Renewables are the future: get on board, or get out of the way

Over the last year renewables have been breaking records.

Over the last year renewables have been breaking records

Earlier this week something amazing happened. Wind power overtook nuclear as the third largest source of electricity on the UK grid, keeping the lights on as gas power stations caught fire, and atomic ones developed cracks in their boilers.

This was not a freak event. Over the last year renewables have been breaking records with monotonous regularity. In the second quarter of 2014 renewables contributed 17 per cent of national electricity demand. In fact if you close your eyes and listen carefully on any windy or sunny day you can almost hear the last creaks of the 20th century electricity system as it starts to fall apart.

Part of the reason is simply economics. Decentralised renewable energy means new winners and losers. Solar and wind can eat into peak power demand, reducing profits for traditional generators.  In the domestic arena rooftop solar in the UK is rapidly approaching grid parity, the point where, unsupported, it is as cheap to generate your own electricity as to buy it from the grid.

This is a level of competition the utilities have not had to deal with before. The effects in Germany are already profound with RWE recently announcing that it has got into renewables far too late, possibly too late to survive. In the US the entire utility sector was recently downgraded by Barclays bank because of the disruptive effect of rooftop solar.

Ownership is changing too. In Germany just 5 per cent of renewable electricity is owned by the ‘Big Four’ utilities, with individuals, communities and independent generators taking the largest share. The same is starting to happen in the UK, just several steps behind.

The utilities and the fossil fuel companies are uncomfortable with all this of course. In response we have had years of scare stories. Renewables will never power a light bulb. Renewables are unreliable and will destroy the grid. Renewable are expensive.

Each and every one is being proven wrong. Wind and big solar are already cheaper than new nuclear power in the UK, and by 2020 big solar could be cheaper than gas. Offshore wind could be competitive with nuclear early in the next decade, and bring huge benefits in terms of energy security, jobs and manufacturing.

As for reliability, Germany has the most reliable grid in Europe, and the most advanced renewable energy economy.

Yet while those with vested interests may fret about the rise of renewables and the decentralised grid, for the rest of us it should be something to look forward to. Rapid growth, combined with grid upgrades and new storage technologies are bringing the possibility of a truly renewable electricity system within our grasp.

And what an achievement that would be. Energy security, jobs and carbon reduction. All in one. And since the sun and the wind will remain free as the technology to harness them improves, the potential for cost reduction is almost limitless. The countries which grasp this the quickest will be the winners in the 21st century, just as those who first piled into coal and steam were in the past.

Ed Miliband has already declared his support for a 2030 decarbonisation target. That will come through renewables. The challenge for politicians on both the left and right is to understand that this will change the system as we know it.

But that vision of change can be a positive one. Rather than constantly fretting about the fate of the big utilities, or designing complex markets to keep coal power stations going, we should be blazing a trail for renewable energy – showing our ambition for solar and wind, upgrading the grid, developing interconnectors with our neighbours and investing in research and developing.

Above all we should be putting power into the hands of our citizens: power for farmers, for ordinary people. On schools, on hospitals, on businesses. We should be championing community and decentralised renewables.

The Labour Party has already indicated it will support schools by allowing them to access finance to install solar, a key ask of Friends of the Earth’s Run on Sun campaign, but there is much more to do.

No one knows exactly what the future will look like. We are moving from a fixed hierarchy to an internet of energy, where power flows more than one way, and we can all take part. It’s already happening, and fast.

That’s surely something to be excited about. Politicians need to get on board, and be force for change, rather than a barrier.

Alasdair Cameron is a renewable energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth

17 Responses to “Renewables are the future: get on board, or get out of the way”

  1. swat

    If renewables are the future then each house had better have an emergency generator as back up. We actually need a mixed energy policy which includes nuclear.

  2. Newgen Wind Turbines

    Sadly swat, you are wrong. If you read the article you would realise this. Unfortunately as they say, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink…”

  3. The_Average_Joe_UK

    This article is utter sh…

  4. JoeDM

    A total waste of money !!!!

  5. Guest

    Yea, the poor don’t need power after all, you can stick with a few old coal fired stations and use “smart” meters to cut the poor off.

    You’ve also opposed nuclear, etc. and every other answer.

  6. Guest

    True, the poor won’t be able to afford it and your smart meters won’t allow it anyway. That you demand the poor be left in the cold and dark, as you talk about the poisoned well…

  7. Guest

    What a surprise, The_Far_Right_UKIP_Screamer is telling people what is and isn’t allowable to talk about again!

