With only 5 per cent of our energy coming from renewable sources, Britain is falling way behind its international neighbours. Why isn't the renewable energy sector delivering what we need to keep the lights on and make us more sustainable?
We've been aware of climate change and sustainability issues for decades. We've had the technology to generate power from renewable sources for 20 years. In 2013, 21.7 per cent of the world's energy came from renewables. And yet in the same year, just over 5 per cent of the UK's energy consumption (for electricity, heat and transport) came from renewable sources.
This figure is put into dramatic perspective when read alongside those of countries such as Iceland (81 per cent) or Norway (61 per cent). We can and should be doing a lot better.
Late last year a report from the Centre for Low Carbon Futures looking at the development of smart energy for smart cities touched on the reasons why the UK's investments into renewable energy developments haven't yet been at the level they should. Professor Andy Gouldson, a principal researcher on the report and visiting professor of sustainability research at the University of Leeds, as well as director of the ESRC Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy, said: "It's a cluster of issues that have led us to just talking about renewable energy solutions rather than implementing them. There's the finance issue due to the recession and market uncertainty because energy prices are fluctuating due to the government's fracking programme. These factors combine to create an atmosphere of instability and policy uncertainty within the current UK government. They are ambivalent at best about renewable energy and make contradictory statements all the time about their approach so up the risks for renewables investments." As mutterings of winter power cuts start to do the rounds in national media, these issues need to be addressed.
Big energy players
This uncertainty can mean that smaller players struggle to secure the investments they need to develop their innovative ideas. In the meantime, big energy companies have slowly been creating more new renewable sources.
EDF Renewables has 26 wind farms in operation in the UK, another five under construction and nine proposals in the permissions pipeline. It is also working on several solar, hydro, biomass and nuclear projects. Scottish Power Renewables was the first UK developer to reach installed generating capacity of 1,000MW (in 2011), and E.ON Climate and Renewables UK has 18 operational onshore and three offshore wind farms, as well as one of the UK's largest dedicated biomass power stations.
RWE Npower has 32 on and offshore wind farms with an installed capacity of 740MW and has a number of small-scale hydro projects in the UK, with over 74MW of hydro in operation and several more schemes in development and construction. Its '200m biomass CHP plant in Fife is in testing phase and when fully operational will be able to supply up to 120 tonnes of industrial steam per hour to paper manufacturer Tullis Russell. The plant is fuelled by roughly 90 per cent recovered wood waste with the remainder being virgin wood sourced from sustainably managed forests.
British Gas is firmly entrenched in the micro-generation market and the Feed-in Tariff to encourage homes and businesses to become involved in producing more renewable energy. While this has helped in making people more climate-aware, the Feed-in Tariff also has a part to play in the lack of investment, and interest, in other renewable energy sources.
Simon Hamlyn, who has recently taken over as the CEO of the British Hydropower Association, said: "Solar has taken the lion's share of visibility because of the 2010 promotional campaign and the Feed-in Tariff to support it. The uptake of residential solar panel installations was so significant that the government lost control of costs so introduced a degression mechanism to slow it down. An unfortunate and unforeseen problem when they did this is that they joined pre-accredited and accredited energy sources together. So the trigger mechanism for the degressed tariff included schemes that weren't even built yet. The average amount of hydropower being built and generated in the past few years is 11.5MW, which would have created 2.5 per cent degression over time. But as pre-'accredited sources have been included this all happened in the space of 12 months."
Today's renewables landscape
What's happening in the UK's renewable sector today to try and make sure the country does become renewable enough before it's too late?
Statistics from the latest government report into renewable energy (issued June 2014) show increases in energy coming from all renewable sources apart from hydro, which fell by 11 per cent. Hamlyn blames this fall on the government's back-tracking: "Government has not kept faith with what they intended, or promised, during their election campaigns and in their policy making since coming to power."
The government says it's due to lower rainfall in the catchment areas, in a year when the UK saw some of the worst flooding in its history.
The same report reveals that the amount of electricity generated from renewable energy sources in 2013 was 53,667GWh, which is a 30 per cent increase on 2012.
Wind generation was the largest contributor to the overall increase, with offshore wind going up by 52 per cent and onshore wind by 40 per cent. The UK was the world's eighth-largest producer of wind power in 2013, with installed capacity of over 10GW, which is forecast to grow another 2GW by next year.
Electricity generation from solar photovoltaics was up by 51 per cent on 2012, while plant biomass generation more than doubled, which was mainly due to the conversion of coal plants to dedicated biomass.
Although it doesn't get nearly the same sort of media coverage as wind and solar, biomass is actually the largest source of renewable energy in the UK, accounting for 70 per cent of renewables used for all purposes including heat and transport.
While we have seen increases in renewable energy use we're still a long way off meeting our 2020 targets, which will mean we'll have to lift renewables' contribution to total energy consumption from 5.2 per cent to 15 per cent in just five years. A very tall order in most people's eyes if the government continues on its current fracking trajectory and doesn't get its renewable energy policy-making act together. With an election due in 2015 politicians are sure to be making some big promises, but it's time they started delivering on them if the UK is going to become renewable enough before it's too late.
