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How Green will Britain be by 2030?

Dr Chris Jardine renewable energy expert for the technology company, Joju Solar and a senior researcher for the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford offers his vision for the next decade in terms of solar energy use, battery storage and electric vehicles. 

Future of Solar Power

Looking back over the 2010s, solar PV capacity in the UK increased from virtually nothing to 12GW in just 10 years.

At the beginning of that decade, PV didn’t pay for itself and was reliant on feed-in tariffs to make the economic case.

Now in 2020, it’s the cheapest way of providing electricity to a building, even without financial incentives.

If the industry can grow as fast as it has done when the economics were still maturing, imagine what might happen now it’s genuinely cheaper than buying electricity from the grid?

Furthermore, there seems to have been a cultural shift in the last year or so – Greta Thunberg, schools strikes, Extinction Rebellion, David Attenborough, and the Australian bush fires have all raised climate change up the agenda (both for individuals and institutions).

This raised awareness does seem to be translating into action; and getting solar PV is a quick, simple and profitable way of making large scale changes to one’s carbon footprint.

Solar PV is the cheapest way of providing electricity to a building – but there is a catch.

A home solar system will be providing electricity at about half the price of grid electricity.

For a commercial rooftop, electricity is being generated at about 1/3 the price of purchasing from the grid.

The catch is, that you have to buy 25 years-worth up-front!  So, although the lifetime economics are fantastic, the up-front cost remains a barrier.

Therefore, any policy changes implemented need to address the issue of upfront cost.

What I’d really like to see is Government offering long term 0% loans to support solar PV, other renewables and energy efficiency measures within the home, to overcome the upfront cost hurdle.

There would be a cost to Government by doing this – the money lost by people and businesses defaulting on the loans – but this would be more than outweighed by the national economic benefits of reducing energy costs.

In the absence of cheap finance, then community-ownership of renewable projects are a brilliant way of addressing the above barriers.

Community energy projects raise funds from share-offers to finance the project, with returns being distributed between shareholder investors, the host site of the project, and a community fund for financing other community benefit projects.

The business model for community energy schemes is quite tight – so projects need to be run at scale and utilise the best roofs available.  At Joju we’re looking to deliver £4m of community energy projects by the end of March 2020, and already have subsidy-free projects in the pipeline for later in the year.  So, the future looks bright!

Future of Battery Storage 

We know that as the proportion of intermittent renewable energy on the grid grows it will be harder to balance the grid to ensure supply and demand are matched at all times of the day.

Storage is definitely going to be part of the solution to addressing this but it’s a little uncertain as to how this is going to play out.

Batteries can be installed at all scales from the household level, up to city-scale mega-batteries, and we’re still finding out which approach works best.

However, if householders want to invest in battery storage and play their part not just in generating renewable electricity, but also to help balance the grid, then why not?

What is really needed is an electricity tariff structure that would allow householders to operate their battery in a way that is beneficial for the grid operation, and to be rewarded for this.

It will also need more data – your home battery will need to know what is happening ‘out there’ on the wider electricity network so it can respond appropriately.

EV charging

As far as public EV chargers are concerned, there is a policy/implementation gap.

Responsibility for deploying the required EV infrastructure is devolved down to public authorities and the private sector to deliver.

Each council then has to work out how best to do this, by training staff to know about the subject, finding the finance, and implementing their own schemes.

The issue with this approach is that the same learning has to be done multiple times over, and it’s hard to share best practice between councils. Furthermore, rapid charger infrastructure along motorways comes under multiple regions. It all needs better coordination and some overarching strategic approach, as we see in other countries like Norway.

By far, the majority of charging is and will be, undertaken at home.

However, the critical issue will be 33% of homes that do not have a driveway, especially in dense urban centres.  This implies that kerbside charge points will be required, either as street furniture or lamppost-based chargers.

But clearly the numbers we are talking about here are in the millions.  Whilst many councils are trialling small schemes, I don’t think anyone has a vision for what this would look like once the ICE ban comes into place.

Where are all the charge points located?  And who pays for it all?

The private sector will have to be involved in some way given the number of units required.  Radical solutions could play a role here – such as a move from personal vehicle ownership to community charging hubs running car share schemes.

Public authorities are better placed to install public fast-charging points at their own car parks, and this is already happening.  Workplaces too will need to install EVCPs to allow their staff to charge at work.

And finally, rapid charger infrastructure will be required along major travel routes to allow 15-minute charges for those undertaking longer journeys and who need to charge on-the-go.

What does the UK government need to do? 

There are a few policy gaps that are slowing the uptake of renewables and other low carbon technologies.

During the 2010s, the coalition and the Conservative Governments removed a host of green policy measures. This was mainly because, with a small Commons majority, the policy was being dictated by a few back-bench MPs.  Now with a larger majority, there is an argument that policy will be less defined by a few maverick voices and that reinstating some of these measures may now be possible.

In particular, we would like to see:

  • Current planning policy makes onshore wind virtually impossible. It makes no sense to ‘ban’ one of the cheapest electricity generation technologies out there.  These constraints could be usefully relaxed, and there is a pressure movement growing around this issue.
  • The government also watered-down proposals for zero carbon homes.  This means we are now building properties that aren’t fit to meet 2050 carbon targets and will need refurbishment to get them up to standard.  Tighter regulations would improve building quality, lower bills, and skill up the building sector to deliver on this.

Beyond this, we are seeing a trend towards an all-electric future.  The power sector is decarbonising rapidly as renewables become a more important part of the mix, and coal is removed.  We are beginning to see the electrification of transport as well and expect to see the transition to EVs rapidly gather pace over the 2020s.  One major remaining problem area for carbon emissions is heat, and this is where some stronger policy intervention is required.

A transition from gas boilers to electrically powered heat pumps would be a win in carbon terms, but there is an inherent cost in changing the entire heating infrastructure of the UK in this way, and a major incentivisation scheme will be required to kickstart this transition.

It could also make our gas network obsolete unless biogas or hydrogen can be produced in major volumes.  This ‘green gas’ approach is in competition with ‘electrification of heating’ and it remains uncertain how this will play out.  It would seem wise to keep this option open, so R&D and Innovation funding as well as demonstrator projects will be required, which will, in turn, require government financing.

Photo Credit – Chris Jardine

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