Friday, December 1, 2017

How not to win – on wave energy

Wave energy was once talked up as the next big thing- and something the UK could excel at. It had the best wave resource- much of it off Scotland. And it had the technological lead, with Stephen Salter’s pioneering ‘Nodding Duck’, Wavegen’s success with  prototype shore-line devices, and some government support- all then crowned by the apparently world beating Pelamis ‘wave snake’ and Oyster ‘hinged clam’ devices.  
To move things along, the UK invested heavily in full-scale ‘open-sea’ test facilities, including EMEC in Scotland (opened in 2004) and WaveHub (established in 2010) in Cornwall and device teams from around the world were invited the UK to test their ideas. These sites include dock facilities and electricity grid connections. EMEC also offered ‘nursery’ sites (e.g. EMEC’s Scapa Flow) for testing of earlier stage, part-scale prototypes in less hostile conditions. WaveHub partnered with FabTest, a nursery test site situated near Falmouth. All seemed set for accelerated development. There was talk of a 10% or even 20% UK electricity contribution, ultimately…
However, things did not go to plan. Indeed, the plans seem to have been faulty. As novel technologies, the wave devices all needed financial support to get established- R&D funding initially and then some form of market enablement backing.  But what was offered was not enough and was poorly targeted, with regularly shifting targets. A new report on the UK wave energy programme from Imperial College and Strathclyde University notes how multiple attempts were made to provide support, but none succeeded due to the poor design of the support schemes. They were overly concerned with limiting the expenditure and getting costs down quickly.
Those with long memories may recall the spat that occurred in the 1980s when the incoming Conservative government cut R&D funding for wave energy and its later reinstatement by a Labour administration. More recently, it has been the handling of the market enablement programme that has led to significant problems.  A case in point is the Marine Renewables Deployment Fund (MRDF) which, from 2004, offered £42m for tidal current turbine and wave energy projects. However, it required projects to have proven themselves at sea at commercial scale for 3 months. No one was likely to build something speculatively in the hope of obtaining funding later! None tried. Only MCT’s Seagen tidal project made it through to the 2ROC/MWh of operational support then being offered to tidal current and wave projects under the Renewables Obligation- and MCT didn’t use the MRDF. No wave projects got through.
In 2008, the Renewables Advisory Board rather lamely said ‘The MRDF is fundamentally a sound scheme.  It, in itself, is not a failure, but the R&D process has failed to supply the technologies that the MRDF was established to support.’  So the scheme was fine but the technology wasn’t ready! As a bit of a botch, the government did then introduce an interim £22m Marine Renewables Proving Fund, to make projects viable for the MRDF, but that too failed to attract any takers.
The current situation is not much better. Wave and tidal stream projects are eligible for CfD support, and were even guaranteed a protected 100MW tranche @ £305/MWh in the first CfD round, but none were able to take this up and the protected slot was removed in the second CfD round. Tidal steam projects, like the big Meygen scheme in Pentland Firth, have gone ahead with their own money, EU support and/or demonstration grants, but wave energy mostly trails behind at the R& D stage, with funding being cut back. Although, in 2013, the Scottish government offered £13m in support for two larger projects, they didn’t go ahead, with Pelamis and Oyster both going bust. The Scottish government rescued some of the staff, setting up a residual programme, but at present the focus is on R&D and small system testing and development. Some of this looks promising e.g.: the 1MW Wello Penguin on test at the Orkney EMEC site, with EU funding: However, overall, although new ideas continue to emerge, costs are still high, R&D funding is falling, further EU funding for UK work looks uncertain after BREXIT, and the prospects for the immediate future in the UK do not look good- although the EU does have a continuing programme.
Could it have been done better? Given the harsh maritime environment, the technology has proved hard to develop, with several very visible disasters (e.g. the sinking of the 2MW Osprey in a storm off Scotland in 1995) and costs have remained high. But in theory, a properly funded programme might have helped things move along more successfully– if the focus had not always been on getting to low costs quickly. There is a new CfD round  planned for 2019 with ‘less established technologies’ being eligible. It seems unlikely, but wave energy might be one of them, despite the high cost.   
