How to fix the UK's renewables strategy

Posted by bex — 3 October 2008 at 10:18am - Comments


Given that we have the best renewable resources in the European Union, the fact that Britain languishes near the bottom of the European renewables league table is pretty humiliating.

On Monday though, the International Energy Agency added insult to injury. Britain's renewables strategy, it said, is 'ineffective' and 'very expensive'. The agency's new report (published here, but you have to pay) ranks Britain 31st out of 35 countries - "including all the major industrial nations such as the US, Germany and China" - in its green energy cost league. And our 'renewables effectiveness', it says, is a paltry three per cent.

If the Labour government's renewables policy is such an incoherent, self-contradictory mess, what can be done to fix it?

Well, I am not a policy wonk, but I know a few people who are. They've put together a submission to the government's renewable energy strategy consultation which outlines exactly how Greenpeace thinks the government can transform its policy - and the UK's energy sector - into the visionary, world-leading entity it should be.

The nub of the argument is this: the government is fiddling around at the edges, and we need a total energy revolution.

At the moment, policy makers tend to take a piecemeal, simplistic and, frankly, visionless approach to energy. Need security of supply? Build more generating plants, and make sure we secure more fossil fuels. The National Grid completely unfit for purpose? Hope market mechanisms will sort it out. Need to meet some renewables obligation? Slap some renewables projects on top of an energy system that is fundamentally hostile to renewables.

It doesn't take a genius to realise it's not working. Energy emissions and prices are rising. The low-carbon technologies (like renewables and combined heat and power) that can reduce emissions and enhance security of supply just aren't being deployed in any significant way.

If we want to turn the occasional good news renewables story - like this week's news that the world's largest tidal-powered energy farm could be built in British waters - into a coherent, low carbon energy system, the government needs to end its love affair with nuclear and coal, take a more sophisticated approach, and then take some pretty big and decisive steps.

Our energy system is designed to deliver bulk quantities of energy or fuel across the country. And I'm not just talking about the physical part of the system, the infrustructure. Regulatory standards, market mechanisms, technical standards and several other factors have all evolved to support a large scale, fossil fuel-based system. (A system that's so inefficient, by the way, that by the time you're watching TV, nearly 80 per cent of the usable energy inside the fossil fuels powering your TV has been lost.)

The low-carbon technologies out there don't tend to fit these characteristics. Some of them are small-scale, some don't use fuel, others may operate intermittently. These technologies - and the companies pioneering them - have to operate in a system which is actively hostile to their use.

The government itself recognises this - but it seems completely unable to work out what policy changes are needed, or how to make them effective. So here are our suggestions:

  • Give low carbon projects priority access to the grid. Several European countries already do this but the UK has a crazy system where, at times, fully working wind farms are turned off because a fossil fuel plant has priority access to the grid.

  • Reassess the role of Ofgem. At the moment, Ofgem can build whatever market and regulatory arrangements (with however little strategic vision) it likes, condemning new technologies to failure. Whoever regulates the energy sector needs to have a specific remit to create a shift to a sustainable energy system.

  • Give investors a degree of certainty and confidence about their investments in new low carbon technologies through the necessary framework.

  • Make sure we consume less. Do far more to reduce demand than just create voluntary schemes for which no one volunteers. Introduce legal minimum efficiency standards on energy consuming products (including buildings and cars) as Japan has done.

  • Use UK companies to manufacture the parts and technologies. This would mean we could get parts more quickly, more easily and with more benefit to the UK economy. Then, like Germany, we could export our industry expertise.

  • Promote a viable and sustainable biomass industry using combined heat and power.

  • Above all, engender an intellectual shift among policy makers to take a broader, longer-term, more integrated approach to energy systems.

If you're a closet policy wonk, have a read of the document. If you're more interested in how the energy system would work, check out EfficienCity. And then find out what you can do to change our government's energy policy.

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