By Ingrid Wadman
On the 25th May, Low Carbon South West hosted a panel discussion in partnership with Smith & Williamson on potential UK energy policy to support a secure supply of low carbon energy. Amid current Brexit negotiations and the recent Metro Mayoral election, the panel discussion was intended to debate what energy industries will need from the next government, forming after the snap election. The panel consisted of expert speakers representing each of the major low carbon energy sectors; wind, solar, tidal, nuclear and waste-to-energy.
The event was the first in a short series hosted by Low Carbon South West in partnership with Smith & Williamson on issues affecting low carbon industries. Hosted by Dave Mouncey from Smith & Williamson, the evening started with short summaries by the panel members of their energy sector’s recent developments and was followed by an interesting Q&A section.
Andrew Garrad CBE, co-founder of the Garrad Hassan Group, the world’s largest renewable energy consultancy, represented the wind sector. Andrew’s main message was clear; “We need to look at the good things that have been achieved”. Recent technology innovation has spurred a confidence that a shift to renewable energy is inevitable. 15 years ago, renewable energy amounted to 3% of the UK energy mix and last year, renewables constituted 25% of the mix, which is a good example of how quickly things can change. 80% of the new capacity in the EU is renewable and globally, the figure is 50%. The international situation for renewable energy looks optimistic with China and India making large investments but in the UK, UKIP has dictated the government’s energy policy, which has affected small scale wind and solar power in particular. Yet, as wind turbines have become larger, the cost per MW has decreased and wind power is now regarded as a profitable commodity. Onshore wind power is still the cheapest option but the cost for offshore wind has decreased by 50% as the turbines became larger and the UK is currently the world leader in offshore wind, although soon to be overtaken by Germany. Andrew concluded with the aspiration to see wind power develop in the South West of England, especially in Cornwall which could become 100% powered by renewable energy. Countries now realise that they can have a North Sea oil field on their doorstep.
Professor Tom Scott from NuclearSW, director of the South West Nuclear Hub and professor in Materials at the University of Bristol represented the nuclear energy sector. Tom emphasised that the government has not developed a proper energy policy and lacks a strategy for nuclear energy. This lack of decision-making has been destructive in attracting new investments. Tom argued that it would be beneficial for the UK to have a diverse energy portfolio where nuclear energy can contribute. Furthermore, nuclear technology know-how can provide a valuable export commodity. Nuclear power should be considered as “electricity + 1” as it provides valuable by-products such as isotopes for use in healthcare and high quality chemicals such as styrene. The Hinkley power plant will contribute to 7% of the UK’s energy, but small scale reactors would be more efficient and safer and there is a development towards small portable factory-produced reactors. Lastly, Tom expressed excitement around the future of fusion technology which might see its first power plant opened in France in 2030 and in the UK in 2040.
Steve Edwards, Head of Demand Side Response and Flex for Marble Power and previous Operations and Strategy Director at British Solar Renewables, represented the solar sector. To integrate intermittent renewable energy onto the grid, short-term and long-term balancing services are important as these services make sure that there is always enough electricity on the grid for it to be balanced and the industry of balancing services has now become more profitable than the wholesale electricity market. Solar power will only continue to grow since it is the cheapest renewable energy and can provide serious savings. Many large companies such as Tesco, Unilever and Sainsbury’s are committed to cut their carbon consumption to zero and they will most likely export that ambition internationally.
Alan Dennis, Associate and lead structural engineer for Swansea Tidal Bay at Arup, represented the tidal sector. The tidal sector is not yet commercially viable. There are two types of tidal energy; tidal stream and tidal range. In the UK, the tidal energy is still at the start of the journey with a lot of new projects being launched. One such project is located in Swansea and is helping to develop the local economy. Tidal stream is still behind tidal range in the development and the technology needs to develop through the R&D process to cut the cost per MW before it can compete with established industries. Since the technology has developed rapidly, investment models need to be updated to align to the longer life-time of the technology and it is crucial that tidal energy receives funding from the government to enable new projects to come off the ground.
Lastly, Nick Palmer, Director at DPS Global and modular and scalable waste-to- energy specialist talked about waste-to-energy. Similar to nuclear power, waste-to-energy can be viewed as “energy + 1” since it is a way to extract extra value from waste. Through the waste-to-energy process, reusable materials can be collected and sold such as calcium carbonate and small scale waste-to-energy businesses can thereby provide a benefit to the local community. Another area in which waste-to-energy programs can be useful is in managing the waste accumulated by hospitals as they currently pay large sums of money to get rid of the waste. Nick also mentioned other ways to extract value from waste through landfill mining of metals and by using a waste-ship to pick up waste from the ocean.
In conclusion, the panel was concerned that the Government’s 2050 greenhouse gas emission target only considers emissions from energy, which is not the only source of emissions. To reach the target, the panel argued that the most important steps are to develop the industry for renewables, to support a shift to electric cars, increase the use of PV and to reduce the demand for energy. The renewable energy industry is developing fast in the UK and globally and although a lot of effort is needed to achieve the Paris Agreement, we should remember how quickly this transformation has occurred.