Overcoming the Barriers to a Renewable UK Energy Sector

Here at GLOBUS, we’re lucky to be in close collaboration with both academics and students from the Global Sustainable Development Department. It is therefore with much excitement that we are publishing a series of selected pieces from GSD’s 3rd Year module: ‘The Energy Trilemma’, convened by Dr Morakinyo Adetutu.

The second piece in this series discusses the main challenges on our path towards renewability and proposes some quite innovative solutions…

By Todd Olive, Former Editor-in-Chief of GLOBUS


As the decade has turned, Australia has burned – ravaged by wildfires that have been described as the worst in Australia’s history. Studies suggest that climate change, induced by human greenhouse gas emissions, have at least doubled the chance of severe heatwaves – of the kind that is fuelling the Australian fires – occurring; while it is difficult to blame climate change for a single event, scientists are suggesting that the 2019-20 fire season has been exacerbated by the rising temperatures and changing weather patterns that are the symptoms of the climate crisis.

In this context, action on climate change must be a priority: in which, the widespread introduction of renewables must play a major role. This brief will examine the scale of the requirement for a ‘renewables transition’ (see i) and discuss solutions to the biggest barriers preventing its progression.


1. UNDERSTANDING THE RENEWABLES TRANSITION

In late 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its landmark Special Report on 1.5°C, assessing the climate change damages that will occur between the two temperature goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement – 1.5°C and 2°C. The report also calculates the set of emissions pathways (ii) that are compatible with achieving the 1.5°C goal [Fig. 1] – with stark results.

Figure 1: 1.5°C Emissions Pathways

Broadly speaking, the IPCC calculates that global CO2 emissions will need to fall by around 45% by 2030. Given that the energy sector (iii) alone is responsible for nearly 35% of global emissions, a major share of the climate action burden will fall on its activity: the IPCC estimates that renewable electricity generation (REG) (iv) will need to comprise around 60% of the energy mix (v) by 2030, rising to at least 80% by 2050.

Figures 2 & 3 show the historical pathway of REG to 2015. The overall picture is that global growth in REG since 1990 has been less than 5% worldwide, rising to nearly 25% in the UK; excluding hydroelectric (vi), the growth picture is much the same, though total global REG is five times lower. What these figures suggest is that, while recent REG growth in the UK might be fast enough to reach the goal of 60% by 2030 should it continue, worldwide REG is unlikely to do so – meaning that REG targets in the UK should be made as high as possible to offset the slower global pace.

Regardless of assumptions made regarding hydroelectric power (HEP) [due to its minimal potential growth in the UK (vii), the IPCC’s analysis, coupled with this data, indicate that a two-to three-fold increase in REG capacity in the UK over the next ten years is needed to achieve climate targets, rising to nearly four-fold by 2050: in both cases, representing a significant and rapid renewables transition. The sheer scale of this challenge is made starker in light of estimates regarding the pace of previous technological deployments of this scale, which range between 43 and 66 years.

2. THE RENEWABLES CHALLENGE: BARRIERS TO WIDESPREAD DEPLOYMENT

There are two kinds of barriers to the renewables transition in the UK. The first of these are technical challenges to do with the nature of renewables; the second set largely result from the scale and pace of the transition required, as discussed previously. This brief will tackle each type in turn, outlining the individual challenges posed to the transition – and setting the scene for explaining how they can be overcome. As HEP has such a small remaining potential contribution, these next sections will focus on solar and wind power, as the two most common types of REG in the UK.

2A. TECHNICAL CHALLENGES: INTERMITTENCY

Intermittency is arguably the most well-known challenge with renewable energies: the simple fact that the sun doesn’t shine, and the wind doesn’t blow, 24/7. This is in stark contrast to conventional fossil fuels, which have 100% availability – other than time set aside for maintenance – and can be ramped up and down very quickly, providing electricity on very short notice.

The reason why this is a problem is essentially common sense: electricity, by and large, must be produced and consumed at pretty much the same time – allowing for short periods for power to be transmitted across the National Grid (viii). The technical challenge that this poses, however, is more significant and complex than it might seem.

Electricity transmission uses a system called Alternating Current (AC), in which the electric current in cables is constantly changing direction at an extremely fast rate. This is fundamental to the operation of the National Grid, as the current in cables across the network must be reversing at the same frequency (rate): in the UK, and most of the rest of the world, that frequency is 50 Hertz(Hz) (ix). Multiple frequencies cannot operate simultaneously without seriously damaging electrical equipment; similarly, if the frequency of the grid varies more than 1% above or below 50Hz, there’s a risk that equipment and infrastructure could be damaged (x). As a consequence, the National Grid must co-ordinate the country’s electricity generating assets to stabilise frequency and ensure that our phones keep charging.