Would it be worth it? Well, the UK wave energy resource is very large, with the winds that blow over the Atlantic creating huge swells.  The resultant wave energy, in effect stored wind energy, persists for some while after the winds have died down, so using it avoids some of the variability problems of wind. But it may take more time to develop viable extraction technologies.  Tidal stream systems, operating on the regular back and forth tidal ebbs and flows in the relatively calm undersea environment, are easier options, although the tidal steam resource may not be as large as that for wave energy. Though for the moment, that’s where most effort in the marine renewables field in the UK and elsewhere is focussed, along with  growing interest in tidal lagoons. There are some surviving tethered buoy-type wave projects around the word (e.g. OPT in the USA and CETO in Australia), and some in the UK (e.g. Seatricity and Searaser) and more may emerge. However, while niche markets may exist for small wave projects in remote locations, and wave energy development is far from dead in the water, for now, with budgets tight, sadly the full, vast, global wave resource seems beyond capture on any significant scale. 
‘Lost at Sea or a new wave of innovation?’ - /share/view/sfa07a0e490740cea
Some wave technology hopefuls:
Seatricty: (UK)

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Trade Unions and Nuclear power

The UK Trade Unions currently mostly back nuclear power. In 2016, TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady noted that the Hinkley project ‘will be the largest construction project in the UK, creating 25,000 high-quality jobs and 500 apprenticeships’.
 It wasn’t always like this. In 1986, in the wake of Chernobyl, the TUC backed a nuclear ‘moratorium and review’ policy. In the same year, the Labour Party had confirmed its 1985 anti (civil) nuclear power stance, with a two thirds majority for phasing it out. The then quite dominant Transport and General Workers Union said it was ‘clear and unambiguous in its position on nuclear power. We support a halt to nuclear expansion and a safe and planned phase out of nuclear power in this country.’ So what has changed?
 The Labour Party had gone into the 1987 national election with a manifesto talking of ‘gradually diminishing Britain’s dependence upon nuclear energy’, but was unable to unseat the Tories, whose subsequent electricity privatisation and liberalisation programme (continued by Blair) put the unions on the defensive - they sought to protect energy jobs across the board. And Blair then switched to a pro-nuclear policy.
 A sub-text to that may have been the low level of conviction by most of the unions at that time that renewables could provide viable alternative employment. In its 1988 Nuclear Energy Review, the TUC said ‘renewables are not going to make a big contribution to Britain’s energy supplies over the next 20 years’.
 Well it’s taken nearly 30 years, but they are now big (25%) growing, and creating jobs-  with nearly 126,000 people employed in the UK renewable energy industry in 2017 according to the REA:
 However, the unions still seem unsure, and some have taken to recycling dubious statistics and arguments to try to undermine the case for renewables.  At its 2016 annual Congress the GMB Union’s National Secretary, Justin Bowden, noted that ‘over the last 12 months there were 46 days when wind was supplying 10% or less of the installed and connected wind capacity to the grid’ and insisted that ‘until there is a scientific breakthrough on carbon capture or solar storage, then nuclear and gas are the only reliable shows in town which those advocating a renewable energy-only policy have to accept.’
 This doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. For over half of those 46 low-wind days i.e. outside of winter, and for most of the nights, overall energy demand would have been low, so a low wind input would not matter. When it did, existing gas plants would have ramped up a bit more to provide the extra energy needed e.g. as they do any way to meet daily peaks. As more renewable come of the grid, other balancing measures can also be used, so there is not really a problem. But inflexible base-load nuclear plants are no usef or this - they can’t vary output regularly, quickly and safely. They just get in the way of the flexible supply and demand approach that is needed.
The unions are not unaware of the the benefits of renewables and do offer support for them as well as nuclear. In her 2016 article, Frances O’Grady said ‘while nuclear is an important part of meeting our future energy needs, renewable energy projects need more investment too. Cuts to support for solar power in the last few years have led to the loss of half the 35,000 jobs in the sector. We need sustained investment across the renewable energy sector if we are to achieve our ambition of a carbon-free future, and seize the chance to deliver more high-quality jobs’.
 However, that’s a replay of the ‘more of everything’ approach beloved by the TUC, inherited from the days when they sought to avoid conflicts between members in coal, gas, oil and nuclear, the code phrase used being ‘a balanced energy system’.
