Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Getting real on renewables

Much is often made of how China is pushing ahead with nuclear power - that has been used to justify the UK doing the same. China currently gets about 2% of is electricity from nuclear, and it plans to double that to 4% by 2020. Given that China’s energy use is very large, that’s a massive expansion. But what’s rarely noted is that renewables are being expanded very much more rapidly. They produced nearly 8 times more electricity in 2009 than nuclear - 540TWh from of renewables, including large hydro but excluding small projects, as against 70TWh from nuclear. And there are ambitious plans for expansion, which will continue and possibly extend that imbalance. The 11th Five-year Plan of the Development of Renewable Energy stipulated that 15% of primary energy consumption should be supplied from non-fossil energy sources by 2020, with renewables expected to generate 12-13% of the total energy supply, and that may well be raised to a 20% non-fossil target.

So the real story is that China is going renewable, with a little side bet on nuclear. It has already installed 25 Gigawatts (GW) of wind power capacity, on a par with the one-time wind leader Germany, and it expects to have 150 GW of wind capacity in place by 2020. That’s about the same as the EU might expect to get at some point in the future from a massive and full expansion of the offshore wind resource in the North Sea . Large hydro is of course the big source currently in China (the 2009 hydro total was 197GW), but, in addition to wind on and offshore, it is pushing ahead with less environmentally problematic small hydro, with a 2020 target of 75GW. And it’s also now launched a wave power programme- with a proposal being mooted for 10GW of coastal installations.

The EU is often seen as being big on renewables, and the potential is clearly large- several recent studies have suggested that the EU could get 100% of its electricity from renewables by 2050 and maybe even 100% of its total energy. But progress is slow, and the reality is that China may become the global leader- although the USA is also in the race. The US now has 35GW of wind plant in place- hardly surprisingly, since wind is now the cheapest source on the grid in many states. It’s also now given the go ahead to its first offshore wind farm. Obama has said that ‘the country that harnesses the power of the clean, renewable energy will lead the 21st century’. The race is on, with at stake not only the climate, but also huge potential employment and economic gains.

For its part the UK is still floundering about. Labour’s 40GW offshore wind target will still presumably be retained by the new coalition, but if we are still left with just the Renewables Obligation /ROC system to support it, there is no certainty it will be achieved. Before the election, the Lib Dems called for an expanded Feed In Tariff, so did the Tories, who also talked of abandoning the RO. But the coalition agreement simply alludes to ‘the full establishment of feed-in tariff systems in electricity- as well as the maintenance of banded ROCs’. So the RO stays.

The coalition agreement also, notoriously, said that Lib Dem MP’s must abstain when it comes to a vote of nuclear power. It seems they have been all but neutered on this issue. That tragically leaves just the Green Party and the SNP to fight that corner. But at least there is a commitment to ‘increase the target for energy from renewable sources, subject to the advice of the Climate Change Committee’.

That’s a step beyond what Labour was proposing, although most of the other energy policy commitments were similar to those that had already been made by the Labour government- backing CCS, marine energy, biomass AD and a green investment fund.

In other areas there were obviously some environmental gains, notably the abandonment of the third Heathrow runway, but the stitch up on nuclear is a major step backwards. The coalition says that there will be no public subsidies for nuclear. That of course is exactly the same as Labours promise. But the coalition agreement also makes a commitment to the ‘provision of a floor price for carbon, as well as efforts to persuade the EU to move towards full auctioning of ETS permits’. That will mean that electricity prices might rise, making nuclear look more economic – in effect an indirect subsidy paid for by consumers, but with the taxpayer having to step in if the carbon price falls. True this could also help renewables, but, with nuclear being strongly favoured, we are likely see increasing competition for public and private resources, with the expansion of renewables suffering as a result.

For more: www.natta-renew.org