Keeping a weather eye: 5 key developments for renewables

Reading the popular media or governmental press releases alone might lead us to despair at the prospects for renewables - something that's flavour of the month today can be an environmental pariah the next. So, what is really happening? Should we be battening down the hatches or making hay?

Keeping a weather eye: 5 key developments for renewables

Renewables – once the preserve of the off-grid enthusiast – are now firmly mainstream. We constantly monitor trends in this space – it is a fast moving environment, but our analysis shows that this movement is firmly established and we can expect much more innovative, impactful change in the coming years.

Here’s five key developments to watch – and not just the headline-grabbing, international energy policies or political horse-trading, but also significant breakthroughs in key technologies and renewables being embedded at all levels of policy development, commercial operations and community life.

1) Making the most of the market opportunity

Do we make the shift to a low-carbon economy because it’s the “Right Thing To Do” – or because it makes good business sense? How about both? With policy in turmoil and subject to the whims of international politics, there is an increasingly important role for business as agents of change – and to signal that change to government.

We’ve seen a growing interest in accounting for strategic commitment to renewables, and reporting back on the impact that self-generation and green tariffs have on the bottom line. In the last two reporting cycles, we advised Dentsu Aegis Network on setting realisable targets for decarbonising their electricity supply, and have also worked with Liz Earle Skincare to quantify the benefits of their existing self-generation in their annual report. RE100 – a global initiative of influential businesses committed to 100% renewable electricity – is now at 89 members – the business case for renewables continues to strengthen.

2) Still waters run deep

Our marine resource is arguably the most reliable source of clean, renewable energy. We know what time and what height our tides will reach years into the future, and tidal could supply 20 TWh of energy per year to the UK. In addition to capturing wind energy through aerial turbines, wave energy could feasibly supply around 70TWh per year in the UK – that’s 23% of our electricity. From ducks to dams, buoys to barrages, the potential for electricity from our waters is huge.

Marine energy is difficult though – high development and infrastructure costs, coupled with important environmental controls mean that many developers never make it beyond a pilot phase. However recent developments in marine are promising. Power first flowed from Nova Innovation’s tidal turbines on Shetland in August 2016 and more capacity was added at Inverness on the mainland weeks later. We are poised to start realising the potential of marine from Welsh and Cornish waters – and as Canada seek to learn from British expertise, we are exporting this valuable know-how around the world. The challenge is to get beyond the demonstration phase and get more project deployed – current EU funding is making this possible, and we are set to continue to capture the benefits of our island’s energy resource.

3) Supplying heat without the carbon

There are many ways to cut carbon from our heat supply – and green gas has been a key development of late. And there are many ways to generate biogas – including from Cumbrian cheese, processing food waste and green arisings in an anaerobic digester, or indeed animal slurries and human waste. By using a material that would otherwise be handled as waste, we can reduce the carbon impact of our heat supply, and divert more waste from landfill or incineration. The neat thing about biogas is that we can burn it along with natural gas in our boilers and furnaces – direct injection into the gas grid also currently attracts Renewable Heat Incentive payments, further sweetening the deal.

Another option is to electrify heat: heat pumps are back in fashion. This is an established technology – being rolled out in wonderfully strategic local authority-led schemes in Manchester, and on a massive scale extracting, not gas, but renewable heat from the North Sea for homes in Glasgow.

One major challenge for electrifying heat is that our heat demand profile is so “peaky” – blasting our draughty old homes first thing in the morning and last thing at night with heat from electricity would present a huge headache for the National Grid, already struggling to balance decentralised generation with demand. Nevertheless, as more large scale and local renewables come online and the grid factor drops, this could be a low carbon solution to our high heat demand.

4) Communities holding their ground

While 2016 saw the last award from the Urban Community Energy Fund, its sister, the Rural Community Energy Fund, continues to thrive. This is a lifeline for communities engaging in energy projects – and is also catalysing others to consider energy as part of other local issues. The potent combination of devolution and community energy groups has seen ownership and investment in energy shifting from national policy to hyper-local – including being written into Neighbourhood Plans awarded by local authorities. Power to the people is decarbonising energy as well as democratising it.

Sadly recent changes aren’t making this any easier. Community Benefit Companies used to be a popular legal entity for community groups to realise their ambitions – but since the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act was enacted in 2014, these now cannot hold Exempt Charity status, and thus lose the tax benefits and other advantages of charitable status. And the latest budget statement in March introduced hikes in business rates for those with solar PV installations – including state schools. If cutting the feed-in tariff wasn’t the death knell for UK solar, then this might well be.

Governance models and financing are two of the challenges actively addressed by the RCEF process – and with funds still to distribute, now is the time to explore how renewable, local energy supplies can benefit communities across the country.

Local authorities are also on the front foot with promoting both energy efficiency and renewable energy generation – usually funded from European Regional Development Fund monies. This is enabling SMEs and other eligible groups to access free energy audits and even grants which is helping businesses and communities actually realise their energy and carbon saving ambitions. There are more projects to come online from the last ERDF round – but given last month’s news, local authorities may have to be more creative to find budget to support schemes like this in future.

5) Renewables out-performing conventional sources

All this has added up to some impressive outcomes at the last count: solar out-supplied coal for UK electricity in 2016; and renewables supplied the whole energy demand for cities like Burlington, Vermont, and even the whole of Portugal. Nuclear and gas are being pipped at the post on cost by large scale solar and onshore wind. And public perception of renewables remains consistently high –  figures from DBEIS say that 79% of people support renewables, only 33% support nuclear, and 17% fracking.

It’s not just about feel-good stories, but real change and momentum building towards the sustainable energy system we need. Business, communities, and individuals can all reap the diverse benefits of renewables – this is a trend that is not going away.

Helen Troup is a senior consultant at Carbon Smart 

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