Report: Renewables could meet half of UK's electricity demands by 2030, at price parity with fossil fuels

Wind and solar power - if distributed using smart, flexible power grids - could meet around 50% of the UK's electricity demands by 2030, at a price parity with coal, oil or gas generation.

The report's authors are calling for more to be done to implement smart grids and boost flexibility

The report's authors are calling for more to be done to implement smart grids and boost flexibility

That is a key finding of new report commissioned by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) and published by consultancy New Resource Partners, which reveals that a smart grid based around wind and solar generation could meet half of Britain’s energy demands even during “wind and solar lulls” in the middle of winter.

Published on Wednesday (21 November) and entitled ‘GB’s power transition: Get smart’, the report uses real-world data on renewable generation to lay out several scenarios covering possible future outlooks for the UK’s energy mix.

In the scenario where renewable sources were producing the least power during a period of peak demand – namely during a 21-day period in January with little to no generation – Britain’s energy supply would remain sufficient to meet demand and “robust” energy security would be guaranteed, according to the report.

For the UK’s energy system to cope during such a lull, the report concludes that energy storage systemsdemand response technologies, and flexible gas-fired power plants would need to be installed, while trade with Europe via interconnectors would need to be maintained.

“We believe that this report explodes the myth that you’ve got to have some sort of megawatt-for-megawatt backup,” New Resource Partners’ director Hugo Chandler said.

“It’s much more a question of needing a portfolio of flexible resources that is sufficient to manage the maximum variability you may see.”

Chandler noted that a three-week lull during winter would be classed as “extreme” – similarly to those experienced during the so-called “Beast from the East” earlier this year – and added that the assumptions the report makes about the cost and capability of future battery technologies are “extremely conservative”.

His sentiments were echoed by the All Party Parliamentary Group for Rural Business’ chairman James Heappey MP, who said: “I think this is a very timely contribution because the new nuclear programme is, as far as I can tell, stalling. I don’t think that nearly as much as envisaged is going to be built, as is the case with the number of combined cycle gas (CCG) turbines.

“You would think, therefore, that the alarm bells would be ringing very loudly, as there is a lot of generation which has to be switched off within the next decade. Politicians who have previously seemed lukewarm over the renewables revolution now know that it is working as more capacity comes online, which is a very exciting opportunity for us to seize.

“Our opponents keep giving more and more ground over what a renewables-heavy system can sustain, but they constantly draw a new set of trenches that we need to fend off. To do this, we need to be able to explain very clearly how intermittency can be mitigated through storage and demand response, and what a digitised energy system looks like and costs. This report does just that.”

Call to action

The ECIU and New Resource Partners used the publication of the report to call on ministers and regulators to implement policies and schemes that spur the uptake of flexible and renewable energy technologies and foster the development of “more appropriate” markets.

Specifically, the organisations are urging the Government to build a flexibility market, support smart and local power markets, continue trading with other EU nations after Brexit and encourage “deeper and more liquid” energy trading on a last-minute basis.

These recommendations were welcomed by former Npower chief executive Paul Massara, who argued that the report’s findings served as proof that the so-called “energy trilemma” of choosing between cost, decarbonisation and security is “dead”.

Speaking at the report launch in London yesterday, Massara, now chief executive of Electron, said:” It is very important to stress test some of the assumptions that we are making about renewable generation.

“So often, we get the scaremongering headlines of ‘the lights are going out, renewables mean we need to get the candles out’ – a line which has been increasingly weakening. 

“You can have security of energy supply, carbon reduction and price reduction simultaneously. Solar, batteries, flexibility and wind – when combined together – are going to become the cheapest source of energy production and distribution.”

Flexibility benefits 

In related news, Bloomberg New Energy FInance (BNEF) has released a similar report revealing that flexible energy technologies - if installed at scale - could enable the efficient integration of 80% or more renewable energy by 2040. 

The firm's 'Flexibility Solutions for High-Renewable Energy Systems' report, published yesterday, models several scenarios for future power systems in the UK and Germany, each with differing levels of uptake of energy storage, smart-charging EVs, demand response and interconnectors. 

In all scenarios, the renewable share of generation would exceed 70% in the UK by 2030 as flexibility helps wind and solar become dominant, the report concludes. 

“There is now little doubt that renewable energy will be the dominant force in the power sector for decades to come," BNEF's head of global analysis Albert Cheung said. 

"The next challenge is to make sure these sources are complemented by clean forms of flexibility – storage, demand and interconnection – to deliver cheaper, deeper decarbonization." 

Sarah George


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