Renewable energy: a bright future

RenewableUK’s landmark report paints a picture of a renewables-led decarbonisation programme that can deliver on the ambitious 2050 net-zero target.

Whatever progress is made, renewable energy will be a central part of that effort. It was with this in mind that the trade association RenewableUK launched its landmark Powering the Future report into the state of the UK’s renewables sector and explored some of the key themes that will inform how the country adopts renewables as we approach 2050.

Despite the challenges facing us, the future looks bright, with the UK leading the way: “The UK’s net-zero energy system will be renewables-led and will provide cheap, clean power to a wider range of consumers with specific needs,” the report states.

Renewable electricity, both directly and indirectly through the production of renewable hydrogen, will meet the vast majority of our energy needs. “We are confident this vision can be realised but it will require the development of stable markets with the right incentives in place to support the companies and investors who will deliver it,” the report goes on. “The investments needed in all aspects of the energy system are long term and capital intensive.”

The figures are encouraging. According to Powering the Future, the UK increased the proportion of generation from wind from just 3% in 2010 to 20% in 2019. “Last year, there were two fortnight periods without coal generation,” it says. “Renewable generation represented an average of 37% of the UK electricity supply mix in 2019.”

There’s work to be done

On the day the report was published (21 May), RenewableUK brought together a selection of experts to discuss the issues it raises.

“In all scenarios, offshore wind is set to become the mainstay of the UK’s energy mix by 2050 and should meet half of our power demand by then,” explained Marina Valls, RenewableUK’s chief economist.

If we want to achieve the kind of flexibility the report champions, there needs to be investment in interconnection. We need to get international co-operation right

Dr Robert Gross, Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London

And the figures are telling: Valls said that adding RenewableUK’s own optimum scenario for onshore and offshore wind, the capacity and generation from renewable energy sources increases to 76% of the UK generation mix by 2050. “That won’t be easy,” she said, but for offshore wind alone “we could get to 40 gigawatts (GW) by 2030 and 90GW by 2050”.

No single source of energy will deliver that, of course, and Valls talked about the need to create a more diverse energy mix as 2050 grows nearer. “Solar and marine technologies like wave and tidal can help with that as they don’t rely on the same weather patterns.”

Valls also explained that developing a more integrated and robust supply chain relies on an integrated approach across both the public and private sectors. “Most of this will be delivered by UK companies with an eye to commercial opportunities, which is why government backing and sensible medium-term targets is so important,” she said. “That’s not just about long-term targets for 2050. Medium-term aims should be ambitious and be backed with government support.”

Courage and vision

Dr Robert Gross, whose position at the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Imperial College’s Centre for Environmental Policy gives him a unique vantage point over all aspects of both the science and politics of renewables, agreed that policymakers had to display both courage and vision.

“The policy elements here are significant. And it’s really important to get them right,” he said, explaining that not only the amount of new build required, but also re-powering that the report envisages, means joined-up thinking is now more important than ever.

“We need a policy environment appropriate to creating the right investment environment, which provides the kind of stability investors need to not only get new projects built but so existing assets stay in use and we get the kind of re-powering levels needed.”

In addition, Gross believed the key issue is interconnectedness: “If we want to achieve the kind of flexibility the report champions, there needs to be investment in interconnection. Despite the crises we’ve seen recently, we need to get international co-operation right, not just in the North Sea but beyond.”

Lindsay McQuade, CEO of ScottishPower Renewables, agreed that the previous habit of governments and others to look at these issues in isolation would no longer be effective.

“Over the last five years, renewables have come into their own as part of the conversation about how we should transform between now and net zero,” she said. “There have been challenges over cost effectiveness, responsiveness, deployability and economic contribution but there’s a great chance to create jobs and drive growth.

“In the past we’ve looked at generation, or even a specific technology within that; but now, with reports like this we’re seeing a more ‘end-to-end’ approach that takes into account changing business models, service models, the future of innovation and technology as well as existing infrastructure,” she said.

An inspiring renewables-led future

But McQuade was at pains to point out that although much attention focuses on new technology and the policy debates, the role of the consumer will become increasingly important in the coming years.

“They now have a set of expectations about where their energy comes from, what the products and services that come into their home look like. It used to be just about plugging something in, but now energy pervades so many things, from bikes and cars to heating – and renewable energy is going to be a fundamental part of the energy mix. That’s a big challenge.”

Convincing consumers will require an inspiring message that looks beyond technology and policy and paints a compelling picture of a renewables-led future.

For James Murray, editor-in-chief of BusinessGreen, the report delivered a comprehensive plan of how the large-scale decarbonisation of the global economy can be achieved. “Everyone who works in this space should be excited to be part of it,” he said, emphasising the importance of sketching out an ambitious, integrated vision.

“It can sometimes be true that the energy debate can become boring to those outside the industry. What this report does well is look at a bigger picture of how renewables will be the lifeblood of the transformation we need to see.”

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