Friday, 18 January 2008

We can make 15% renewables by 2020

The BBC has reported1 that the EU will expect Britain to meet 15% of its energy supplies from renewable sources by 2020. The European Commission is expected to announce its country by country targets next week, with the aim of reaching an average contribution to energy supplies of 20% from renewable sources and at the same time cutting overall carbon emissions by 20%. The targets take into account the existing level of renewables and the level of economic development of the member state; Britain currently only has 2% of energy from renewables (although 5% of electricity is renewable, the proportion of transport and heating fuels is much lower).

This is a challenging but achievable target. To meet the target, we will need to do three things:
  1. Continue to focus on energy efficiency, in part to limit total demand. As renewably sourced energy is likely to be more expensive, reducing demand will also help limit total energy bills. This is especially important for lower-income consumers, and - at the same time that electricity generation companies are moving into renewables - electricity, gas and heating oil distribution firms should be incentivised to expand insulation and other conservation schemes.
  2. Identify key renewable energy sectors to provide large scale electricity generation. Historically the UK Government has mainly relied on the market, with only limited intervention through support mechanisms such as the non fossil fuel order (NFFO). Although this has tended to produce least cost renewables, it has also resulted in rather a patchwork of technologies, with none achieving critical mass. In turn, this has allowed European competitors in countries such as Germany, Austria, Spain or Denmark build up strong positions in key renewable energy fields. A little more intervention may allow the UK to be a leader, rather than a follower, in offshore technologies2 (wind, wave and tidal stream). However, it should be cautious before attempting to impose mega-projects such as the Severn barrage in a desperate attempt to leap towards the 20% target.
  3. Large scale electricity generation should be matched by support for smaller scale heat generation especially in the domestic and SME sectors. This should focus on proven technologies such as solar water heating, ground source heat pumps and modern biomass systems.
So what what should the Government not do? Essentially, it should not talk up technologies with
unproven benefit, or those that have only marginal carbon benefits (even if they contribute towards the renewable energy percentage targets). In practice, this would seem to be a warning away from many of the liquid biofuels, as well as from micro-scale wind, for which the early implementation results look unpromising. The UK Government should continue to support research into these areas, but unlike George Bush, should not rely on future technologies to solve today's problems.

But we can meet the targets, and we can do so in a way that is environmentally friendly and not financially crippling if we treat them intelligently and with resolve.

1 See BBC News Report, 18/1/08

2 This may be changing; John Hutton (Minister for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform) is quoted in the house magazine of the British Wind Energy Association (realPower) as having said "by 2020 enough electricity could be generated off our shores to power the equivalent of all of the UK's homes".