However, despite the lack of political impetus, there are some exciting developments and emerging technologies that could make a big contribution to our renewable future if they can get the investment they need. In solar, thin-film solar PV is the second generation of solar panel technology, which is cheaper and easier to install, but has previously been less efficient. Things have moved on and they are now on a par with the first-generation panels. The third generation is in the R&D phase. With investment they promise to deliver low-cost, highly efficient solar cells with a long lifetime. There is also research into space-based solar power. But realistically, this won't arrive for at least two decades.
Andy Gouldson said there are exciting developments around solar films that will be installed on the windows of buildings and vehicles, as well as on phone, tablet and PC screens, to make them self-powering. He's also seen interesting research into fuel cells for mobile phones that should be available in a few years. "They have a much longer life span, and typically a battery charge would last for a month," he said. The only side product is a small amount of water, which the developers are working on eliminating."
Solar Roadways has recently hit the headlines after raising £1.2m in crowdfunding for its technology that replaces standard asphalt roads and parking spaces with high-tech solar panels that generate power, form versatile lighting patterns and even melt snow. It will build a prototype car park with the funds to test it out.
In the hydro space, Hamlyn says the entire industry is excited about a turbine system that harvests energy through the changing height of sea as the tide ebbs and flows. "The Swansea Bay project is the world's first tidal lagoon project. When operational it could provide sustainable energy for 120,000 homes for 12 years." A 10km wall will be built around Swansea Bay, creating a lagoon where an array of low-head bulb turbines will harness the incoming and outgoing tides to generate power 14 hours a day.
"If Swansea is a success and we can get the investment we need we are hoping to do another six projects like this across the UK. We're currently looking at ways of producing lower-cost turbines without compromising on efficiency to reduce the installation costs. We're also developing training courses to ensure that we have the skills needed to build and manage these projects," Hamlyn added.
A Dutch tech firm, Archimedes, has developed the Liam F1 urban wind turbine, which it claims can do for our homes what traditional wind turbines have done for the electricity grid – namely turn as much as 80 per cent of the energy harnessed from wind into electricity. Not only is this a conversion rate on par with the world's top-performing systems, but it is claimed that the coiled-blade turbine design can capture wind from multiple directions. On top of that it's said to be quieter, more compact and more affordable than competing technologies.
Ewicon (Electrostatic WInd Energy CONverter) takes this a step further still. The small-scale prototype of this device generates electricity from the wind with no blades at all. Developed by Delft University of Technology researchers Johan Smit and Dhiradi Djairam, it works by allowing the wind to move charged particles in the opposite direction to an electric field. The prototype is a vertical steel frame – think large tennis racquet – holding around 40 horizontal rows of insulated tubes all of which have several electrodes and nozzles that release positively charged water droplets into the air, through a process called 'electrospraying'. These droplets naturally move towards the negative electrode, but when the wind pushes them away it increases their potential electrical energy, which can then be collected. The experimental system comprises a battery, inverter, HVDC source, pump and charging system. All components are placed on a metal plate supported by ceramic insulators, which acts as a capacitor. The research team is seeking funding to build a larger model.
A more renewable future?
Despite a sluggish start, there is much activity in the renewable energy sector. Whatever investors think of the risk, there will come a time when the effects of climate change will far outweigh it. Gouldson believes this tipping point is getting closer: "I see it being within 20 years. But the more optimistic people out there believe it will be within five to 10 years."
We know that renewable energy is beneficial to the environment and economy as well as being a vital tool in helping us meet our 2020 sustainability targets. It's a question of when, not if, we start giving it the level of political support and private investment required.
Eighty per cent of the global supply chain in the hydropower sector is UK-based and it currently supports almost 5,000 jobs. But the sector is worried that this leading position is under threat as the removal of subsidies makes it less attractive to consumers to buy hydro energy. "We're not in a position yet to cut costs like the solar industry can to cover that," said Hamlyn.
Considering that an Environment Agency review in 2011 revealed that there are 26,000 potential sites for hydropower generation in England alone, this is a sorry state of affairs. Despite this, the hydropower industry is optimistic that investors and government will see the light. "The future would be very bright if we had the opportunity to develop in a way that creates jobs and power while meeting targets. The lack of government support is very frustrating." Hamlyn added.
Gouldson thinks we are creating an enabling environment for investors, especially in offshore wind. "This is where we should continue to focus our research and investments, as onshore wind farms are contentious with both residents and environmentalists."
Rather than just focusing on energy generation, he strongly believes that the best environmental approach would be to make all of our buildings more energy-efficient. But with an ageing national housing stock, retrofitting for environmental efficiency is a costly endeavour that won't necessarily deliver the kind of improvements required. "Technically and environmentally it's the best choice. But it would not be acceptable where there are massive swathes of social deprivation in poor-quality housing. We should look at replacing these homes with new, energy-efficient buildings."
What could be achieved in the next decade with the right investments and attitude? A significant and rapid growth of offshore wind farms is looking likely. "Some people see renewables reaching fossil-level investments within a matter of years," says Gouldson. "Investment would grow again as the feet were kicked out from under fossil fuel investments."
Although the UK is only slowly becoming more climate-aware, there are signs of change. Last year, Energy Secretary Ed Davey told journalists: "Generating the funds needed to help vulnerable nations cut their greenhouse gas emissions and deal with the effects of climate change is a prime money-making opportunity for the UK's financial institutions."