It could be said that the UK has a lot of commitments on its plate, such as aid, ethical sourcing and climate change. So meeting the target of sourcing 15% of our energy from renewable sources by 2020 is looking incredibly ambitious, so much so that even the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has admitted it.
In 2009, the figure stood at an uninspiring 3%. It’s looking pretty dire in comparison to the leading examples of other European countries like Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Spain, whose fuel mix includes between 11-47% renewables. These countries will no doubt make more of a contribution to the EU’s target of 20% of overall energy consumption to come from renewables.
There are certainly problems with renewable energy, but a lot of these are derived from the UK industry’s unwillingness to invest in new technology which would make renewables cheaper and increase uptake. Most small renewables such as micro-wind power, solar heating systems or small-scale hydro are financially unviable in the current economic conditions, which are of course partly manufactured by companies (un)-involved in the industry.
Some technologies have more potential than others; solar photovoltaic (PV) for instance, is pretty unsuitable for the UK for obvious reasons, but there is an enormous amount of wind energy waiting to be exploited. Ask any wind-blown, vitamin D-deficient Scottish farmer. Where there is more space, there is undoubtedly more scope for renewables – farmers can be easily persuaded to erect a turbine on their land if it brings in revenue and provides free energy.
The problem arises more in urban areas where planning permission is nigh on impossible to obtain, and Nimbyism (Not In My Back Yard) is even more of a problem than in quaint rural villages. Here, it makes more sense to employ other methods, such as reducing consumption and making efficiency savings. New, efficient houses are readily being built, such as the Thames Gateway development, but to replace all the inefficient housing stock in the UK will take quite some time – for now many people are stuck in inefficient, poorly insulated and single-glazed houses where you can see your breath (something many UEA students can sympathise with).
Options like combined heat and power (CHP) dramatically reduce energy consumption because waste heat from electricity generation is used as direct heat instead of being lost – this is only valuable if there is a heating demand nearby, however, and there are very few power stations located near, well, anything.
To achieve those targets, a fair few more district heating and CHP facilities will need to be built, paying as little attention to the Nimby lobby as possible. Decentralised renewables can be incorporated into this rosy picture, providing extra energy on top of, say, gas electricity generation. It all sounds great, and starts to look a bit like the idyllic Scandinavia, where houses barely need to be heated in the Arctic winter, aside from a few problems: 1) although the technology exists, there is too little investment and motivation in this country to enable a mass roll-out; 2) political lifetimes are short, and investing in unpopular (expensive) policies is likely to deter most politicians; 3) it is going to be very hard to modify the National Grid to be able to handle renewables, which are notoriously unreliable at the wrong times (such as when the whole country needs a cup of tea after watching England lose at penalties).
The infrastructure can’t cope with the intermittency of renewable power as it stands, so it will take further investment to strengthen it. Added to this is the growing global demand for energy, as well as growing national demand. Efficiency savings are of course essential, but as soon as they are made it encourages people to increase their use because their energy bills get cut, and they can leave the TV on standby for three more hours without worrying about the cost.
Although very few people are advocating a regression to the dark ages or some kind of nation-wide hippy commune, it will be necessary to reduce the amount of energy we use as well as boosting our renewable contribution. The need to cut consumption goes hand-in-hand with renewables, which is unfortunately the unpalatable truth.