Offshore wind design

Environment – six steps to UK low-carbon global leadership

President Trump’s decision to take the US out of the Paris climate agreement came as no surprise. However, his move could help to open up six key areas where the UK can show global leadership.

( Text content written by Twenty6 for LIC Energy )

Before outlining these six renewable ‘pillars’, I think it’s worth noting that just two years ago, taking America out of December 2015’s international agreement could have brought down the whole delicately-built political house of cards.

Not anymore. Instead, US cities, mayors, states and Arnold Schwarzenegger ( speaking for California, have re-committed themselves to the agreement that calls for meaningful carbon-reduction proposals from circa 175 nations.

This makes it even more disappointing that the UK chose not to co-sign with Chinese and EU leaders a joint statement reaffirming the Paris accord as “an imperative more important than ever”.

Correcting a very wrong decision

I believe we made the wrong decision for two reasons. Firstly, the Government missed a high-profile opportunity to distance us publically from the President’s regressive policy.

But secondly, the UK has a crucial international leadership role to play in global decarbonisation to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

We now look unfairly weak on the world stage when we can least afford to. No, we are not in the vanguard, but we are definitely not far behind. However, developments in the pipeline could put us well ahead.

UK renewables hit a record

Recent news is encouraging. Over lunchtime on Wednesday, 7 June, for the first time ever more than half – 50.7% in fact – of the energy generated in the UK came from renewable sources rather than gas, oil, coal or nuclear. The day was both sunny and windy.

But only 1% came from energy storage.

As I explain later, of the six pillars needed for a successful low-carbon transition, the UK has five quite firmly in place. The fifth, industrial-scale energy storage, has until recently been a lame duck.

Now there is positive news here too. Energy storage technology is becoming more cost-effective in leaps and bounds. Capacity is also expanding rapidly.

Extended the UK’s advantage

The UK has done reasonably well in staying near the front of the pack over the last decade. The Renewable Obligation was crucial, strong and stable for a number of years. The Climate Change Act has followed.

Together, these two policy instruments have driven change; the Contracts for Difference mechanism is now being used in a narrow way to maintain the progress of the more mature technologies.

The UK can build on these initiatives and show some real global leadership!

Yes, all the technology exists for a fully decarbonised energy system, bar some small but significant pockets. No, a zero carbon grid couldn’t operate tomorrow, but yes, we can identify the technical components needed for a successful low-carbon transition today.

This is how I think it will look.

I mention six pillars.

Pillar 1 – Geographical spread

The first is having a suitable geographical spread of our energy sources – wind, tide and solar in particular from northern Scotland to the West Country. Having the technology to exploit them is also important. We tick both boxes. The 8 June example shows that we have an increasing capacity to supply green energy, with some caveats.

The benefit of geographical spread is that it spaces out supply peaks as weather and tides move across the nation. It’s the same reason why nation to nation interconnection is important on a wider scale.

Pillar 2 – Technology diversity

Technology diversity here refers to energy generation technologies. For electricity, we have solar PV, wind, tidal barrage and hydropower options of various sizes. And we’re currently adding free-stream tidal, wave power, tidal fences and tidal lagoons.

Potential renewable heating sources include air and ground source heat pumps, solar thermal, biogas, synthetic gas from electrolysis, and biomass.

So we already have many choices, although the level to which these technologies are well understood and ‘plug-and-play’ ready, differs. I’m sure that we have more than enough energy available to meet our gross national needs, plus the tools to harvest this.

New fledging technologies must be developed as we roll out renewables and seek greater supply security. But we’re in good shape – well equipped with inventive engineers and great finance people who can bring new concepts to maturity IF routes to market exist and R and D support is available.

Transport is another area. Electric vehicle (EV) technology is mature enough, if anticipated battery advances are counted in, to take road and rail transport off fossil-fuels completely.

Heavy goods transport is a temporary stumbling block. But overhead motorway catenary power lines for HGVs could be a solution. For aviation there is the promise of biofuels from algae.

Back to cars – one large overall benefit to decarbonisation is that an electric car is a significant capacity energy storage device on-hand right where people live. Using your EV to improve energy demand management and distributed storage is a huge bonus. Your battery can also shield you from the highest energy costs, thus becoming a benevolent energy-broker working on your behalf.

