While a future where renewable energy prevails is a dream for many, today the UK is still heavily reliant on older power generation technology such as coal, gas and nuclear. What steps are necessary to make the renewable energy future a reality?
For the first time ever renewable energy surpassed coal in supplying the UK’s electricity for a whole quarter according to government statistics released in September 2015, which recorded that 25 per cent of electricity supply was generated by wind, solar and bioenergy.
While gas-fired power stations provided 30 per cent of our electricity, the rapid growth in renewable energy was achieved due to both more wind and sun, and more turbines and solar panels having been installed compared to the same period in 2014, when renewables contributed 16.4 per cent of electricity.
Twenty-five per cent for a quarter seems impressive, but in the relatively near future it could be a mere drop in the ocean. According to a new report by Greenpeace, by 2030 Britain could be producing 85 per cent of all its power via renewable energy. Although this comes with the rather large proviso that to achieve that figure, significant changes in production are needed, as well as a 60 per cent reduction in demand for domestic heating achieved through home insulation programmes and other initiatives.
The UK Energy Research Centre’s (UKERC) 2013 publication The UK energy system in 2050: Comparing Low-Carbon, Resilient Scenarios reports the results of its modelling and primarily predicts the need for greatly increased energy efficiency and conservation in all sectors, and decarbonisation of the UK electricity system by 2030 by at least 80 per cent. It says meeting the carbon emission reduction target requires a wholesale transformation of the energy system.
The report outlines continuing uncertainty about the optimal low-carbon electricity supply and which of the four main options for low-carbon electricity supply – nuclear power, large-scale renewables, fossil fuel power stations with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies, and small-scale renewables – will become dominant because it is the cheapest.
The UKERC’s model shows some electrification of heat and/or transport, using the largely decarbonised electricity, but the degree of electrification differs markedly across the various model scenarios, as do the technologies which are deployed. What it does conclude, however, is that by 2050 electricity (directly or through heat pumps) makes a major contribution to heating in all scenarios, supplemented by biomass and solar thermal.
While a future where renewable energy prevails is a dream for many, today the reality is that we are still reliant on older technology, including nuclear power – the third largest source of power, supplying 21.5 per cent of electricity in the UK. Hinkley Point C power station in Somerset, which will be operated by French company EDF, will be partly funded by Chinese investment. Hinkley will cost more to build than any other power station, and critics argue that the same investment in onshore wind power generation could produce more energy, more easily.
Why, in the face of the growth of renewable sources of energy, are we still relying on nuclear technology? Professor Jim Watson, Director of the ESRC-funded UK Energy Research Centre, argues that whilst nuclear power stations continue to be built there does still remain an emphasis on using newer technologies – and many home users are also in tune with this thinking. But for him, although how energy is generated is important, great progress could be made in reducing the amount of energy we use.