2015 saw the UK destroy its position as a climate and energy leader, and now faces some tough questions in the wake of a successful Paris climate agreement.
Despite a big year in 2014 which saw a number of renewable energy records broken and strong momentum created for the country’s renewable energy industry, following 6 months of baffling policy decisions and a lackluster attendance in Paris, the UK has a long way to go if it is to accomplish its role in tackling climate change.
2014 Was a Big Year
The United Kingdom (UK) started 2015 on a roll, considering the year it had just enjoyed. According to numbers from National Grid, wind energy provided more than a quarter of UK homes with power throughout 2014, generating 28.1 TWh of electricity, and supplying electricity equivalent to the needs of 6.7 million UK households — a 15% increase on 2013 levels.
Scotland alone saw impressive records broken throughout 2014. Data provided by WeatherEnergy found that wind energy provided 164% of Scottish household electricity needs in December.
“December turned out to a record-breaking month for wind power, with enough green energy generated to supply a record 164% of Scottish households with the electricity they need,” said WWF Scotland’s director Lang Banks. “Even on calmer days, wind still supplied the equivalent of over a third of electricity needs of every home.”
For the year as a whole, wind energy delivered an estimated 8,958,130 MWh of electricity to the country’s grid, or an average of 746,510 MWh each month — which was enough to supply the electrical needs of 98% of all Scottish households.
The records continued to fall into 2015, with National Grid numbers for January showing wind energy generated 4.13 TWh, or 14% of Britain’s electricity.
The UK’s greenhouse gas emissions fell by 8.4%, and renewables accounted for 19.2% of the country’s overall energy mix by the end of 2014, while electricity generation fell by 6.7% — with low-carbon electricity reaching a record high. 2014 also saw the UK’s renewable energy investment hit a record of £10.7 billion — with renewable energy jobs increasing by 9% as well — and reach £37 billion since 2010.
Everything started to go somewhat pear-shaped in May, however, following the re-election of the country’s Conservative Party, and its leader, David Cameron. In a sign of all things that would come, the newly-appointed Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Amber Rudd, revealed soon after the election that her government would likely end support for new onshore wind farms. Ending subsidies for new onshore wind farms was part of the Party’s platform for re-election, and they wasted no time in enacting their plans.
“It will mean no more onshore wind farm subsidies and no more onshore wind farms without local community support,” Rudd said to The Sunday Times. “This is really important. I’ve already got my team working on it. That’s going to be one of the first things we’re going to do.”
Despite continued support for offshore wind — in February the then-Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey approved the 2.4 GW Dogger Bank Creyke Beck offshore wind farm (right) — onshore wind, and soon solar, would begin to feel the sting of David Cameron’s new energy policies. The middle of June saw Amber Rudd confirm that the UK would cease allowing onshore wind farms access to the UK’s main renewables subsidy scheme, the Renewables Obligation Scheme, starting April 1, 2016. Not long after Ms Rudd confirmed the onshore wind industry’s greatest fears, she came out and told the world that there is “enough onshore wind,” and that she and her department were “determined” to back the offshore wind industry in the UK.
“The last 15 years has seen a phenomenal growth in British offshore wind,” she said. “By the end of this year we are expecting 30 offshore wind farm developments to be contributing to Britain’s energy security.
“Almost 1,500 turbines with the capacity to provide over 5 GW of home produced, clean electricity — enough to power the equivalent of almost 4 million homes. In the last 5 years alone, the amount of electricity being produced from offshore wind has more than quadrupled.”
At the same time as these decisions were being made, a number of experts and organizations were quick to point out that the new trend was not helpful for the future of the UK’s energy system. A study published in early July, and led by University College London scientists, proclaimed that the UK requires an “ambitious policy package” if it is to transform its energy system to achieve significant reductions in carbon emissions. This was followed by another report, this time published by National Grid, the country’s grid operator, saying that the only way the UK can achieve all its renewable energy and carbon targets is by committing to going entirely green.
Energy Subsidy Woes Continue
Towards the end of July, the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announced further possible changes — including removing solar from the Renewables Obligation scheme, and modifying the subsidy levels for biomass and co-firing projects. The DECC also revealed that it would begin looking at modifying the rules surrounding the Feed-in Tariff scheme.
And all of this is under the guise of attempting to reduce “energy bills for hard working British families and businesses,” as well as an attempt to meet “climate goals in the most cost effective way.”
This, despite the massive amount of money the UK Government was spending on subsidizing fossil fuels.
In August, a new survey from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) showed that the UK Government was spending £26 billion in subsidies in 2015, which worked out to more than £400 per citizen, 1.4% of UK GDP. The UK only spends 2.1% of GDP on defence.
Despite calls to the contrary, the UK Government continued on its path. At the end of July, Amber Rudd delivered a speech which was described by RenewableUK as “like saying you want to win the Tour de France on a bike without wheels.”
“Despite the laudable ambitions expressed by the Energy Secretary in her speech today, the current trajectory of current Government policy on renewables is not an encouraging one, following their announcements on ending support for onshore wind and solar, as well as scrapping the Green Deal and the Zero Carbon Homes objective, and making punitive changes to the Climate Change Levy,” said RenewableUK’s Director of Policy Dr Gordon Edge.
