UK 'will struggle' to meet 2020 renewables goal
Coalition of energy and climate scientists reveal scenarios for how lifestyles and energy generation in Britain must change to reach 2050 emission reduction targets
The UK will "struggle" to meet its 2020 target to source 15% of its electricity from renewable sources, according to a leading energy expert who also advises the UK government on climate policy.
Jim Skea, research director of the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) and a member of the government's advisory Committee on Climate Change warned yesterday that, while renewable energy would play an important role in meeting the UK's target to reduce CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050, the more immediate 2020 goal of sourcing 15% of UK electricity from renewables would be "a very big struggle".
He made the comments at a briefing to launch a new UKERC report that presents scenarios for how lifestyles and energy generation in Britain would have to change reach the 2050 climate targets. The study concludes that investing in low-carbon energy technologies in the short term will save the UK billions of pounds in its goal to reach its long-term targets while consumer resistance to change would also raise the cost of a low-carbon Britain.
The scenarios were based on two years of work by a coalition of energy and climate scientists. Each study took in various constraints such as how willing consumers might be to use energy more efficiently or change the amount and way they travel. In all the scenarios, the electricity sector would be completely carbon free by 2050 through the use of nuclear power, renewables and carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. This clean electricity would then become the main source of power for homes and transport.
Skea said that none of the scenarios had a major role for renewables technology until at least the 2030s. "If you're looking at all the potential delays on the system of deploying renewable energy, getting grid connections in, getting planning permissions, 2020 is almost tomorrow and we'll have to struggle very hard to reach it," said Skea. "If these barriers could be removed, it's technically possible but a lot of political will is needed to push this through."
According to the report, achieving the 2050 target using the most economic methods would cost around £17bn, or around £700 per household per year. But this cost would rise if consumers were resistant to new technologies.
"Nimby" attitudes to building nuclear power, biofuel crops or onshore wind could push up the costs of reaching 2050 targets to £20bn or £800 per household per year. An ecologically active public that demands an end to all fossil fuels and all environmentally damaging practices such as open-cast coal-mining would push the price up even further, to £28bn, or £1,100 per household, though this scenario would also end up providing more clean energy for Britons to use.
Skea said that driving these required changes would be difficult but one way would be to raise the price of carbon so that businesses were incentivised to invest in cleaner, low-carbon technologies instead. A carbon price of £200 per tonne of CO2 by 2050 would be required, he said, leading to petrol prices of at least £5 per litre. But this would not necessarily mean that household energy bills would rise. "The price of energy might go up but the absolute amount you pay might go down," said Skea.
One of the UKERC scenarios involved wide-ranging changes in the way people lived their lives, for example, that could end up saving consumers and businesses more than £50bn in energy bills every year. This included taking up energy efficiency measures at home including lowering temperatures on thermostats from 20C to 17C, installing insulation and microgeneration. At the same time almost all car journeys for short distances would be cut out, and only ultra-low carbon or electric cars be used for longer journeys with more people working from home.
"In the residential and transport sector, energy demand will halve by 2050," said Jillian Anable, head of transport research at UKERC. "What that means for the total energy system is that energy use will reduce by a third. This means de-carbonisation could take place more slowly. The cost of delivering this low-carbon scenario would be reduced."
Another author of the study, Mark Winskel of the Institute of Energy Systems at Edinburgh University, highlighted the need for more support for research and development (R&D) of new energy technologies. "There has been an absolute decline in R&D spend which went down from £700m per annum in the mid 1970s. From the mid 1990s, we're averaging £100m per annum."
Raising the investment back to 1970s levels and using the cash to accelerate the commercial viability of energy systems including solar photovoltaics, wave and tidal energy, would save the UK around £1bn a year on average between 2010 and 2040, said Winskel, in not having to buy in more expensive carbon-reduction technologies in future to meet 2050 targets.
Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace UK, said that converting to a low-carbon economy was a task that demanded spending now, despite the economic downturn, to save money in the long run.
"Evidence from countries that have successfully developed big renewable industries shows that governments need to support domestic markets, encouraging rapid development with help on planning and incentives. Without a strong government lead the fossil fuel corporate dinosaurs will get in the way and prevent the growth in green-collar jobs which we need. Expanding renewables is about controlling corporate influence as well as government targets."
Friends of the Earth's executive director, Andy Atkins, said: "This report confirms what we have always said - slashing UK emissions and building a low carbon economy is both achievable and affordable. But the government must stop dithering over the urgent need to act."
"Putting energy saving and the development of green sources of power at the heart of policy-making would make the UK a world leader in tackling climate change, increase energy security, end fuel poverty and create hundreds of thousands of new jobs. A green energy revolution is desperately needed to meet the challenges we all face. Time is running out – Brown must show that he has the political courage to develop a safer, cleaner future."