The primary way in which this is done is by instructing power generators to increase or decrease their electricity output automatically according to changes in frequency – and here’s where the problem with renewables lies. Conventional power generation is entirely under its operator’s control: readily available fuel means that coal or gas generators can be dialled up or down at will. Renewables, on the other hand, have their output largely dictated by the prevailing weather, rather than human control: while solar panels can be switched on and off, and wind output can be held back when there’s enough wind, these technologies otherwise provide no frequency-managing facilities – meaning a purely renewables-reliant grid has severely restricted capacity to adjust to frequency fluctuations

There is, however, another challenge inherent here. The UK’s electricity demand varies according to lifestyles and the weather, usually falling somewhere between 20GW and 40GW: for example, demand peaks in the evening at around 6pm as people get home from work and cook dinner. More rapid fluctuations [called ‘TV pickups’ (xi)] can occur during televised events: when England was knocked out of the 1990 Football World Cup by West Germany, full time was accompanied by a 2800MW jump in electricity demand – between 5 and 10% of normal demand. For the same reasons that wind and solar can’t manage the National Grid’s frequency, nor are they able to be ramped up and down in response to changes in demand.

2B. SCALING CHALLENGES: LAND & RESOURCES

Solar and wind power, by their nature, use significantly more land per unit of capacity than conventional power generation, which poses a number of practical challenges when scaled to the required transition size.

The first of these is the size and complexity of the planning and acquisition processes that would need to be undertaken for the renewables industry to expand to the extent described. Considering all the various stages – identifying the best sites for generating potential (xii) and grid access, negotiating with owners, applying for suitable permissions from planning departments and the National Grid with accompanying stakeholder liaison, and producing requisite plans, just to name a few – hints at a monolithic, human resource-intensive process, and perhaps questions the feasibility of achieving targets in the timescales required by the IPCC’s analysis. The European Commission estimates that 3% of EU land would need to be turned into solar farms, or up to 15% for wind farms (depending on offshore deployments), to meet renewable energy targets – while the UK alone will differ slightly given that its wind energy potential (xiii) is stronger than solar, meaning the relative land use percentages would not be identical, this still demonstrates the sheer scale of the operation.

Secondly, the decentralised nature of most REG – while often cited as a component of the radical system reform needed to achieve ‘micro grids’ (xiv) – is likely to create headaches for the National Grid. Think back to the issue of frequency stabilisation – are increasing numbers of small-scale, possibly community-owned, REG assets outside the direct sphere of influence of the Grid likely to simplify or complicate the automated changes necessary to protect our electricity supply? In the absence of systemic reforms in how the National Grid coordinates its suppliers, it is hard to see past this issue to a safe renewables deployment of the scale required.

Finally, and arguably most saliently, the manufacturing of REG technologies is reliant upon a category of mineral referred to as ‘rare earth metals’, which are predominantly used to produce permanent magnets. The dominant supplier of these metals is China, which in current climates could create economic and geopolitical obstacles to significantly increased production; significantly higher quality deposits exist elsewhere but will take decades to develop and integrate into global supply chains – hampering the potential for REG asset manufacturing to be scaled up to the degree necessary for a timely renewables transition.

2C. SCALING CHALLENGES: FINANCE

Manufacturing and deploying REG technologies require large up-front investments that must be financed; multiplied by the scale required for the transition, and without numbers we can think of the value of capital required as being extremely high – and therefore the cost of obtaining that finance, usually in the form of private sector loans, represents a significant portion of the ongoing costs of REG. In Germany, up to 37% of the cost of electricity from solar plants is attributable to this capital cost. While climate change is now being recognised by major financial players as a threat that requires targeted action by lenders and the financial sector more widely, the market-wide obtaining and deployment of sufficient funds represents a significant obstacle to the transition.

Lastly, there is the question of what to do with conventional fossil fuel-powered electricity generating infrastructure: as the required renewables is so rapid, there is likely to be a significant value of these assets that are ‘left behind’ – some of which may have many years left on their useful lifetime. How can we address the potential waste, and consequent unwillingness to transition, that results from the risk of these assets being ‘stranded’ by the transition?

3. OVERCOMING OBSTACLES: POLICIES AND TECHNOLOGIES TO ENABLE THE TRANSITION

The urgency posed by the climate change threat, and the pace of the renewables transition required, require radical solutions to overcome obstacles and ensure climate action is successful. Some of these, to address technical challenges, must be technological; others, to support the scale and pace of the transition, must leverage the regulating and fiscal powers of the state.

Intermittency, and the problems for power availability and grid stability that it causes, requires a ‘tech fix’ – policy and regulation can’t affect the inability of REG to be fully under human control. This tech fix must provide for dialling up and down electricity supplies as needed to match demand and stabilise network frequency – in other words, it needs to provide electricity input to the grid. As conventional fuel sources are out on account of their greenhouse gas emissions, we must turn to evolving technologies: battery storage and interconnectors.

The idea of integrating high-capacity batteries into the electricity network, either at generating stations or in the wider distribution network, is to break the direct connection between how much energy is produced and consumed, by storing energy during periods of excess availability, and releasing energy during periods of excess demand. While introducing the technology at scale is an ongoing technical challenge, integration trials conducted as early as 2011 have demonstrated its efficacy.

Interconnectors (xv) are essentially extremely high-capacity undersea cables that link the National Grid to electricity networks on the European continent, and in Ireland. This allows electricity to be imported or exported from the Grid during times of stress, caused by excess supply or demand: assessments conducted on behalf of the National Grid demonstrate that 75-95% of ‘stress incidents’ in the UK grid can be compensated for using these interconnectors.

Addressing the scaling challenge will require novel policy-based solutions that ease or incentivise the process of deploying REG on a large scale. To address obstacles in obtaining land and permissions, reforms to planning regulations could be introduced to fast-track applications for permission to construct renewable energy ‘farms’, or for domestic and industrial schemes that incorporate some extent of REG; a form of compulsory purchase orders, similar to those used to facilitate large-scale infrastructure such as railroads, could be introduced to streamline the process of acquiring suitable generating sites. To address the likely shortage of rare earth metals, a ‘circular economy’ approach to the disposal of equipment containing such metals could be enforced by regulation requiring its recycling and/or repurposing – though this would need to be an interim measure as new sources are developed.

The question of finance is, as recognised by the Bank of England, an extensive challenge that will require economy-wide reforms. An obvious potential solution is the guaranteeing of REG-related loans by national government or the Bank of England – in which the guarantor promises to reimburse the lender for losses should the recipient of the loan go bankrupt – which would significantly reduce the risk of such lending, and therefore incentivise lenders. The thorny issue of stranded assets is a complex challenge – not least because of the potential for extensive pollution in the disposal of such assets – but can arguably be handled by eliminating the least efficient, most polluting assets first, in a systematic dismantling of conventional generation as the renewables transitions occurs.

4. WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED?

The climate crisis cannot be ignored; the renewables transition must play an extensive role in reducing human carbon emissions and protecting our planet. The challenges in such a widespread transition to renewables are extensive, involving both technological limitations and practical constraints in the scale and pace of change; these challenges will require the deployment of innovative new technologies, and extensive novel policy solutions, to ensure that we are successful in meeting climate targets. In many cases, these solutions may be untested and unproven on such a scale; as a result, leadership from business and government will be needed to ensure that the right decisions are taken.


i) renewables transition: the replacement of fossil fuel-based energy generation with renewables.

ii) emissions pathways: the annual global emissions of greenhouse gases to be made by human activity

iii) energy sector: generates both electricity and heat

iv) renewable electricity: generation sources of electricity whose fuel replenishes in less than the lifetime of a person; excludes nuclear power

v) energy mix: the national combination of sources that produce of electricity and heat

vi) REG excluding hydroelectric power: due to its large-scale impact on land and water resources, hydroelectric power can be considered undesirable as a REG resource

vii) potential HEP growth in the UK: total estimated potential for HEP growth in the UK amounts to 356.6MW – 1248.4MW, between 0.007% and 0.02% of the 45,000MW total installed REG capacity in 2019

viii) National Grid: the state-owned network of cables, transformers, and related equipment that connects power generators to users

ix) Hertz (Hz): the frequency, or number of times per second, that electric current reverses at

x) unstable frequency damage: in August 2019, nearly 1m customers across England, as well as major London rail terminuses Euston and Kings Cross, lost power as automatic shutdowns triggered following unexpected outages that caused grid frequency to drop below 49Hz

xi) TV pickups: large spikes in energy demand caused by synchronised energy usage across the nation, usually caused by breaks in extremely popular television programmes

xii) generating potential: typically measured as the amount of energy that can be generated by positioning a solar panel or wind turbine in a given location; can vary according to height above sea level, direction of facing, amount of shelter from natural features or buildings, and prevailing sunshine hours and wind patterns

xiii) wind energy potential the UK is estimated to have the potential for over 300GW of wind power when considering both onshore and offshore resources and current regulations – more than seven times peak demand of 40GW

xiv) micro-grids: the product of decentralisation of the electricity network, in which energy is not supplied and transmitted over national or international scales, but rather is generated and use within smaller regions with local control

xv) interconnectors: the National Grid currently has 4GW of interconnector capacity, comprised of 2GW to France, 1GW to the Netherlands, and 1GW to the island of Ireland

Header Image: Photo by Thomas Richter on Unsplash

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