8 ideas for how the UK can keep the lights on without trashing the planet

Posted by Richard Casson — 24 November 2015 at 7:36pm - Comments

With the UK set to wean itself off coal power over the next decade, what will take its place to keep the lights on?

Last year coal provided about 29% of UK electricity, so the government needs to make sure plans are in place for when coal plants start to close.

Here are 8 steps the government could take next to make sure the gap left by coal is filled, while rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions and without the need for new nuclear plants too.

1. Plug the leaks

Did you know that UK homes are the least energy-efficient in Europe? We're wasting so much energy that we're borderline leaking at the seams. More than 7.4m homes remain without proper ceiling insulation. 5.4m homes have not had their cavity walls filled. Government schemes to encourage energy efficiency would not only be a sensible plan for reducing the amount of energy needed in the first place, it could also help lower consumer bills.

2. Small = beautiful

For several decades the way we've produced electricity has been to rely on a small number of large power stations producing huge volumes of power - which is then pumped around the country through pylons. The problem with this is that big and inefficient power stations, coupled with a wasteful network of pylons for transmitting it, means 54% of the energy we use in producing that power is lost before it arrives at homes and businesses. Smaller, more-efficient power stations - or local renewables like River Lune Hydro pictured above - transmit electricity over a much smaller distance, meaning less power is lost. It's schemes like this that the government should now back.

3. Don't switch off solar and wind

There was a time when it was said that solar power would never work in cloudy countries. Not any more. On one sunny day in 2014, Germany generated a record 50% of its energy from solar. China is racing ahead as well. But instead of backing solar power, the UK plans to cut support to the industry. Support for onshore wind power - the UK's cheapest form of energy - is being axed too. With coal now on its way out, the government needs a drastic rethink on these cuts.

4. Remember our oceans

We're an island nation surrounded by the sea and it's an energy source we've barely started to tap into. Tidal projects, like Swansea Bay tidal lagoon, would not only create jobs and strengthen local economies, they'd provide a dependable source of energy too.

5. Share with our neighbours

In 2011, Greenpeace research showed that a European supergrid (connecting electricity grids from country to country) is both technically and economically possible. If set up, such a system would mean that if the wind wasn’t blowing and the sun wasn’t shining in the UK, we could transmit power in from other countries -- and vice versa if we had a surplus of energy here. The research also showed that Europe could cope with the extreme weather events (such as huge anticyclones) but keep the lights on. And in a similar vein, Iceland has vast amounts of power from its geothermal and hydroelectric plants. The UK and Icelandic governments are considering a power cable linking both countries -- a project that Greenpeace supports, so long as environmental concerns around increased Icelandic geothermal and hydroelectric are addressed. It’s estimated that if construction of the powerline were to be begin now it could be transferring power to the UK within 4 years.

6. Back battery storage

Though not a solution to the intermittency of renewable energy on their own, batteries have a role to play in solving this problem. Tesla's powerwall - a battery that can be installed in homes and is no bigger than a domestic gas boiler - has already sold out and it hasn't even officially launched yet. Elon Musk, Tesla's CEO who also just happens to be the founder of Paypal, said his company's goal is to "fundamentally change the way the world uses energy."

7. Get smart

Fridges-freezers have become more and more efficient over the years, but still remain one of the most energy-hungry home appliances. Smart fridge-freezers, however, can help reduce power demand further by turning themselves down at peak energy times (roughly 6PM when people are home from work and start turning on power hungry kettles and TVs) with no impact on the food inside. If rolled out on a large scale, ‘smart’ home appliances could cut the number of power stations needed to meet those needs, and help with other times when supply is low.

8. For now we need SOME gas, but we DON'T need fracked gas

Ideally we’d be able to turn off all fossil fuels tomorrow, but in reality we need to gradually phase them out over the coming few decades. Any fossil fuels we burn should be done so as efficiently as possible, so instead of building huge, wasteful power stations, a better investment would be combined heat and power (CHP) plants -- which, for example, could run on gas from existing secure supplies and supplementing them with green gas from things like food waste (so without the need for fracked gas).

And last but not least... this graph

Unlike the other points above, this isn't a suggestion for government policies, but it's important to point out nonetheless. The graph above shows how energy usage in the UK has fallen in recent years - at the same time, the economy has still grown. This trend looks set to continue, so while we do need to plug the gap that'll be left by coal power plants as they're phased out over the next decade, the gap will get smaller still. With good planning, and the right investment in the ideas above, we can keep the lights on and run the country largely on renewables.

In depth: Research shows UK can run almost entirely on renewable energy by 2030

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