The environmental and economic benefits of renewable energy

There are three commonly held misperceptions of renewable energy: that the available resource is too small to be useful; that its inherently variable nature is too difficult to manage; and that it is too costly to develop. A slew of recent reports, profiled at a conference organised on Friday by the UK Energy Research Centre, challenge these myths fundamentally.

This week saw the publication of The Offshore Valuation, a major new study supported by a broad consortium of government and industry bodies and coordinated by the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC), an independent think tank for which I work. It is the first report to attempt a full economic valuation of the UK’s offshore renewable energy resource.

Renewable-energiesIts findings have been startling: by developing less than a third of the practical wind, wave and tidal resource around the British Isles, we could become a net electricity exporter, generating by 2050 the electricity equivalent of 1 billion barrels of oil per year. Doing so could bring multiple benefits to the UK: £31 billion of revenues from electricity exports to Europe, 145,000 green jobs, and insurance against fossil fuel price volatility.

Other recent reports compound the evidence that, far from being too small a resource to be useful, renewable energy potential is in fact vast. PriceWaterhouseCoopers published in April a scenario for a 100 per cent renewable energy system covering all of Europe, in order “to show that we can be ambitious in our vision”.

Mark Delucchi of Stanford University, speaking at Friday’s conference, presented findings from a recent study that found that:

A large-scale wind, water, and solar energy system can reliably supply all of the world’s energy needs, with significant benefit to climate, air quality, water quality, ecological systems, and energy security, at reasonable cost.”

There may be plenty of wind, wave, tidal and solar energy available – but surely, say detractors, it is simply too variable to be useful: ‘but the wind only blows a third of the time…’; in fact, overcoming renewable variability is a well-understood engineering challenge to which many solutions exist. Various speakers at the conference discussed prospects for a European supergrid, which would go quite some way towards addressing the problems of variable supply.

For example, a low-pressure weather system over Britain, causing wind power output to drop, could be buffered against by importing power from Spanish solar arrays or Norwegian hydro stations. Far from being a pipe dream, this is something that governments are already actively working to build: the new Coalition agreement pledges to “deliver an offshore electricity grid in order to support the development of a new generation of offshore wind power”.

Finally, there is the cost of renewable energy. Clearly, transforming our energy systems from predominantly fossil sources to predominantly renewable ones will require very large upfront costs. But these costs are in fact sound investments which pay back over the lifetime of the installed infrastructure. Furthermore, a new report commissioned by the European Climate Foundation finds that there is very little difference in cost between having a 40 per cent renewable electricity system and an 80 per cent renewable electricity system.

This is hugely significant – effectively meaning that the choice between different energy system outcomes need not be made on the basis of cost differences, but rather on grounds of public acceptability, energy security, job creation and so on. Existing legislation and planning consents mean that we are already on the way to having a 40 per cent renewable electricity system across the EU by the early 2020s. The question is: when will we make the decision to go all-out, and commit ourselves to a fully renewable future?

These new reports show the potential for renewable – the huge size of the potential resource, the opportunities to manage variability challenges, the benefits of a renewable energy system. For these prospects to become reality requires action not in 2050, but now: action to strengthen our 2020 renewable targets and extend them out to 2050, action to catalyse finance for the upfront investment needed, action to develop a European supergrid. Let us hope that the new Government is up to that challenge.

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  • Greg Lovell

    Will this get the vital investment needed? RT @leftfootfwd: The environmental and economic benefits of renewable energy

  • B Latif

    1 of the areas Labour failed to implement
    RT @leftfootfwd: The environmental and economic benefits of renewable energy:

  • Life Size Media

    RT @leftfootfwd: The environmental and economic benefits of renewable energy:

  • Lord Pont

    if it was truly cost effective it would be being done already. coal is generally too cheap. onshore wind is coming close to competitive for gas.

    if they made a carbon tax to make some of these renewables cost effective then you could save a lot of money by sacking all the people that keep writing these boring reports on what we ‘could do’ and we could actually go and do it

    UK could be energy self sufficient from offshore wind alone (I can’t imagine even Christopher Booker’s views will be ruined by off-shore wind)

  • Guy Shrubsole

    I've done a new blog on the bright prospects for renewable energy:

  • Fat Bloke on Tour

    The potential for renewable energy is, as you say enormous. The only thing holding it back is the imagination of its proponents and the industry of its detractors.

    Nuclear as it is currently organised is a pork-fest of huge proportions with high wages and profits to those on the inside and high costs and uncertainty to those of the outside who will have to pay the bills.

    The size of the profits can be guaged from the intensity with which its boosters push their arguments.

    Regarding the future of renewables, the whole issue is based on the costs of the alternatives including the fuel. At an EU level what is the energy trade balance, how much does the EU need to export to pay for its fuel imports?

    Renewables have high capital costs and low fuel / running costs.
    Traditional fuels have lower capital costs but higher running costs which for the UK involves imports or using up scarce resources that we would be better off leaving in the ground for more specific uses later.

    You can add the “Dash for Gas” to Maggies list of policy failures where she sold the country down the river for short term political fixes.

    All the pieces are falling into place for renewable energy:

    1) Lower the capital cost, not a mature technology so there is great potential to lower the costs. £1mill per 1MW installed is too high.

    2) Electric cars are part of the solution, renewable electricity is difficult to store in bulk. 5 million electric cars in 2020 will help out as they use and store all the excess power generated overnight.

    3) Move to the hydrogen economy is the next step, store excess renewable electricity as hydrogen and use in gas turbines to meet peak electricity demand.

    4) Don’t be afraid of using locally sourced coal to help out with the base load.

    5) Tidal, Hydro and Pumped storage are other big players, don’t be afraid to upset the lentil eating middle classes to make improvements.

    6) Nuclear has a place, but only as a proven technology developed by others.

    The UK Nuclear Power Industrial complex is only interested in fat contracts re-inventing the wheel with a Union Jack on it. Jobs for the middle class engineering fraternity is all they are about. Much better to drive innovation in new areas with new people than re-float all the old and failed nuclear ideas that have been dormant for 30 years.

    Regarding current politics, a lot of this will happen no matter who is in power. The economics of oil at $100 will make it happen. Main issue is to keep alive the Mandy Industrial policy of using government money to force through the changes and investment.

    The Labour Party has to show what it can offer and how that will be different from the emerging Coalition right wing upper middle class orthodoxy. We should not be afraid to get our hands dirty, we need to stop endlessly discussing great ideas when good ones are staring us in the face ready to go.

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  • LeftistThinker

    Yeah, we need to introduce a carbon tax so we don’t have to pay so much for imported fuel. This will create lots of jobs, and as we’re saving the money for the imported fuel, we can become wealthier without growing the economy, because economic growth is unsustainable.

  • Caleb Green

    Renewable energy is the future, why depend on fossil fuels when we can go renewable.;':