 There seems to be no awareness of the opportunity cost issue. Given inevitably limited budgets, choices have to be made: e.g. money spent of nuclear can’t be spent on other options, and for most of the last few decades nuclear has got the lions share of what was available for new energy technology. Thankfully that is beginning to change, although for the pro-nuclear unions that is a cause for regret. Indeed, some say that some of the big unions have ended up as corporate stooges, backing nuclear jobs at all costs:
Certainly, with renewables booming and eclipsing nuclear (direct UK nuclear employment is now at around 16,000 and 65,000 in total including indirect jobs), the nuclear unions are on the defensive. And defending options like Hinkely is getting harder by the day. The GMB is also finding it hard to accept the governments plan to let China fund, and maybe build, reactors on the UK:
 While that battle plays out, there are some signs of a more positive approach, notably CaCC’s excellent 1 Million Climate Jobs campaign. The Unions are also broadly supportive of Labour’s new energy policy, with its emphasis on public ownership and democratic control. Indeed, this years Trade Union Congress backed that, with a broad climate and energy policy motion being passed: But that doesn’t specifically mention nuclear. The otherwise excellent policy developed by PCS, the Public and Commercial Services Union (see my next post), also in effect ducks out of the nuclear issue.
The Labour Party leadership, Corbyn at times apart, still seem to be mostly pro-nuclear, as witness the manifesto commitment earlier this year, and the views expressed at this years Party conference by Labour’s Shadow Secretary for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Rebecca Long-Bailey (she backed the Moorside project), along with Nisa Landy and Caroline Flint (nuclear offered lots of jobs). However, Labour is also strongly pro-renewables and the Party is taking an interest is some of the political issues associated with renewables. The Repowering Britain sessions at this years Labour Party Conference were prefigured by this commentary: ‘Our energy system will be radically transformed with the rise of wind, solar, tidal & energy storage. This clean future should be democratically -run and owned by the people, delivering hundreds of thousands of decent jobs for decades into the future. What does this look like? We have all heard about the small-scale energy co-operatives building solar and wind projects. But the future also needs a bigger scale. Who will build and own the mega offshore wind farms and tidal lagoons that will bottom line our electricity supply for the next century? Publicly owned companies are at the forefront of building the offshore wind energy infrastructure of the future - but they’re Danish, Swedish and German. Only 0.07% of our offshore wind is owned by the UK public’.
 At the Conference, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said that ‘Labour will ensure we become world leaders in decarbonising our economy. With a publicly owned energy supply based on alternative energy sources…Ours will only become an economy for the many, if we significantly broaden ownership. That means supporting entrepreneurs, small businesses, the genuinely self-employed and massively expanding worker control and the co-operative sector.’
 That’s an interesting debate, but it seems pretty clear that nuclear is not a candidate for local ownership, or even UK ownership! So maybe at some point there will be a change in view- given enough grass roots agitation. That’s what happened in the 1980s, with grass roots groups like SERA doing much of the foot work. While, sadly, on nuclear, it may seem that we are back where we were in the 1980s, starting all over again to build opposition, the rapid growth of renewables, and their continuing cost reductions, does change the situation.
For a full account of the twists and turns of Trade Union and Labour Party policy on nuclear power in the 1980s, see the series of OU Technology Policy Group reports I produced: TPG Occasional Papers No. 4 (1981), 14 (1987) and 17 (1988). I can supply copies.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Community Energy: aspirations and limits

Generating and using energy locally makes a lot of sense. It avoids transmission loses and can enable direct ownership and control by local users and/or community groups.  The UK  Coalition Government’s Community Energy Strategy in 2014, as updated in 2015, aimed to aid the growth of community energy, with, in 2016, the Urban Community Energy Fund offering £200,000 in grants and £1m in loans, while community energy groups were offered a tax advantaged under Social Investment Tax Relief. However, take up has been hit by wider policy changes, and registrations in 2016 fell to just 10.
That doesn’t mean there’s any lack of grass root activity. ‘Thousands of community groups across the UK are developing practical, positive examples of the zero carbon transition, ranging from waste food caf├ęs to community energy schemes. While many of these community-scale projects are small, they empower and connect people, help expand the political choices available, give people a sense of agency and help normalise sustainable behaviours. The role of intermediary organisations that connect and support grassroots projects is very important in helping to scale up and replicate ideas’. So says the Centre for Alternative Technology in it latest update on achieving ‘Zero Carbon Britain’.
