11 May 2018

On renewables, ministers are ignoring the public – and the evidence

By Jonathan Marshall

Is there any other area of UK policy that is as out of step with popular sentiment as energy? Huge demonstrations of public opinion have led to burgeoning proposals for a ring-fenced NHS tax, for one of the most damaging U-turns in the May era on the rights of the Windrush generation, and even arguably for our departure from the European Union.

Yet, the UK energy sector remains isolated from the will of the people.

Stifled for years by concerns around the ‘trilemma’ – the need to keep bills down, maintain an uninterrupted and reliable supply, and to decarbonise – ministers have been paralysed by the urge to manage conflicting concerns from different sections of society.

Now though, this long-running struggle is no more. Renewable energy used to be much more expensive than the high-carbon alternative, especially when infrastructure was located in the North Sea rather than on land. But now developers looking to build new infrastructure know that it is cheaper to generate power from a wind turbine or a solar panel than it is from a gas or plant – even with the extra costs associated with balancing variable output.

Supply concerns also no longer hold weight. The late May bank holiday will mark the 10th anniversary of the last UK power cut that was caused by generating infrastructure, rather than by issues with pipes and wires. And it was caused by the system being unable to withstand a coal and nuclear power station failing within minutes of each other, rather than the wind not blowing and sun not shining.

Since then, we have moved to a power system where more than half of our electricity is low-carbon, and one in which wind farms generated more power than coal in both 2016 and 2017, with no power cuts to boot, despite the prolific rise of supposedly unreliable renewables.

But now, progress towards our goals for low-cost and low-carbon power is stalling. The 2017 Conservative manifesto continued the Coalition-era ban on onshore wind, despite more than three in four British citizens supporting the technology, according to the most recent governmental polling. Higher still is support for solar power, with a huge 87 per cent of the population in favour. Yet both remain shut out of the market through lack of government support.

Opening the door to the cheapest, cleanest and most popular technologies should not be difficult. They are currently excluded from renewable energy auctions, a move that allows offshore wind to dominate at the expense of cheaper on-land alternatives.

Moving away from a system of picking winners, to one where all forms of power are given an equal chance would be in everyone’s best interests, especially when modelling shows that an onshore wind farm given the same type of deal as those granted to their offshore cousins would not only reduce bills, but would more than repay any subsidy cost over the length of a 15-year deal.

It is even possible to boost our onshore wind output without developing any new sites. With dozens of the oldest projects facing retirement in the next five years, these areas could be re-powered, installing the latest low-cost equipment to bring bills down for homes and businesses. A recent ECIU report  outlined how this resource could power an extra 800,000 homes at the same time as funding community projects, supporting a burgeoning UK industry and reducing dependency on gas and coal imports from overseas.

The same goes for solar; while the roll-out of more large-scale solar – which is now appearing without any government hand-holding at all – is slowed by lethargic planning departments and behind-the-times local power networks, there is in reality little need to further industrialise the countryside. There are millions of roofs over our homes and places of work that could be put to better use. By generating power literally above where it is used, rooftop solar would slash the waste associated with transporting power around, and would give UK PLC a shot in the arm by bringing down energy bills.

But what is needed is confidence. Just 2 per cent of the population strongly oppose onshore wind, and just 1 per cent is turned off by solar, yet the view that many people don’t like these technologies continues to pervade the halls of power, in defiance of the evidence. Support for renewables in general hit an all-time high in the most recent survey, with 85 per cent of Brits in favour, yet action to reflect this is scarcely seen.

Rather than ignoring what would be a policy that would get voters as excited as a suite of extra bank holidays, but with an opposite effect on UK productivity, now is the time to take notice of both real-world evidence, and the views of the electorate and deliver a low-carbon and low-cost electricity system that works for everyone.

Dr Jonathan Marshall is Head of Analysis at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU)