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BEIS is optimistic about UK energy future

20 Jan 2018 Dave Elliott

The UK government’s new projections for renewables are very optimistic – it’s claimed that there could be 45 GW in place by 2035. That might supply up to 50% of power by 2035. But its policies on the ground seem to undermine this optimism. Dave Elliott explains

The revised projections for energy up to 2035 from the UK Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) are generally very optimistic. It expects low-carbon sources of electricity to supply 68% of UK power generation by 2020, 70% by 2025, 76% by 2030 and 86% by 2035. That of course includes nuclear, and assumes that the proposed new reactor projects will go ahead, although BEIS now expects one less plant will be in place by 2030 than originally hoped, so nuclear only reaches 13 GW in all by 2035. And it is now also pessimistic about carbon capture and storage (CCS); there is only 1 GW in use in its scenario even by 2035. But it is very optimistic about renewables – it sees them expanding rapidly to 45 GW by 2035, up from the 36 GW projection in 2016. Let’s hope this is right.

However, this projection, with renewables approaching a 50% share by 2035, might be seen as rather odd, given the fact that one of the cheapest renewable options, onshore wind, remains blocked by government policy. It can’t apply for Contract for Difference (CfD) slots and the planning rules have been tightened to suppress it. PV solar growth has also been constrained, with cuts to feed-in tariffs (FiTs) for small projects and a block on access to the CfD for large projects. These and other retrogressive policy moves have already had a big impact: UK investment in wind, solar and other renewable sources slumped last year by 56% to £7.5bn, while worldwide spending climbed 3% to £242.4bn, the second-highest level on record.

Looking ahead, it may get worse in the UK for all the renewables, with all new levy support, apart from those already agreed, to be frozen until after 2025, so as to avoid extra levy costs being passed on to consumers. So support levels will flatten off from around 2020 and, unless new support is offered after 2025, stay flat. Indeed, the government’s advisory Committee on Climate Change says that, unless more low carbon capacity is backed beyond that currently set for CfD support, there will be a 50–70 TWh p.a. 2030 carbon target gap. For example, the Renewable Energy Association trade lobby has called for an onshore wind CfD.

With technology costs falling, some projects may of course still go ahead without CfDs, but the rate of expansion will be less than it would have been with the support in place. And new, currently less developed, projects will stand much less chance of getting established on the path to falling costs. For example, wave and tidal projects remain outsiders. None have been able to apply for CfD contracts – the Meygen project, like other tidal and wave projects, is being funded with a mix of grants and private finance.

All this makes the prospects for tidal lagoons, at one time feted by the government as a possible way ahead, a little uncertain. The Financial Times reported that “Ministers have gone cold on the £1.3bn project to build a tidal power lagoon in Swansea Bay, concluding that the ‘eye-wateringly’ expensive project does not represent sufficient value for money for taxpayers.” A cabinet minister said it did not stack up economically and would only directly create a handful of jobs in the local economy, although The Times noted that “1000s of jobs were at risk”, from companies that were lining up to supply equipment, including GE in Rugby and Stafford, hard hit by GE’s global cuts. In a letter to UK prime minister Theresa May, the Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones has indicated that he would consider a substantial equity and/or loan investment by the Welsh Government if that would enable the project to move forward”, but it seems a long shot. Moreover, Ecotricity has claimed that a fully offshore lagoon would be much better, with lower impacts. Maybe, but that pushes it further off into the future.

Some of the biomass options also look a little uncertain, with opposition mounting to large biomass-fired plants like Drax, currently favoured by the government, since there are worries about the sustainability of the forest-derived fuel. John Beddington, who was the government’s chief scientific adviser in 2008–2013, is the latest to oppose the use of trees for energy.

That’s a no brainer. Trees and their roots are important carbon sinks and replacing that capacity by replanting takes a long time. But, in some renditions, this view is extended to the use of all types of wood, or even to all biomass, where the arguments are much less clear. It certainly does not apply to biomass wastes, since they already exist and using them adds little extra net CO2 and does not impact on carbon sinks. Biogas produced from biomass wastes could produce a much needed firm and storable source of energy for power supply and grid balancing, heating and transport use.

However, in its new projections report, BEIS seems to be focused on electricity production from renewables like offshore wind and also non-renewable nuclear to meet most needs, including increasingly for heat and transport, with storage providing backup for variable renewables. In its new projections, BEIS seems to think that storage will take off in a big way, with twice as much battery capacity installed than was previously thought. Some might say gas plants will be better for grid balancing, and pre-combustion gas was the best thing to store, but BEIS sees gas capacity and gas use falling.

Other pathways than just electricity were explored in the government’s earlier Clean Growth Strategy, including the use of natural gas to make hydrogen for heating and transport. This would involve the steam reformation of fossil gas, with CCS to make it low carbon.

However, there are other options, quite apart from the use of biogas. If there was a large renewable capacity, at times there would be a large surplus of electricity, which could be used to make storeable hydrogen via the electrolysis of water, with no need for CCS. That could then be used to make electricity, in gas turbines or fuel cells, when needed to balance the grid e.g. when there was a lull in wind and solar availability. The zero carbon hydrogen from this Power to Gas (P2G) process could also be used for heating, injected into the gas main direct, or converted into methane gas using captured CO2, making it negative carbon. Alternatively, the hydrogen or methane could be used as a vehicle fuel. The multiple conversion stages would add cost, but CCS is also costly, and with P2G, the input fuel is in effect free – being otherwise surplus to requirements.  And P2G technology is developing rapidly, with efficiency rising.

There are other possible pathways. The Clean Growth strategy also looks at Biomass with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), as a negative carbon option for power generation. But that would require large land areas for biomass growing, as well as a lot of CO2 storage, unless biomass capture and utilization (BECCU) was adopted, i.e. capturing and then using the CO2 to make synfuel (e.g. using hydrogen, as in the P2G example above). Some combination of P2G hydrogen and BECCU CO2 might make sense, although making a synfuel using P2G hydrogen and CO2 from power station exhausts, or even directly from the air, might be easier. With either, you still end up with carbon negative power but, in the P2G case, without so much land use.

Clearly, although BEIS may be over-confident about the ones it has chosen, there are plenty of options. The problem we face now is that, given current policies, the alternative ones may not be given an opportunity to develop, while some of those that are being pushed may not deliver. Some see that as inexcusable.

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