Thursday, October 3, 2013

The UK energy mess

-->It is no secret that UK energy policy is in a bit of a mess, or to put it more politely, in a state of flux, with regular U-turns, backtracks and delays. The media has focused on the big supply side issues- and the contests between nuclear, wind and shale gas, with the government seeming to back all, but actually favoring some more than others. For example, £10 billion has been offered to EDF to underwrite the risks of building nuclear plants, shale gas will get major tax concessions, while David Cameron was quoted in a the Telegraph (19/8/13) as saying ‘There’s a limited potential for onshore wind. We’ve just changed the rules, we’ve cut the subsidies and we’ve said that any schemes that go ahead have to give more benefit to local communities. So I wouldn’t expect to see a lot more wind power onshore in the UK.’ DECC also seemed to be unmoved by the Climate Change Committee’s warning that the proposed 13% reduction in CfD support for offshore wind over the next five years might be excessive, and that ‘without a commitment to ongoing investment in the 2020s, incentives for supply chain investment and project development are weak, and commercialisation of offshore wind is at risk’.

With several backers having abandoned the nuclear option, shale gas in some disarray and investment in wind uncertain, we still don’t know which way it will go. Similarly there has also been plenty of uncertainty in relation to the policies and programmes on domestic energy use. Take for example the high profile Green Deal domestic energy upgrade commercial loan scheme (so far a damp squib, with few takers), the already watered down Zero Carbon Homes programme for new build (now further diluted, with the Code for Sustainable Housing likely to be abandoned) and the massive £12bn smart meter roll out programme (delayed for a year due to ‘logistic problems’ and to allow for more tests).

That's not to say that improved versions of some of these ideas might not work. For example, DECC seems to have had a bit more success with the Green Deal when it involved local councils; allowing imports into homes from wind farms might help deal with the latter’s surplus generation (e.g. at night); and more advanced interactive smart meters could enable dynamic demand side management, leading to real savings (see this admittedly crude diy game:

However what we seem to have seen is, arguably, ill-thought through big new policies coming unstuck, with usually academics and/or the industry/trade pointing out the problems. For example, few thought it would be possible for all new build homes to be fully zero carbon by 2016 using just in/on-house technology and few saw the rather dumb smart meters that were to be rolled out as benefiting consumers or saving much energy. Even relatively sensible ideas like the Renewable Heat Incentive have had problems- the start up of the full domestic scheme has been continually delayed and now is not expected until next year.

You might see all this as just the inevitable glitches that will occur with any new policies and programmes, but equally the reversals, revisions and delays do seem to indicate deeper problems. Basically, and putting it very simply, DECC is trying to launch green energy schemes with (the RHI aside) minimum direct state funding, passing on costs where it can to developers and/or consumers, whereas in the case of nuclear and shale gas it seems to be willing to offer public funds.  But, horror of horrors, even that may not work!  There is though some good news. Offshore wind is doing well (3.6GW so far) and so is PV solar (over 2.3 GW now installed). But the former is mainly due to the efforts of overseas companies, and the later is despite DECCs attempts to throttle back growth with cuts in the FiT for PV.

It gets worse. In the Draft Deregulation Bill, ostensibly an attempt to cut ‘red tape’, there is a proposal to omit from the Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006, a duty on the Secretary of State with respect to the promotion of community energy projects and a duty with respect to promoting the use of heat produced from renewable sources. See  Surely community energy projects, for heat and power, are one of the key hopes for the future? And even DECC is now pushing green heat up the agenda- hence the RHI.

If you are dismayed by the situation, and the conflicting messages and policies, you might like to look at my new book on Renewables, now out, which reviews an alternative set of options.  Access at   It may not go down well in some circles.  

The Observers Business leader column (Aug 25th, 2013) said ‘If there is a body of opinion that states that wind farms and energy efficiency can fill the looming energy gap, then it is small and deeply unrepresentative’ while Energy Secretary Ed Davey is reported to have said that it would be ‘unimaginably’ hard to create a zero-carbon Britain without getting electricity from nuclear.   Well, as you will see if you read the new book, I don't agree.  There really are viable, affordable and sustainable alternatives. After all, if Germany can aim to get 80% of its electricity from renewables by 2050, then the UK, which has a far better renewable energy resource base, should be able to do at least as well, and like Germany, phase out nuclear.  Like them, we need to switch over to ‘Plan B’, based on renewables and efficiency.