I estimate that the widespread quiet and pollution-free uptake of these super-capable EV’s will take place in the next decade. The range of a family car is now around 200 miles per charge and rising all the time.

To help, the Queen’s Speech in mid-June introduced a new requirement for petrol stations and motorway services to install electric charge points under the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill. This is part of the Government’s strategy to increase the number of electric vehicles on UK roads.

Pillar 3 – Energy-efficiency

The third pillar, energy-efficiency, is being boosted by significant reductions in energy consumption – based on current usage patterns – driven by better lighting, better appliances and better insulation.

Legislation, building and consumer regulations should be used more aggressively to encourage this. For example, it is a complete travesty that halogen down-lighters can still be fitted in new kitchens by qualified electricians, when the LED equivalent is 4W compared to 50W for halogen.

This is madness. A kitchen is likely to have between 6 and 12 lights. LED bulbs last 10 times longer and cost (only) twice as much. Consumer regulation should turn this sorry tale into a historical one.

Consider buildings. We now understand thermodynamics and building design well enough to construct new, and retro-fit old, buildings to standards allowing our heating supply to be electrified. For example, if you build yourself a ‘PassiveHaus’ dwelling, the heat generated by your laptop could be the only heat you need to get you through the winter – amazing.

Pillar 4 – Demand-management

Demand-management (DM) will play a crucial role in the transitioned energy world.

We’re all aware of the football world cup half-time electricity demand spike driven by millions of kettles being switched on simultaneously. A nation’s total supply capacity shouldn’t be dictated by something as simple to manage as this.

DM principles can be applied across domestic and industrial sectors. When applied thoroughly to smooth our demand profile, they can reduce peak daily energy demand by around 33%.

The half time spike can be mitigated by giving consumers instantaneous electricity price information. Local and grid level storage, plus local generation sources, help too. More diversity in future energy supply options – as explained in Pillar 2 – will spread peaks across different technologies.

Pillar 5 – Interconnectors

International energy interconnectors play a role in supply-demand stability.

The larger the network from which supply and demand are drawn (say across Europe), the greater the number of renewable resources that can be tapped into at any particular point on any particular day. Thus, the smoother the demand profile.

Interconnectors also provide greater grid stability and transmission redundancy in the case of faults.

Pillar 6 – Storage

Our sixth pillar, energy storage, is still a Cinderella. But major developments are afoot.

When local, community, regional and national-level storage becomes really cheap, it will disrupt the whole energy and sustainable energy equation. The UK currently has an intellectual property lead.

Energy storage could be important in removing any need for a base-load provided by a new generation of nuclear power – a flywheel in effect. Nuclear plays no part in my energy vision!

UK Power Networks has completed a trial involving a giant battery of sufficient capacity to supply an entire town’s energy for several hours a day. Tidal lagoon schemes linked to energy storage could become a base-load equivalent.

The Renewable Energy Association estimates that the UK has some 453MW of new, mainly battery-based, storage capacity planned or in development.

Cold storage

However, battery storage technology is not the only game in town, although Government subsidy cuts are hampering R and D.

Highview Power Storage is developing a 5MW/15MWh low-pressure liquid air energy storage plant near Manchester that freezes air at -1960C using off-peak spare electricity.

To reverse the process, air pumped at high pressure, heated and evaporated expands 700 times to drive a turbine. The concept has been likened to an air equivalent of hydroelectric water energy storage, but with no environmental downsides. The process can also use industrial waste heat.

Whereas cryogenic storage is easily scalable and offers longer duration energy supplies, batteries turned on and off in milliseconds provide responsiveness.

Energy storage is the next innovation frontier. Fund and incentivise this properly and these solutions will be grid-scale within a decade.

In Conclusion

A 100% UK renewable electricity grid is quite feasible today. However, steady market pressure is vital to build it. This must be driven by a vision based on existing technology but rolled out at scale.

Satisfying our heat demands is not so easy. More investment in less-exciting refurbishment work will be needed to get us to zero carbon.

Encouraging a highly skilled engineering workforce is every bit as important as incentivising projects if we are to steadily build scale.

The government needs to set aside politics here and leave the transformation to the experts. Playing politics with energy price caps, for example, does no-one any good in the long-term.

Crack this and the UK could be ready to offer a real global low-carbon lead. Our reward will be economic gains, green jobs, public health benefits – and moral satisfaction.

The missing ingredients are a vision and a commitment to deliver that vision.