Renewables’ place in UK energy future uncertain

Renewables’ place in UK energy future uncertain
Ignoring renewable electricity as a replacement for coal could create ‘real risks’ for the future, the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association (ADBA) said today (18 November), after Energy Secretary Amber Rudd suggested that renewable subsidies could continue to fall.

Speaking this morning at the Institution of Civil Engineers, Rudd set out the future of the UK’s energy supply, declaring that more gas-fired power stations will be built to prepare for the complete closure of coal-powered stations by 2025.

A consultation will be launched in the new year regarding the wind-down of coal as a power source, which will suggest 2025 as the end date for the use of power stations, and the implementation of restrictions in 2023.

Rudd said: “Perversely, even with the huge growth in renewables, our dependence on coal – the dirtiest fossil fuel – hasn’t been reduced. Indeed a higher proportion of our electricity came from coal in 2014 than in 1999. So despite intervention we still haven’t found the right balance.”

Rudd also declared that nuclear power would play a central role in the UK’s energy future, stating that it is “imperative” that more than one nuclear power station is built. Plans are afoot for nuclear stations at Wylfa and Moorside, as well as Hinkley Point C.

She said: “Opponents of nuclear misread the science. It is safe and reliable. The challenge, as with other low-carbon technologies, is to deliver nuclear power which is low cost as well. Green energy must be cheap energy.

Rudd briefly referred to a “huge growth in renewables”, but said that investment in new technology depended on its “cost-competitiveness”, claiming that consumers have been overpaying for renewable energy.

Former US Vice President Al Gore, now a campaigner against climate change, said that the decision to move away from coal power set an “excellent and inspiring precedent” ahead of the Paris COP21 forum in December. He said: “I am hopeful that others will follow suit as we repower the global economy with the clean energy we need for a sustainable future.”

Ignoring renewables would present ‘real risk’

Though bodies from the energy and renewable energy industries have welcomed the move away from coal as a primary energy source, the emphasis on nuclear and gas energy as its replacement has led to criticism.

Simon Bullock, Senior Energy Campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: “Switching from coal to gas is like an alcoholic switching from two bottles of whisky a day to two bottles of port.”

With cuts in subsidies being announced earlier this year, ADBA warned that ignoring renewable growth would create “real risks”. ADBA has previously stated that reducing feed-in tariff subsidies would seriously damage the sector, while estimating that removing the climate change levy exemption on renewable electricity sources would cost it £11 million a year.

Responding to Rudd’s announcement, ADBA’s Chief Executive, Charlotte Morton, commented: “There’s often an assumption that the choice facing our country is one between supporting renewable electricity or non-renewable gas stations. 

“Baseload gas from anaerobic digestion (AD) is a cost-effective, green solution to the government’s energy security concerns that could match the capacity from coal-fired power – meeting either 30 per cent of UK domestic gas or electricity demand. But much more than that – AD improves: farming resilience; food security; and employment and investment opportunities for rural economies.   

“Ignoring the benefits of supporting renewable electricity growth now creates real risks, however. AD can deliver the same, vital baseload electrical capacity as new nuclear, but cheaper and faster than Hinkley Point C. Just as with new nuclear, however, for AD to achieve this feat it will require support for industry to scale and deliver this potential – we would therefore urge the Energy Secretary to re-consider the ill-advised proposals to severely limit future development under the Feed-in Tariff.”

Juliet Davenport, Chief Executive of renewable energy company Good Energy, added: “While we welcome the phasing out of coal, the government needs to be much braver in its energy policy. A commitment to gas raises questions over our legally binding decarbonisation targets by locking us into more long-term reliance on fossil fuels.

“I’d challenge the government to offer a truly level playing field for all technologies. Before the government changed the policy goalposts, onshore wind and solar were on track to be the cheapest sources of UK power with the potential to be subsidy-free by 2020. The government’s apparent preferred options of nuclear and gas, and an old fashioned grid are not cheap and will not be subsidy free for decades.

“The government wants to be a world leader but the truth is, the UK will get left behind other countries like the United States and China if it doesn’t continue to modernise the grid, and support renewable technology which is low carbon, low cost and highly popular with the British public.”

Action on decarbonisation praised

Other groups have praised the decision to move away from coal and the clear action on decarbonisation goals.

Matthew Spencer, Director of Green Alliance, said: “The UK was the first to use coal to power its industrial revolution and will now be the first major economy to escape its clutches.  Kicking the coal habit is the biggest thing any government can do to lower carbon pollution, and if we can inspire others to follow our lead we will have made a huge contribution to preventing dangerous climate change.”

Meanwhile, Claire Jakobsson, Head of Energy & Environment Policy at EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, said: “Today’s speech marked a turning point for the UK’s energy strategy. At long last we are seeing a government addressing security of supply concern in line with decarbonisation goals.

“The government has placed a clear marker in the sand with its announcement to end unabated coal by 2025 and given investors a clear signal to move forward with plans for new gas. Our dwindling capacity margin demonstrates the need to urgently bring forward investment in new gas plants and all eyes will be on this year’s capacity auction to see if it delivers.

“While today’s announcements are reassuring for British industry, they must now be met with action. The consultations next spring may give greater clarity on much of the detail of delivery, but we must move forward quickly. We cannot afford more decades of delay impacting security of supply, risking international competitiveness and, ultimately, costing the consumer.”

More information about Rudd’s announcement is available at the website of the Department of Energy & Climate Change.