“It’s like saying you want to win the Tour de France on a bike without wheels. That basic mismatch between rhetoric and action will make investors very nervous. Until this is sorted out, the essential ramp-up of investment in the low carbon economy will flat-line.”
The Governments of Scotland and Wales even joined hands to call on the UK Government to support renewable energy.
Calamitous Subsidy Cuts
And then in August, the DECC proposed cuts to the Feed-in Tariff scheme that would affect solar PV, wind, and hydropower projects, and attempt to cap government spending on FiTs to £75 million to £100 million from 2016 to 2018/19. Most noticeably, domestic solar support could be cut by 87%, commercial rooftops by 82%, as well as devastating cuts to onshore wind.
“The proposals in the Comprehensive Feed-in Tariff Review are, quite simply, terrible news for homeowners, businesses, communities and those local authorities which have plans in place to develop renewable energy schemes,” said Joss Blamire, Senior Policy Manager at Scottish Renewables. “The levels of reduction in support announced today will severely curtail development of small-scale onshore wind and solar projects and endanger jobs and investments across the country.”
Amber Rudd immediately responded, defending the cuts, but to little avail, with many looking again to the UK Government’s fossil fuel subsidy policies as a sign of betrayal.
Worse was news from the UK Government itself, in an Impact Assessment of the new policies which found that cutting renewable subsidies could cost the country 63 million tonnes of CO2. The continued policy changes led to EY describing the UK’s situation in its quarterly Renewable Energy Country Attractiveness Index thus: “A wave of policy announcements reducing or removing various forms of support for renewable energy projects has left investors and consumers baffled.”
In October the DECC announced that it intended to follow through with its cuts to onshore wind subsidies — though it attempted to soften the blow with a grace period.
House of Lords Reject Stupidity
In a dramatic turn of events, however, the UK’s House of Lords voted to remove the section of the country’s Energy Bill which would have removed subsidies for onshore wind as of April 1, 2016. In her speech introducing the proposed amendment to delete clause 66, Baroness Worthington explained how the Government’s interpretation of events has sorely affected the industry as a whole.
The Government say that they need to draw the line somewhere. Actually, that line was drawn. It has now been moved and the process by which it was moved did not pay enough tribute to or treat with enough respect the investors in British industry whose confidence this is now undermining.
The Lead-up to Paris
A report that closed October claimed that “time is rapidly running out” for the UK to ensure a reliable, affordable, and decarbonized energy system is in place to meet future emissions targets. The report, prepared by the Prime Minister’s own Council for Science and Technology, outlined the actions the Council believes the UK must take to “crate a secure and affordable low carbon energy system for 2030 and beyond.”
In November it was reported that both Scotland and the UK as a whole are all set to fall behind their energy targets. A report by Scottish Renewables found that Scotland’s renewable energy sector is only on track to generate 87% of the country’s annual demand for power from renewables by 2020. However, a leaked inter-departmental memo — confirmed later by Amber Rudd — revealed that the UK would fall 3.5% behind obtaining 15% of its energy from renewables by 2020 — confirming rumors that UK officials had been lying, or ignorant, about where the country stood.
And despite increasing public support for renewable energy development, it was revealed by Amber Rudd in her speech announcing the long-awaited energy policy “reset” that gas-fired energy would be the country’s priority moving forward, with a little room for offshore wind. From the speech, four primary decisions were revealed:
- Consultation on ending unabated coal-fired power stations by 2025
- New gas-fired power stations a priority
- Commitment to offshore wind support completes commitment to secure, low-carbon, affordable electricity supplies
- Move towards a smarter energy system
Unsurprisingly, the UK copped a lot of fire from allies and friends at the Paris negotiations, and have come out the other side with its opponents standing even firmer. The UK’s Solar Trade Association called on the UK Chancellor and Amber Rudd to commit to supporting solar PV in light of the new agreement signed in Paris.
“The critical importance of solar power in tackling climate change came up time and time again at the Paris conference,” said Leonie Greene, Head of External Affairs at the Solar Trade Association. “Has the British Government now realised the value of backing its superb domestic solar industry within an International Solar Alliance expected to mobilise $1trillion of investment in solar power?”
Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth — commenting on the expected resolution of solar subsidies — decried the impending decision as a key test of the UK Government’s climate commitment. “To have any chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees, investment in green energy must be boosted, while subsidies for climate-wrecking fossil fuels must end,” said Friends of the Earth energy campaigner Alasdair Cameron. “Supporting renewable energy makes economic sense too, as solar power is set to become a trillion dollar industry in the coming years.
“It’s time for the Government to get on the right side of history and build a clean, renewable energy system fit for the future.”
How the UK decides to progress with its energy future is going to be decided in the next few months — if not the next few days. But based on 2015’s performance, it doesn’t bode terribly well for the country’s renewable energy industry.
Coming in just under this article’s deadline, the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change committed to slashing the Feed-in Tariff and Renewable Obligation schemes. You can read more about that here.
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