    Never mind the facts of the matter, nope, no discussion.

  8. Leon Wolfeson

    “Wind and big solar are already cheaper than new nuclear power in the UK”

    You’ve managed to inflate nuclear costs, while the reality is that you’re using 1.0 for capacity factor and ignoring the need for base-load power. I hear of those plans to import nuclear energy from France to keep the lights on, btw, hope you’re happy with that!

    We know exactly what things will look like in your future – “smart” meters to cut the poor’s power off, as the grid costs get pushed onto the poor rather than paid by people connecting up generators. Your argument for only powering certain areas, for just having power for schools, hospitals and high-end business…

  9. The_Average_Joe_UK

    Lying twat can’t help himself..

  10. Tom

    Where is your evidence that Smart meters will cut power to the poor? It would presumably take a temporary increase in bills to finance the necessary infrastructure; which is, after all, the way the rest of the grid is financed.

    As for your nuclear shilling – if your going to include the capacity factors in prices, then you also ought to include at least the cost of large-scale back-up for nuclear plants, for when they trip off unexpectedly, or come offline for maintenance.

  11. Leon Wolfeson

    That’s the entire point of smart meters – to allow selective cuts in power to people.

    And you accuse me of shilling of not wanting major, permanent bill rises on the poor, as you ignore 85% capacity factors for modern nuclear power plants.

  12. Guest

    I’m sure you can’t, thanks for talking about yourself as usual, Dave/LB.

  13. Tom

    No it’s not – it’s to allow certain devices to be turned off/down to manage peaks in demand. The normal example is a fridge – something not exactly limited to poor people. There is no suggestion that all electricity to a household will be cut. You’re just making stuff up.

    As for nuclear – you must be aware that it is many times more expensive than current electricity prices – which therefore requires a permanent rise in costs. So I really don’t see why you keep trying to apply that argument selectively to renewables. Happily, however, the overall social cost of energy will probably come down, as we avoid the health/infrastructure costs of pollution and climate change. The challenge for a genuine socialist is to ensure that these savings are fairly distributed, rather than try to prevent them in the first place.

    As for gas backup – my point is that you can’t selectively try to add grid costs for one technology only. You either compare the cost of electricity delivered to the grid, or you undertake a systemic analysis. You’re trying to make nuclear seem cheaper by ignoring the costs of accommodating it into the system.

  14. Leon Wolfeson

    There is no way for smart meters to control devices. They can be used to remotely shut off households, period. The “case” for that is that it will allow disconnection without the need for a home visit, but the capacity is right there and it’s absolutely critical to “managing” demand when there’s insufficient supply in the no-baseline model.

    You are being deliberately dishonest as to your policy here, as you make up nonsense about the price of nuclear power. You are lying through your teeth, ignoring basic issues like Wind’s dis-economies of scale (the best sites get taken first), and the massive costs of gas backing.

    You are talking about distributing COSTS, not savings, and you’re looking for socialists in British politics today, which really says a lot. You are indeed selectively adding costs – ignoring the low capacity factor and requirement for gas backup for renewables (none of which you factor into their costs), rather than the very high capacity factor of nuclear power, and maintenance can be scheduled. Moreover, you are not talking about the massive costs of grid balancing for micro-generation in your schemes, and the massive costs of connecting projects which is being added to bills for all, pushing them up still further.

    I am not following your policies.
    I refuse to take your policy, too, of pricing the poor ever-more out of heat and light.

  15. Tom

    Again, you just keep making assertions with nothing to back them up.

    1) Please provide any evidence whatsoever that Smart meters will be used to cut off power to poor people, as a means to manage demand. All of the environmental groups (including Friends of the Earth, who you’re criticising here), talk about Smart meters as a way to deal with spikes in demand. Just because the ‘smart fridge’ (for example) technology isn’t widespread yet, it doesn’t mean this isn’t a viable future scenario.

    At the moment there are systems in place for National Grid to pay businesses to reduce power. And yet you’ve just conjured up an imaginary scenario where the poor are cut off without prior agreement or compensation. This obviously sounds more like shilling than a genuine, evidence-based concern.

    2) Not clear what you’re suggesting I’m making up, but never mind. If we have a look at a number of government sources, you’ll see that the cost of onshore wind and new nuclear are considered broadly similar:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cost_of_electricity_by_source

    This would seem to give the lie to your claims – especially given that costs for wind are coming down, whereas nuclear is going up.

