovoltaic equipment costs resulted in a 43% increase in utility-scale investment in 2015 to £58.1bn, meaning that solar power can now beat fossil fuel prices in some nations.

Led by China and India, Asia installed far more clean energy capacity in 2015 than the other 56 countries surveyed by Climatescope combined. Asian countries secured £102.8bn in clean energy investment, or 82% of what was deployed in the 58 nations surveyed.

Clean energy policies are becoming more widely adopted across sub-Saharan Africa. Fourteen of 19 Climatescope countries from the region have introduced renewable energy targets. Clean energy investment nearly doubled to £4.2bn between 2014 and 2015.




Readers' comments (1)

  • Andrew Smiths report sounds to me that the UK has to stop Hinkley C ASAP before costs climb. Where are we going to be in 10 the point that the project is a financial white elephant. I guess which ever way it goes, the government doesn't care, it has had its coffers filled. The tax payer will pay for the bad decision what ever usual.

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