Is the UK prepared for renewable energy innovations?

Cliff notes

  • Is the UK prepared for renewable energy innovations?
  • Renewable energy conclusion.
  • Is green capitalism the prerequisite to creating successful environmental policies?
By Rebecca Lam
Dec 2017

The UK’s electricity production plans have recently been dealt a hammer blow.


In January, Hitachi announced it’s scrapping its proposed 2.9GW Wylfa nuclear plant in Anglesey and a second 2.9GW plant planned in Gloucestershire. Two months earlier, Toshiba announced it was abandoning plans to build the 3.4GW Moorside nuclear plant in Cumbria. Together, these three projects would have met 15% of today’s electricity demand. This leaves just one nuclear plant under construction: EDF’s 3.2GW Hinkley Point C in Somerset.


This news creates a large energy gap in the government’s clean electricity strategy. Urgent decisions are now required as to how to make good the lost generating capacity and compensate for the forthcoming retirement of coal and old nuclear plants.


Furthermore, when you couple this news with the government announcement in 2015 which stated that the Feed in Tariffs (FiTs) scheme will be closed to new applicants after 31st March 2019, although existing FiTs contacts will continue for up to 20 years.



However, the government has now issued a consultation confirming that it wants to close the export tariff which pays generators for power sold to the grid at the same point as it ends the generation tariff, effectively closing the scheme completely. By many in the farming and agriculture industry, this is considered as the government no long providing direct support for the generation of renewable electricity. This will have a fairly instantaneous impact on the agriculture sector which has embraced renewable installations in the last 7/8 years.


All of this begs the question: how prepared is the UK for embracing renewable energy innovations? A combination of having to meet environmental, sustainability and energy regulations, as well as the opportunity to make energy savings, will still make renewable installations popular for own-use generation. It will also still appeal to SMEs eager to replicate the commitment shown by corporates in the RE100 pledge, the global initiative uniting 100 influential businesses with the goal of committing to 100% renewable energy usage.


Government action to get businesses to clean up their usage of energy also offers sound financial incentives. The Green Business Fund, for instance, gives SMEs up to 15% of the capital costs of energy-efficient equipment (capped at £5,000), while the Enhanced Capital Allowance scheme provides attractive tax breaks on energy- and water-efficient technologies. Additionally, the government’s recently announced Resources and Waste Strategy – introducing annual reporting of food waste by food businesses and potentially leading to mandatory reporting – suggests there is a future for more anaerobic digestion installations.


According to BP, the UK-based oil company, renewable energy sources will be the world’s main source of power within two decades. Wind, solar and other renewables will account for about 30% of the world’s electricity supplies by 2040 and accounts for about 10% today. In regions such as Europe, the figure will be as high as 50% by 2040. So, what are the renewable energy innovations coming out today?


Solar & Wind

Solar installations could still be a good investment in the right circumstances. Analysis by Aurora in early 2019 stated that 9GW of solar, up to 6GW of onshore wind and at least 3GW of offshore wind could be built without subsidies by the end of the next decade. One example of this is the BP-owned Lightsource, which is set to build the UK’s biggest subsidy-free solar installation to provide renewable electricity to Budweiser maker AB Inbev’s factories in South Wales and Lancashire.


The cost of producing solar and wind-powered electricity has collapsed. Costs of producing and running wind and solar technology have dropped 60% since 2009 and we are expecting another 40% reduction over the next 10 years. So what started as a decarbonisation process, thanks to better technology, is about to become a process driven by cost and economics. In wind technology we can now see bigger blades and bigger turbines which can produce maximum power on a much lower wind speed. What used to require 20 knots now only requires 10 knots, so the output produced has been significantly improved.


However, in practice, it’s probable that neither wind nor solar power would be sufficient to fill the current energy gap. There would still be a need for a transitional source of power or bridging fuel, such as natural gas or imported liquefied natural gas (LNG). It’s expected that gas will need to form part of the energy mix through to 2050, although energy storage is crucial to achieve the net-zero goal.


Batteries & Storage

Great advances are being made in battery technology which is vital for the new generation of electricity-powered vehicles. From 2012 to 2017, battery costs fell more than 15% per year for a total five-year drop of more than 50%. In aggregate, balance-of-system (BOS) costs – other hardware, soft costs and EPC (engineering, procurement and construction) – declined even further: more than 25% per year. Overall, the decline in BOS costs contributed more than three times the savings that the decline in battery costs did.


While we are still assessing the potential for energy storage to open a new frontier for renewable power source generation, energy storage should become a significant feature of the energy landscape in most geographies, industries and customer segments. Where battery technology is co-located with an existing renewable energy scheme, energy storage can help to balance energy demand on the grid and to save money on purchasing electricity.




A report published in the Guardian in December 2017 claimed that half of Europe’s coal stations are running at a financial loss. Meanwhile, an alliance at the UN climate change summit saw 19 nations commit to a rapid phasing-out of coal, in the ‘Powering Past Coal’ initiative, led by the UK and Canada. One of the biggest momentum shifts in the UK was marked by Drax Power who announced their plans to have moved fully to renewable biomass and gas-fired power well before the government-mandated coal ban in 2025.


In February this year, it was announced that a new technology that converts biogas into a high-grade liquid fuel has been developed by UK-based technology company Renovare Fuels. The process allows biogas from waste material to be used as a direct replacement for fossil fuels, with the potential to displace billions of litres of fossil fuels each year. The production process is carbon neutral and the entire logistics supply chain may create a fraction of the greenhouse gas emissions of fossil fuels.


Hydrogen & Hydroelectric


In Europe, fuel cell production facilities will begin pumping out 50,000 fuel cell stacks by the year 2020, making UK-based Intelligent Energy the market leader in bringing the green technology to the masses. A fuel cell is a device that converts chemical potential energy, such as kinetic energy, into electrical energy. Hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles are available now, but to continue to drive customer adoption, it needs to be ensured that future fuel cell stacks are robustly industrialised and remain cost competitive in the future.



Much like wind turbines, tidal turbines are underwater pinwheels that harness energy from wave movement. Scotrenewables Tidal Power announced the launch of a new, low-cost turbine off the coast of Scotland. According to its manufacturer, it’s the largest and most powerful turbine of its kind in the world with a power generation capacity of 2MW. A retractable arm gives the facility of a separate transport mode and an operation mode, which allows easy portability and an impermanence that would please local fishing industries.


Renewable energy

It is important to remember that renewable energy innovation is as much about management of energy as it is about new energy technologies. Business owners and their operations teams should be considering whether they could buy energy cheaper, use it better or even generate it themselves. Renewable energy innovation is about revolutionising both technology and process, as well as mind-set. Toyota’s Burnaston factory in Derbyshire has achieved 8% energy usage reductions per annum for 14 years. Tony Walker, managing director, stated that about one third of these reductions have come about by switching things off and using them differently and/or less.


The advances mentioned are inter-related: progress in the lithium-air battery efforts will pave the way for the success of electric vehicles which could be recharged with energy harnessed from the tides. Renewable energy is currently providing 15-20% of the country’s daily energy needs during summer time and, despite changes in FiTs and other subsidies, there is still strong interest in the renewable energy market. It’s important to remember that many of the renewable technologies are still coming out of their infancy. Nonetheless, after investing in renewable energy and getting projects off the ground, it is vital to maintain the installation in order to maximise the investments efficiency and longevity.


Despite significant investment in energy-efficiency savings, the demand for power will increase substantially with the growing trend for electrification of transport; including rail, buses and cars. However, the cost of renewable projects continues to tumble and fears over the intermittency of clean energy are steadily being addressed by the growth of gas-peaking plants, pumped-storage hydro, utility-scale batteries and the emergence of smart grid technologies. Given that in 2017 the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions were 43% below 1990 levels, it appears investment in renewable energy, grid-scale energy storage and gas plants equipped with CSS, alongside energy-efficiency measures, could meet Britain’s demand for power and deliver a carbon-free economy by mid-century.

Green capitalism

Is it the prerequisite to creating successful environmental policies?

It seems like a long time ago that climate change deniers were prominent voices in the debate about climate. However, we only have to go back to the 2011 Heartland Institute’s International Conference on Climate Change to hear accusations of climate change being a Trojan horse designed to abolish capitalism and replace it with some kind of eco-socialism. The current President of the United States, Donald Trump, is a climate change denier, although he is also a huge advocate of the benefits that business can bring for social problems. So, why not view climate change as a social problem that can be addressed by business? Denialists gained traction by making climate change about economics.


Climate change activists have had to learn from this and develop a counter argument engulfed by an understanding of how economics can aid climate change. This mode of thought is now generally known as ‘green capitalism’ (GC).


Before delving into the depths of GC, it must be noted that a large part of the challenge for climate change activists is changing social attitudes and endorsing a sense of collective responsibility. Whilst this is a discussion well worth having, this article is going to focus on the practical implementations of GC. An initial starting point is to figure out which sector, public or private, is most adept for initiating GC policies.


Considering climate change action is in the greater public interest, there is an argument that these policies should come from the public sector. After all, it is true that responding to the climate threat requires strong government action at all levels – the architecture of national and international regulation is vital to responding to the challenge of climate change. However, it is worthwhile dispelling the myth that the private sector is ill suited for implementing GC policies as some of them may well not be profitable.


Free markets constrained by law and regulation have been the preferred means of producing most private goods, with a degree of collective harmony, by most of the rich economies of the world over the last century. Markets work by incentivising people to prioritise and economise on scare resources, laws by expectations and sanctions making the law abiding keep within permitted boundaries. Certainly, much can be done with incentives: subsidies for renewable energy and responsible land stewardship, for instance.


On this view, the most important first step is regulatory, to establish a carbon price within a deep and liquid global carbon market or set of interlocking markets, either by cap-and-trade or by a carbon tax. Following this methodology, we will likely be a large part of the way towards solving the problem by incentivising the introduction of appropriate technologies and penalising inefficient practices.



Many companies and investors are already demonstrating leadership and others are ready to align their agenda with the right policy signals. Regulations and incentives that hamper the shift to a low-carbon and more circular economy should be reformed, such as subsidies, tax breaks and regulations that encourage unsustainable activities. A big push on innovation, in particular through international partnerships and financing to tackle challenges beyond energy, is needed.


This can be achieved, in part, by accelerating investment in sustainable infrastructure, supported by clear national and international strategies and programmes. This is a central driver of the new growth approach. It requires integrating climate action and sustainability at the heart of growth strategies, investment plans and institutional structures to facilitate the flow of public and private finance. It could include investing in areas such as the natural infrastructure that underpins our economies, such as forests and wetlands.


The struggle to combat climate change brings out the best and worst of capitalism. Decarbonisation of the economy requires alternatives for coal and cars that run on diesel and that plays to capitalism’s strengths. Innovation is a large part of what capitalism is about and there has been staggeringly rapid progress in developing clean alternatives to coal, oil and gas. The cost of producing solar and wind-powered electricity has collapsed.


Costs of producing and running wind and solar technology have dropped 60% since 2009 and we are expecting another 40% reduction over the next 10 years. So what started as a decarbonisation process, thanks to better technology, is about to become a process driven by cost and economics. In wind technology we can now see bigger blades and bigger turbines which can produce maximum power on a much lower wind speed.


What used to require 20 knots now only requires 10 knots, so the output produced has been significantly improved which, in turn, greatly improves the economics of the technology. Furthermore, great advances are being made in battery technology which is vital for the new generation of electricity-powered vehicles.



The next 10-15 years now represent ‘use it or lose it’ moment in economic history. It is expected that around $90 trillion will be invested in infrastructure by 2030, more than the total current stock. Ensuring that this infrastructure is sustainable will be a crucial determinant of future growth and prosperity. The next 10-15 years are also essential in terms of combatting the real effects of climate change: unless we, as a planet, make a decisive shift by 2030, we will pass the point by which we can keep global average temperature rise to week below 2C.


We have a remarkable window of opportunity to do so now, given the major structural changes the world faces, notably rapid urbanisation, increasing globalisation, shifts to service-based economies and increasing automation. The transition to a low-carbon, resilient economy is just one part of this broader transformation which, if managed well, has the potential to deliver more equitable and prosperous growth.


A key mechanism of GC is known as true cost pricing, the concept is to factor into consumer prices the fuel costs of clear-cutting forests, fossil fuels extraction and refining and all the bigger processes that go into making the most basic things we use in our daily lives. According to GC, this would create greater market transparency and, in doing so, the fewer resources a manufacturer uses in producing something, the cheaper the product would be.


Market transparency is essential within GC, not least because it adheres to Adam Smith’s notion that if a market is transparent and consumers have full information then they’ll make rational choices. In turn, those marketplace decisions will encourage ecologically sane production.


It can be argued that the climate crisis in front of us is a problem created by market tendencies. Sir Nicholas Stern wrote in his book ‘Stern Review’ that “climate change is a result of the greatest market failure the world has seen. The evidence on the seriousness of the risks from inaction or delated action is now overwhelming”. So, if the climate crisis has come about from market failures, changing market norms would be one of the foremost methods in countering climate change. It is easy to understand why there is a held belief amongst climate change activists that there is a disconnect between business and climate action. This disconnect can be symbolised by the fact that a significant portion of funding for the Paris climate summit in 2015 came from major fossil fuel companies and carbon emitters.


However, as we have seen above, business holds the potential for unlocking large swathes of climate action at one time. Nonetheless, it is also important to remember that, whilst new technology and business methodology is indispensable in addressing global problems, it would be a mistake to fall for a crude reliance on technology and business, viewing it as a magic solution to all problems. It will take a collective effort from both consumers and businesses alike.


Capitalism has traditionally had trouble thinking beyond the here and now. People running big corporations see their job as purely maximising profits in the short-term, even if that means causing irreparable damage to the world’s ecosystem. What’s more, they think they should be free to get on with maximising profits without any interference from politicians, even though the fight against climate change can only be won if governments show leadership, individually and collectively. In the past, politicians have only tended to focus on climate change when they think there is nothing else to worry about. When policy makers have other things to worry about, tackling climate change drops down the list of things to do.


There’s a longstanding narrative that ecology and economy are natural adversaries – you can’t take climate down without killing jobs and stifling growth. This narrative is simply wrong. The high cost of climate inaction is self-evident, but we shouldn’t fixate on these costs alone. Our energy is better spent focussing on the financial benefits of climate action. Unchecked capitalism drives many of the challenges exacerbating our climate conundrum, aligning environmental goals with market forces may prove to be our salvation. The challenge lies in harnessing capitalism’s relentless focus on financial growth in a climate-conscious direction.

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