Can renewables meet the UK’s energy demand?

 

Those who are heavily exposed to the Carbon sector are running scared of renewables.  They put out propaganda to say that renewables cannot meet our needs, their favourite target being wind energy.  ‘What happens when the wind doesn’t blow?’ If the wind doesn’t blow, it means that the sun has gone out and the atmosphere has disappeared.  The wind always blows somewhere, a wind-powered grid would be interconnected over a large geographic area, it would also be backed up be other renewable sources such as tidal, solar, biomass and a range of new technologies that, with proper investment, will come available.  We only need nuclear if you want to keep nuclear weapons, we only need coal and oil to protect the financial sector.

A number of studies have shown that the UK could obtain 100% of its electricity from renewable sources.  One such report was by Price Waterhouse Coopers, called ‘100% Renewable Electricity, a roadmap to 2050 for Europe and North Africa’.   [http://www.pwc.co.uk/assets/pdf/100-percent-renewable-electricity.pdf

This report has shown that the electricity supply system of Europe and North Africa can be developed to one that is 100% renewable by 2050 if the right policy framework is put in place today to drive activity in the coming decades, and without nuclear power.  The report concludes that this transition would be invisible to consumers as it should be possible to deliver it without any changes in lifestyle being required or any changes from today’s levels of power reliability.  As we have seen over the Feed in Tariff, this government isn’t prepared to put the right policy framework in place.

Another report by the Centre for Alternative Technology called Zero Carbon Britain, [www.zerocarbonbritain.com ] goes further and shows that the whole energy sector can be de-carbonised, including transport fuels and agriculture.  This would require some changes to lifestyle but it would lead to no reduction to overall well being or quality of life.  If we fail to decarbonise we will experience significant changes to our lifestyle as well as diminished well being and quality of life.  This would be due to the volatility in the carbon market leading to price escalations and scarcities, and to the impact of climate change.
The UK is fortunate in having ample renewable resources.  If developed these could give us energy security from a diverse mix so that we are never reliant on one technology or industry.

Renewable energy sources available in the UK include:

  • Off shore and on shore wind
  • Wave, tidal stream and tidal barrage
  • Biomass
  • Geothermal
  • Solar, thermal and electric
  • Novel sources, eg saline

Although not an energy source, energy efficiency measures and insulation can reduce overall demand, which greatly increases energy security.

UK current final energy demand is about 205GigaWatts (source: the Digest of UK Energy Statistics 2009).  That includes electricity, heat and transport.  With some sensible energy efficiency measures, it could be brought down to about 120GW.  For example, switching from petrol to electric cars would yield 20-25GW of energy savings.  Extensive buildings insulation could save another 25GW, [greater than the current contribution from the nuclear sector].

Renewable energy potential, UK

Wind

Wind energy is the major source of renewable energy in the UK.  By linking renewable generators across Europe with a High Voltage Direct Current transmission, variability in supply in any one region can be smoothed out.  The mean potential of offshore wind around the UK is about 2000GW.  We need to tap less than 10% of this potential.
Estimates for onshore wind vary from 35-120GW mean power.  The high figure is based on all suitable sited being used, which would create great opposition, a figure of between 35 and 50 GW would be more realistic.

Wave

We really don’t know what our technical wave resource is, because the technologies are still in their infancy. From what we know of energy in the waves, we may be able to harness anywhere in the range 5-65GW mean power.

Tidal stream

We don’t have a much clearer ideas about our tidal stream resource, either. Some say 5GW mean. Others put it at 40GW mean, with peaks at times up to 100GW.

Tidal barrage

The total for England & Wales is about 5.5GW mean power. That still leaves scope for more tidal barrages in Scotland that are yet to be unevaluated.  Barrages generate opposition because of the scale of the development and tidal stream developments may be preferred.  On some sites however, barrages may be considered as part of flood control, so would be duel purpose developments.

Biomass

Unlikely to be much above 10GW mean power, given we need to grow food.  Anaerobic digestion of organic waste could add to this figure and give valuable liquid fuels.

Geothermal

Not fully surveyed, estimates by the industry put our geothermal resource at about 4GW.

Solar thermal

Solar thermal could, with 10GW mean power, meet half our water-heating needs.

Solar electric

Our photovoltaic (PV) power potential is immense, but at present, it is an expensive way to get electricity. PV panels across 10% of the country (yes, that is a humungous area) would provide more energy each year than we demand, but most of the supply would be in the summer months, of course, whereas energy demand peaks in winter.
Summary

Offshore:                     200GW

Onshore:                      50                   conservative

Wave                             5                    minimum

Tidal Stream                 5                    minimum

Tidal Barrage                5                    England & Wales

Biomass                       10                  no food competition or use of waste to energy

Geothermal                    4

Solar thermal               10                   for heating

—–

total                             289GW

Current final demand   205GW

Reducible to:  120GW  with insulation, efficiency, electric transport

No figures available for:

  • Solar electric, immense potential but seasonal and currently expensive.
  • Saline: very early research stage,
  • Biomass waste: arguably should be used for compost
  • Algal biofuel: early R&D, environmental impact unknown
  • Hydro and micro-hydro, could be of regional importance, linked to water supply.

[Thanks to Andrew Smith at London Analytics for providing referenced figures.]

We have the renewable resource, it needs the Government to create the policy framework that will allow it to develop.  Until they have deflated the Carbon bubble, they will choose not do this and continue to claim that renewables can only make a limited contribution to our energy supply.

Mike Shipley

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