Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Renewable Energy: Countdown to 2020

Thanks to the lovely people at the UK Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC), I was able to attend the Energy Institute's conference yesterday, reviewing the prospects for a renewable energy revolution in the coming decade.  My thanks also to the organisers and sponsors for a very professional and informative event.

So what are the prospects?  On balance, the speakers expressed significant doubts as to whether we will achieve the UK's target of 15% renewable energy by 2020. They made clear what the obstacles are.  Broadly, these boil down to four key areas:

  1. Complex and uncertain policies and regulatory environment.
  2. Access to the National Grid.
  3. Planning and Consent.
  4. Lack of investment due to uncompetitive returns.
The first speaker was our Minster of State for Energy, Charles Hendry, MP.  He enthused about Britain's renewable energy prospects and promised comprehensive reform of the electricity industry, including a floor price for carbon emissions, emissions performance standards (EPS), upgraded grid "interconnects" between regions and a roadmap to meet our renewables targets, all within 6 months.  Under questioning, he was unflappable but made no commitments - particularly in response to my enquiry about the level of the EPS, which he said would be decided by consultation, at a level to encourage investment in new coal and gas.  Knowing that new unabated coal power stations will be a call to arms for climate change campaigners, I am deeply concerned about the Minister's response.

Subsequent speakers exposed the holes in the current financial and regulatory frameworks.  Gemma Grimes described this as "policy soup", making investment unattractive because of the risks and uncertainty of making acceptable returns.  Most disturbing, one eloquent speaker complained that, of all our government departments, it is the Treasury that simply doesn't "get" renewable energy and the need to decarbonise our economy.  Their incomprehension is perhaps the greatest risk to our country's low carbon future.   

The shining star of the conference was Alastair Dutton from the Crown Estate, promoting massive scaling up of our offshore wind power capacity.  They are now licensing 9 "zones" in British territorial waters, where collectives of partners with different strengths will be able to establish offshore wind farms that will triple our offshore wind capacity.

The Cassandra, surprisingly, was a large-scale investor, managing £500M of pension funds.  He told us plainly that the funds needed to meet our renewable energy targets will not be available.  

I asked the panel to comment on the sustainability of liquid biofuels, used in all our transport fuels but also planned as fuel for two new power stations being developed by W4B-UK.  We were privileged to have the CEO of the Renewable Fuels Agency, Nick Goodall, to shine a spotlight on bioliquids and their carbon reduction and sustainability credentials.  A real expert in getting the details across, Nick made clear that, due to the RTFO, transport is the only area of our 2020 renewables targets that we are on track to meet.  "But not at any price", he said.   His agency's target is for 80% of biofuel to be sourced against meaningful sustainability standards: the industry's current performance is a meagre 33%.  Of the 3 billion litres of biofuel that have been burnt in Britain's fuel tanks from 2008 to date, over 250 million litres were palm oil.  Nick told me afterwards that this is just 3% of the country's consumption of palm oil and he asked wryly when Greenpeace is going to go after lipstick.  

It seems to me that the palm oil industry has aligned itself with campaigners this year, in acknowledging that production methods are unsustainable and threatening tropical biodiversity.  Is this a tactic to buy them a little more time?  My fear is that, by the time the industry implements the sustainable production standards and traceable sourcing that it now claims to want, there won't be any remaining habitat for orang-utans and all the other species clinging to life in the threatened rainforests and peatlands of Borneo and Sumatra.

In conclusion, as noted by a lawyer specialising in renewable energy finance, the low carbon economy can only be delivered by government.  My feeling is that there is a critical role for citizens and campaigners to call for decisive leadership from our government to decarbonise Britain's economy - and to make their voices heard above the siren calls for less capital-intensive fossil fuel energy capacity (that's unabated coal and gas) and more attractive returns for investors looking for 12% annual growth (nice if you can get it).

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