It puts a lot of stress of behavioural change. That is clearly important, but it has to eventually add up to significant material change. A conference on energy change options in Milton Keynes in February heard about some of the excellent local initiatives backed by Community Energy England, but they reported that the total capacity installed so far was only 188MW. Small compared to what is needed but a start. And maybe size doesn’t always matter: at this stage it’s more about community engagement, which can lay the basis for more things later. At least 30,000 people have invested in local projects so far, via 222 community energy groups across the UK- 186 of them being Community Benefit schemes- a form of co-op. Over 100 projects used PV solar.
The situation is better though in Scotland, where the devolved governments 2020 target of 500MW of local projects has already been met. And it’s all very different in Germany where prosumers and energy co-ops are near to dominating the 100GW green energy market. But that may change as FiT support is cut. Though the cultural changes won’t go away: so maybe building on that is part of the way ahead.
Certainly the potential for local generation is large. A report produced last year by CE Delft for green NGOs says that 19% of EU electricity could be produced, with the right investment, by 2030, by ‘energy citizens’, rising to 45% by 2050. Many more households, organisations and small enterprises could produce their own energy, supply demand-side flexibility or store energy in times of oversupply. It says this isn’t limited to individuals, but can include farmers, community groups, small business, and co-operatives. CE Delft Report and Excel files: 
Clearly, community energy is well developed in parts of the EU, with 34% of renewable supply in Germany coming from community schemes, and in Denmark 70-80% of wind turbines were community owned in 2013- though that’s been falling due to support cuts and buy outs. It was much harder in the UK, given even lower financial support levels, but, in a UK-relaying of the Delf report, it was noted that in all , including Scotland,  there were 5000 UK community energy groups, and that community schemes create 12-13 times the community value than privately owned schemes. So they were important to back. It suggested the UK could get 44% of its electricity from them by 2050. A big stretch from now, but a good target! Source: The UK Blue and Green coverage of the FoE/Greenpeace/EREF/RESCoop backed study:
Community projects also make sense elsewhere in the world, in developing countries in particular. Foreign aid programmes can help, as with the UN backed Scaling Up Renewable Energy Project, if properly administered. Though the Telegraph doesn’t like this sort of thing!
Ethiopia, one of the poorest nations in the world, has been one of the recipients of climate related aid which has included support for a wind project. And, although not all of this will be community based (there are some large hydro projects), interestingly, Ethiopia has now usurped Egypt and South Africa as Africa’s largest source of renewables capacity, with total renewable energy capacity in the country jumping from 2,307MW in 2015 to 4,188 MW in 2016, more than 10% of the continents total generation capacity of 38GW. Edies noted that is it is ‘now gearing up to become the wind power capital of Africa, with its second Growth and Transformation Plan, a five-year strategy to reduce poverty and spur national development – pursuing an increase of wind energy output from 324MW in 2015 to more than 17GW by 2020’
The risk with development programmes is that they will involve ‘top down’ mega schemes, requiring large external funding sources, and leading to major local impacts but little local participation or benefit.  By contrasts, smaller scale low impact renewable projects, for example using solar or wind energy, can be locally owned and controlled are are much less likely to be opposed. Indeed, they are likely to welcomed and promoted locally, hopefully then providing bases for local enterprises and local economic and employment gains. That fits in well with the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All programme, which aims to increase access to energy, renewables especially, at the local level, in Africa and elsewhere.
Localisation, whether led via communities or local municipal authorities, can certainly work. That is a lesson learnt from the EU experience with local ownership and local council   energy projects, in Germany especially, and is also now being demonstrated in the USA, with local energy co-op and municipal projects catching on- and, as in Germany, challenging the utilities: And also see:
Back in the UK, there are some good local community projects and networks, and some support from the government and OFGEM: And also, crucially, from local councils: But there is still a way to go to rival Germany and Denmark!

*The European Federation of Renewable Energy Cooperatives represents 1,240 initiatives and 650, 000 citizens. Its members have jointly invested €2 bn in 1GW of renewable energy projects, with a combined annual turnover of up to € 950m: