Opinion: Getting ambitious on renewable energy

The debate on fracking and renewables is warming up. Ed Davey’s LDV article on renewables set the scene, Norman Baker contrasts renewables and fracking, and my article from August – Renewables not Fracking — remains relevant.

There are some Lib Dems who support fracking. In response to that, I set out here a vision for sustainable energy in the UK, a vision that, in the long term, does not include any fossil fuels.

Renewables currently supply about 15% of UK electricity supply. By 2020, Ed Davey’s aspiration is 30%. With a clear political vision, electricity from renewables can grow by 3 – 4% a year and there is no obvious plateau point.

This means 30% electricity from renewables in 2020, 60% electricity from renewables in 2030, 90% in 2040, 120% in 2050, and 150% in 2060.

These last figures aren’t a mistake. Electricity is just a part of the whole energy mix. We use gas and oil for heating and cooking, and petrol and diesel for vehicles. If you want to drive an electric car or to replace gas with electric heating for your home, that electricity is predominately generated from fossil fuels. But if electricity is 100% renewably generated, then electric cars or electric heating become sustainable too. The implication is clear. The amount of electricity generated is going to go up as the use of fossil fuels goes down. Within two generations, most vehicles could be powered from renewable electricity.

To deliver this result, we need the industrial capacity to manufacture and develop the turbines, panels and equipment for a thriving UK renewables sector. That has started under Vince Cable and the Industrial Strategy – one of the unsung achievements of Lib Dems in government. We also need to deal with the intermittency issue of renewables. This is not an unsurmountable problem, it just needs investment. At the moment, fluctuation in demand is dealt with by turning coal or gas turbines on and off. We could just as easily do that with hydrogen. Make hydrogen from excess electricity generation, store it and burn it back into water during low supply and high demand. That is just one idea. If I was in government, the one thing I would do between now and the General Election is to start a programme to speed the development of technology to store renewable energy.

So where does this vision leave fossil fuels? North Sea oil and gas are in decline and fracking is well touted as an alternative. While the UK develops renewable energy as fast as possible over the next decades, we use oil and gas to tie us over. Fracking is a last resort to keep the lights on. If there is a choice between fracking and renewables, the answer should always be renewables.

What are the problems with this vision?  Vested interests (including the oil interest) and climate change deniers. And cost? No, cost will not be an issue. All technologies become cheaper and cheaper as they mature. Renewable costs are already coming more in line with the cost of fossil fuels. After all, once you have built a wind turbine, what real cost is there for the next 50 – 100 years?

Lastly, Lib Dems need the people on board. Renewable energy is a very different form of energy generation from the vast power stations of the modern time. Pass some of the renewable ‘profit’ back to the communities that live next door to the solar farms, wind turbines or tidal barriers, and enshrine it in law.

* William Hobhouse lives in Bath and is co-founder of the Lib Dem Campaign for Manufacturing.

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37 Comments

  • As you eloquently say, William, as technologies mature, so their cost comes down. One of the main problems with fracking is that it opens up a new fossil fuel technology. As such, it will become cheaper as it develops, making it seem irreplaceable as time goes on. Remember that it is the TOTAL amount cumulatively of fossil fuel burnt which influences global climate change, so developing fracking now will, almost inevitably contribute that. We must leave unburnt fossil fuels in the ground.

  • Martin Land 4th Dec '14 - 12:40pm

    I remain unconvinced by electric cars. Are we sure of the environmental economics of this? I’ve searched and searched and cannot find any data on the carbon footprint of producing an internal combustion powered car against an electric one. But many of the elements needed to produce such cars involve difficult to recycle materials and the amount of ‘fuel’ whatever the source seems to be high. Traditional cars are making leaps and bounds in reducing fuel consumption.
    Could it be that the carbon and resources needed to produce an electric car is greater than that of an internal combustion engine even when including it’s typical lifetime fuel use?

  • “We also need to deal with the intermittency issue of renewables. This is not an unsurmountable problem, it just needs investment. At the moment, fluctuation in demand is dealt with by turning coal or gas turbines on and off. We could just as easily do that with hydrogen.”

    Isn’t the problem that we still haven’t found economic ways of generating hydrogen from surplus electricity? So costs using current methods would be much higher and there are also problems in distributing it. I can’t help feeling that this piece just wishes away major current practical problems with intermittency and the use of hydrogen.

    If it were that easy and cost effective, we’d have plans to do it already, wouldn’t we?

    All in all, this looks like a great long-term solution to what is a pressing, short term problem.

  • Some excellent points made by William Hobhouse.
    He is right to point out the superiority of renewables as a safe, secure and ongoing source of electricity.
    He is right expose the enemies of progress in the vested interests of uesterday’s technologies (especially the oil interests, nuclear interests and the hulking dinosaur of The National Grid).
    He is right to expose the climate change deniers, most of whom are well funded by those vested interests of the past.

    One important point which I am sure Williiam Hobhouse will acknowledge. Not all renewables have what he describes as an “intermittency issue”. Hydro (both large and small) and tidal do not have this problem. See Ed Davey on the Swansea Bay scheme which will produce regular energy 14 hours a day, 365 days per year. See the tidal and wave
    Rokects being worked on in Orkney.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Dec '14 - 2:15pm

    I’m pro keeping things simple with renewable energy investment and regulations, but I’m anti complicated schemes such as carbon trading, biodiversity off-setting and carbon floor pricing.

    Regards

  • Simon McGrath 4th Dec '14 - 2:21pm

    ” Pass some of the renewable ‘profit’ back to the communities that live next door to the solar farms, wind turbines or tidal barriers, and enshrine it in law.”
    That would be great – when there is a profit. at the moment renewable energy is hugely subsidised.

  • I’d love to believe in this vision, but cost effective hydrogen generation and distribution seems to be the missing link here.

    Anyone got any evidence with real world examples and practical workable solutions?

  • Jenny Barnes 4th Dec '14 - 3:09pm

    15:00 on 4/dec. Wind supplies 1.2% of UK electricity demand, not 15%. Less than 1/10 of your estimate.
    Thermal obvious constraints on native renewables. The area needed for anything like 40 GW of wind would cover many square miles of sea, and land. Renewables could power the Uk, but it would need large areas of concentrated solar in hot sunny places (Southern England is not one) using salt as a working fluid, HVDC lines to bring the energy here, probable migration of energy intensive industries (cement, aluminium, steel, fertiliser) to the Mediterranean Coast, smart grids to turn off things that can be for shortish periods… And a realisation that renewables cost more than fossil, because fossil fuels are dumping their externalities .
    Electric cars look like an attempt to maintain business as usual without facing the need for real change.

  • There is another way of partially solving the intermittency problem and it’s the one that we are likely to see first. As William says this is traditionally done by adjusting supply to meet whatever the demand it. That’s actually very expensive but we could instead adjust demand. This has the huge advantage that distribution networks have to be sized to MAXIMUM demand – it’s politically impossible to allow power cuts when everyone is cooking Christmas lunch – and that is expensive. In any other context the distribution networks we have would be regarded as massively oversized. It will probably work by the network operator polling interruptible equipment and, depending on it’s status, telling it to switch off temporarily. So if a freezer is cold enough it doesn’t have to be on right now – the interval in the cup final when everyone puts on the kettle. So the freezer goes off for a few minutes.

    The technology involved is apparently perfectly straightforward; the difficulty is getting it just right in terms of standards, protocols and suitably revised regulations. I understand this is well advanced and that network operators are licking their lips in anticipation of the huge capital outlays they expect to avoid on network upgrades.

    Electric cars will turbocharge the benefits of demand management as their market penetration grows. My guess is that within the next two years or so we will see a doubling in pure electric range and a reduction in capital cost based on new battery technologies currently being evaluated. In the early – mid 2020s range will likely double again after which point no normal person will buy a fossil fuelled car. All the big car manufacturers know that fossil fuel’s day are numbered and are betting billions on electric cars.

  • Why do people repeat silly myths such as — “..at the moment renewable energy is hugely subsidised.”

    I suppose it might be ignorance and the people who say such things are simply unaware that in the UK there have been hydro schemes producing electricity since the 19th century.
    The idea that these resulted from subsidies is laughable. Kipling had his own hydro scheme in the stream at the bottom of his garden but I am pretty sure he received no subsidy to get it built.

    To suggest that all renewable energy sources are subsidised and therefore uneconomic is like suggesting that because bankers have been subsidised by the state therefore all businesses that pay enormous bonuses must be subsidised.

    There have of course been ridiculously gargantuan subsidies to nuclear since the 1950’s but then nuclear tends not to be criticised by the opponents of subsidies. I wonder why.

  • Toby Fenwick 4th Dec '14 - 4:27pm

    Good stuff, William.

    And the point needs to keep being made: if we want to meet our carbon targets, then we need to move to de-carbonising electricity even more quickly to retain headroom in carbon budgets for harder-to-decarbonise things, (eg aviation).

  • Lastly, Lib Dems need the people on board. Renewable energy is a very different form of energy generation from the vast power stations of the modern time. Pass some of the renewable ‘profit’ back to the communities that live next door to the solar farms, wind turbines or tidal barriers, and enshrine it in law.

    Is it not contradictory to say people on board but enshrine in law. I would seriously consider free solar panels but say £12k would take longer for break even on cost than years of life I probably have left

  • The grid can never balance intermittent generators like wind turbines or solar without significant conventional generating capacity on standby. The fixed costs and inefficient performance associated with this means that it would be much more sensible to run the conventional generators full time at a fraction of the cost and get rid of the costly, unreliable renewables.

    This may undermine our unilateral bid to reduce global CO2 emissions but then our action will have virtually zero effect globally. We are driving the poorest in society into fuel poverty for zero gain.

    In the meantime, the hiatus in global temperature continues in its eighteenth year casting serious doubt on the sensitivity of our climate to increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide.

    At this moment, 18:00 pm, the UK is consuming just under 52 GigaWatts of electricity. Total wind power can only raise 0.5 GW, just 1% of what is required, forcing us to import electricity from the French and the Dutch. Solar is of course zero because it does not work in the dark contrary to the belief of some of your readers.

    This is not unusual for wind generation. See this report on performance:
    http://www.ref.org.uk/attachments/article/280/ref.hughes.19.12.12.pdf

  • Martin Land 4th Dec '14 - 6:08pm

    @ Simon Oliver

    Yes, but this fails to take account of the fact that batteries have a limited life span and have to be regularly replaced at a not inconsiderable cost to the environment and to your wallet. Nobody seems to calculate this out. I wnder why?

  • Peter 4th Dec ’14 – 6:07pm
    Peter, I followed the link in your comment and found a report by Gordon Hughes, so I looked him up.
    Gordon Hughes is connected to the The Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF)

    So I looked up this organisation and discovered the following —
    The Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) is the United Kingdom’s most high-profile climate denier group. It opposes action to mitigate climate change.
    It was founded by Nigel Lawson, better known as being a Conservative Politician and being the father of a celebrity chef than for his scientific qualifications.
    http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Global_Warming_Policy_Foundation

    Given the views that you express on this subject, I am not at all surprised that you use sources such as the UK’s most high-profile climate change denier group. Did you you chose to ignore 99% of world scientific opinion and follow the climate change deniers instead?
    I hope for your sake you do not chose your doctor using a similar approach.

  • A Social Liberal 4th Dec '14 - 9:57pm

    Martin Lund said

    “Yes, but this fails to take account of the fact that batteries have a limited life span and have to be regularly replaced at a not inconsiderable cost to the environment and to your wallet. Nobody seems to calculate this out. I wnder why?”

    Martin

    Most of the make up of motor vehicles are consumable and have to be replaced at some point. I think that one or another of my many end of life motor vehicles have had every part of a vehicles make up replaced – from engines to sills to differentials to seats. I’ve even had to replace batteries on more than one occasion

  • >What are the problems with this vision?

    Just an inconvenient truth! I suggest you read this article by a couple of Engineers who worked together on the bold renewable energy initiative before it was axed and hence the article is in part a lessons learnt: http://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/renewables/what-it-would-really-take-to-reverse-climate-change

    In a thumbnail, merely getting renewables to generate the amounts of electricity that we consume today is already an insuperably difficult task, generating the huge amounts more on top needed to replace fossil fuel usage isn’t even vaguely plausible.

    A back of the envelope calculation neatly illustrates the real scale of the problem, my home’s current electricity usage is about 4000 KWh per annum, my gas (fossil fuel) consumption is about 18,000 KWh per annum, add the car on top – another 3,000 KWh and what we are looking at isn’t an increase in supply of 150% and that’s before we factor in continued population growth and 300,000 new houses per annum…

    No if we really want to be green, we either crash our society or let nature takes its toll; prior to the industrial revolution – a little over 200 years ago, the population of this country was sub 6 million…

  • >After all, once you have built a wind turbine, what real cost is there for the next 50 – 100 years?
    Well I think the question you should be asking is what is the design life of the current generation of wind turbines; from my research it seems to be around 25 years…

  • A Social Liberal 4th Dec '14 - 10:48pm

    Roland
    Before the last election Calderdale had an initiative whereby it would have fitted out every house in its area with free insulation. Whilst this initiative was prematurely ended by the reduction in council grants in 2010, if the scheme had been widened nationwide and was to have included the fitting of an IKEA solar panel set or equivalent then reliance on mass generated electricity could be reduced. If all social housing was built with shared ground sourced heat pumps there would be less demand for gas.

    Renewables CAN augment and therefore replace some of the usual ways of producing electricity. A little imagination is all that is needed

  • David Evans 5th Dec '14 - 12:11am

    >After all, once you have built a wind turbine, what real cost is there for the next 50 – 100 years?
    Also there is a non-trivial amount of repairs to damage and maintenance (not trivial at 200ft); maintenance and safety checks on the grid connections etc. Does anyone have any figures for that?

    It takes a bit of hard work in addition to imagination, but then most worthwhile things do. 🙂

  • Jenny Barnes 5th Dec '14 - 10:15am

    @peter ” Solar is of course zero because it does not work in the dark”
    Using salt as the working fluid in concentrated solar installations – yes it does, because the heat contained is sufficient to keep the turbines running well into the evening. PV’s don’t work in the dark, ofc, but the lowest UK demand is in the small hours of the morning, so there’s a certain amount of fit there.

  • >Most ICE cars do less than 200,000 miles in their lifetime

    Whilst, I’m sure that is a statement of fact, I’m not sure if that is really a recommendation. The expectation with a bulk standard Ford from circa 2002 was that the engine should last 300,000 miles, the problem is all the gizmo’s they them loaded on to it to satisfy emissions etc. … Given BMW showed that under laboratory trials a properly serviced BMW could comfortable do 1 million miles and that the major energy outlay with a car is in its construction (and recycling), perhaps we need to encourage greater longevity in our vehicles.

  • A Social Liberal – I totally agree there is a place for both energy efficiency and renewables. However, claiming that we could go 100% renewables and continue consuming energy as we do today, discredits the cause.

  • William – I use initials simply because I don’t want everything I ever wrote to be too accessible via Google for evermore but I am perfectly happy for the editors to let you have my name.

    Re batteries: their shortcomings for automotive uses – high cost, lack of range, fading performance, etc. – are obvious but that will change surprisingly quickly. It’s not perhaps widely enough appreciated just how difficult auto battery technology is or that it is following a Moore’s Law-type path of improvement with performance per unit cost doubling every few years. Couple that to security of supply and balance of payments considerations and it will eventually be a no-brainer even though we aren’t there yet. Battery electric cars are the perfect compliment to renewables because much of the demand for charging will be flexible w.r.t. time.

    Re solar: it’s perfectly true that solar capacity, especially PV, will increase as costs fall but that really doesn’t help us in Britain too much. We are so far north, so cloudy and the winters are so long that others – including the vast majority of the world’s population that lives in or near the tropics – will ALWAYS beat us simply because at any given state of technical development an investment there will yield more (and therefore cheaper) power. Hence India is planning for solar to be by far the largest proportion of its capacity additions over the next two decades; that makes sense for them but not for us. In fact, if solar gets really cheap over the next say 10 years then we have a serious strategic issue in that we would risk being left with uncompetitive energy costs.

    Re base load: although I like renewables I have to say I agree with those who point out their shortcomings to a large extent. It’s not sensible to close our minds to the problem. Given the limitations of solar that leaves only one viable option – nuclear. However … that shouldn’t mean the PWR reactors we have now. They are the Ford Model T of nuclear, based on a design concept that dates back decades and isn’t even failsafe – which is surely the most basic regulatory requirement. Even EdF’s latest design (the design to be used at Hinckley Point) after years of development had to have a redesign to incorporate the lessons of Fukushima. Doh! That should tell us all we need to know about how good it really is.

    The really daft thing is that design concepts exist that are far better, that are intrinsically failsafe, that burn up the fuel efficiently so getting far more energy out of it AND producing only mildly radioactive waste that is harmless within 300 years AND with projected costs that are very attractive. The physics is done but there is a lot of serious development involved – to work out exactly what alloys to use in each part for instance. This is what we should be investing in.

    Re Manufacturing: One alarming thing with just about all energy investment is how little of the manufacturing will be done in Britain. Even with, say wind farms, the local content tends to be the low tech bits and/or installation. That’s a lot like retailing where we import things then sell them with astronomical mark-ups that generate statistical added-value that boosts reported GDP. This is hollow GDP and isn’t sustainable – and therefore won’t be sustained as Tesco, Sainsbury’s etc. are discovering.

  • The issue of fluctuation can best be dealt with by use of the tides as our source of renewable energy. As long as the moon exists, we will have tides. We have a lot of tidal water around are coasts. It is a no-brainer. We should invest in tidal energy – and I do not just mean controversial tidal barrages – but the water moves farther from the cost-line as well.

  • GF

    There is much to disagree with in your last comment. But I will restrict myself to your penultimate paragraph.

    You talk about “design concepts” for some sort of new improved nuclear, which by your description hasn’t quite been invented yet. By your description the only thing that is missing is a magic wand to make it work. I am not sure that this would be the wisest technology to invest in.

  • It never ceases to amaze me that some of the comments expressed here depend upon fantasies becoming true.

    There is currently no place for electricity storage by batteries in the national grid. You might supply a light bulb in your garage overnight if you are really lucky, but let us not get carried away.

    All the wind turbines were producing a paltry 0.5 GW or 1 % of requirements this evening. That is completely useless and no basis on which to run a national grid. It is so pathetic as to be completely insane, but none of you felt it necessary to comment. It is really pointless to raise concerns in this environment when fantasy rules.

  • Jenny Barnes 6th Dec '14 - 9:08am

    Peter – try reading
    http://www.economist.com/news/technology-quarterly/21598296-giant-batteries-missing-piece-renewable-power-jigsaw-may-now-have-been
    on flow batteries. Grid scale battery storage is feasible.
    Could you do us all a favour and check your facts before posting? Accusing others of fantasy when your statements are clearly wrong is not very polite.

  • John Tilley – Either I didn’t explain myself very well or you’ve never been involved in a design project of any significant complexity.

    Many different “design concepts” exist for nuclear reactors of which the PWR family (which includes the proposed Hinkley Point one), though far from the worst ever built, are fundamentally flawed in that they are not failsafe plus they are an intrinsically expensive to build. Other much better designs exist and have been built as research reactors but that’s not at all the same as a commercial version which has to be, well, commercial and that involves optimising many things – technical, marketing, regulatory etc. For example, unit cost might push you to design a very large unit to spread any elements of fixed cost over a bigger base but marketing might say that smaller or medium sized is going to be better. And, to add further complexity, it’s likely to be the case that everything doesn’t scale linearly with size. And, that’s before you even get to satisfying the regulatory hurdles designed with a different reactor type in mind.

    All this is perfectly doable but takes commitment to engineering integrity, time and patient capital. It’s not about inventing anything so much as optimising what already exists for commercial use. Unfortunately, these are all things in short supply in Britain which is why our industrial base is so weak and why we have to import technology from countries that do it better despite fantasy plans from Harold Wilson onwards (remember his “white heat of technology” speech).

  • Peter Chambers 6th Dec '14 - 1:42pm

    @GF

    You seem to have a good grasp if the engineering realities of this topic.

    Until renewables enthusiasts can answer your points and publish as worked-out detailed plan of how their vision is to happen, your doubts are valid. If I had to bet on how things will actually play out, I would say that nuclear fission and carbon capture and storage would be the main contributors, with energy distributed mainly using extant assets, as the funds to replace them will not be available. Public funds will more likely be spent on health and education, with hypothecated tariffs becoming increasingly unpopular politically.

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