    However, as I’ve said, if you want to move away from this measure of costs, you would have to consider *all* the costs of integrating a particular technology into the grid, not just select ones that happen to favour a technology you prefer. So for wind that might include backup power of whichever variety (gas/batteries/pumped storage/interconnectors/Smart appliances). For nuclear it would involve large backup costs, and the costs of whatever other technology is going to be ramped up and down to meet spikes in demand (again, a variety are available).

    I don’t have any numerical estimate for the latter type of system (and neither do you, because many of the costs are speculative). Still, feel free to mock one up and share.

    3) Nope, definitely talking about savings. But in case you haven’t followed my point – that’s an *overall* saving. That includes the health/economic costs of air pollution, the costs of coping with climate change etc. Some of those savings will be in the health budget – hence my point about distribution. The price per unit of energy will probably have to go up (as it will in a nuke-heavy scenario). [What that means per person is less clear, as it depends on the success of energy-saving measures].

    Still, feel free to respond by just blindly asserting how great nuclear is for the poor, and how the cost increases it requires (as opposed to those of renewables) won’t price anyone out of heat and light. I’m sure I speak for everyone who reads your posts when I say that we find it thoroughly persuasive.

  16. Guest

    Nope, I’m not using your policy.

    1). It’s their USE. And you’re saying it – disconnect the poor when usage rises above the supply, i.e. when the sun isn’t shining

    “Smart devices” are completely unrelated as concepts, and fridges and freezers are where it WON’T be applied, as keeping a level temperature is important for food. More washing machines which turn themselves on if the price drops during the day (or just in time for you to get home, anyway).

    Why would business be paid to reduce usage (i.e. close), if they can just cut the poor off? This is not “imaginary”, again it’s the INTENT of smart meters, to remotely cut people off.

    2) You are trying to link wikipedia, rather than looking at studies. Moreover, you are ignoring the costs of gas backup, grid connections, etc. – you are looking at ONLY the total costs on one side. Again.

    You also don’t have numbers because you are not working in a numbers-based system, but an ideological one. Your demand for massively higher bills, hence disconnecting many of the poor in the first place…

    We do, in fact, know what it means to move even marginally in your direction from soaring power prices in i.e. Germany.

    3) So you claiming costs are “savings”. That you think there is an overall saving to denying poor power and heating, which means you are against social duties to assist the poor and the NHS, because those would eat up your “savings”.

    I am not following your blind policy, as you lie viciously, and deny your anti-poor policy of denying people power and light.

    I’m sure you will try and intimidate me by speaking for yourself and lying, as you scream hate at the poor and in fact are directly chucking over the idea of the cold sitting in the dark and cold.

    Because that’s completely different to a 20-30% rise needed for new nuclear on sensible contracts.

  17. Tom

    1) Provide evidence of the intent you claim.

    You clearly haven’t read very much (if at all) on this. Fridges are almost the go-to example, as Smart fridges would be able to flatten out the largest spikes in demand. See e.g. D. Mackay, Sustainability without the Hot Air. It’s available online for free, so you have no excuse.

    Why would they? It’s irrelevant, they already do. But in any case – maybe because they’re contractually obliged not to just cut people off?

    You seem to be confusing two completely different things. Smart meters clearly have advantages for energy companies – in that they no longer need to send people out to take meter readings. Presumably, they’ll also be able to cut off supply in case of non-payment. But that is a world away from cutting off supply to help balance the Grid, and would be subject to all the usual legal safeguards. To conflate the two, as you are doing, is entirely dishonest.

    2) Did you even look at the Wikipedia page? It rather helpfully sets out in tables the findings of various Government studies. As they show, the levellised cost of many renewables (particularly onshore wind) is broadly comparable to nuclear.

    I have then been very clear – if you want to start factoring in wider grid costs, then you have to do so with both renewables and nuclear. I’ve been clear that I don’t know the figures for this, but it’s equally clear that you don’t either, because otherwise you’d post them. As I have said many times, you are ignoring costs associated with a nuclear-heavy system – i.e. the need for large-scale backup power (National Grid have been clear that this is required), and the costs of a technology to cope with peaks and troughs in demand (nuclear doesn’t ramp up/down quickly enough). If you have such a systemic comparison, post it. If you don’t, stop making claims you can’t support.

    3) You clearly haven’t followed here, and are just asserting your own nonsense. Yes, I think that moving to a low-carbon energy system saves money. Yes, that is entirely compatible with the price per unit of energy going up. What do you not understand here? If fewer people are being made sick by air pollution, we can spend less money treating them. It’s hardly rocket science.

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