Perspective on: renewable energy

By Emily Marshall, Associate Director

Over the years I have spoken to many people about their views on renewable energy whilst consulting on the various plans and proposals for large scale wind and solar developments. There has always been a general consensus that the earth’s climate is changing due to anthropogenic factors and that we should do something about it. The debate has continued as to what, exactly, that something is.

Renewable energies have been criticised as being:

expensive, inefficient, requiring subsidies, intermittent and ugly. A few remarkable things have happened in a relatively short period of time to help counter these criticisms.

The price of wind and solar technologies has dropped significantly, with costs of renewable technologies worldwide having decreased by 60%. Rapid cost reductions and technological improvements mean government financial support is not needed. By 2020 the cost of renewables is set to be less than the current power price. There is no longer a trade-off between low carbon and low cost.

What’s more, wind turbine blades are now harnessing the same power from 10knots as they did before with 20knots, setting the stage for unprecedented growth.

What about intermittency? The issue of storage has long been the Holy Grail of renewable energy. ‘Grid scale’ battery installation is now happening across the UK.

Battery storage is also a key government R&D area, with the Government poised to invest £246m.

There’s still an (ugly?) elephant in the room…

Strong public opposition often accompanies proposals for schemes being announced. Counter Context delivers effective consultation and engagement to increase understanding and acceptance in communities. This year, we have facilitated 20 public consultation events around Norfolk for the world’s largest offshore wind farm. We have undertaken robust research and communications planning for a client in the solar industry and are ready to roll out the first stage of public consultation for a large scale solar farm.

All projects have risks. We work with our clients to reduce those risks by building understanding and trust, and deliver successful schemes with local support.

On the horizon for this sector is the outcome of responses to the industrial strategy green paper and how developers will deliver against ambitious price bids in the latest CfD auction. Finally, we are investigating what future government support will look like, following HM Treasury’s announcement that it would abolish the Levy Control Framework.

Nuclear, wind and the battle for trust and support

Written by Sam Rowe.
On the northern coasts of England, two fascinating stories are being played out which may determine the future of our energy industry. On the west coast, the uncertainty of Moorside and the nuclear industry, while on the east coast, the optimism of offshore wind.

 Moorside and Cumbria

The proposed nuclear power plant in Moorside, near Sellafield in Cumbria, has promised be transformational to the region. It is estimated that the £15bn project will bring over 20,000 jobs to the area, and confidence in it going ahead was high. Consultation had already begun on the overhead pylons to carry the power generated to the National Grid, with a planning application for the connections due to be submitted this year. Before the recent by-election in nearby constituency Copland, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn refused to commit his support to the proposed development in an interview, which was a significant factor in Labour’s subsequent historic defeat of the seat to the Conservatives.

Since that by-election, the future of the project looks far less certain that it was originally thought. The US nuclear division of Toshiba – who had a 60% stake in NuGen, the consortium behind Moorside, recently filed for bankruptcy. It was planned that this division, Westinghouse Electric, would build the three reactors for the proposed plant. Since the bankruptcy was announced, Toshiba started a review of its involvement in non-Japanese nuclear projects. Since then, 40% stake holder Engie has pulled out of the project, leaving Toshiba the sole backer, and National Grid’s plans for connecting pylons have been put on hold. Local MPs are calling for Government intervention.

Wind and the Humber

On the other side of the country, things could not be more different. At the recent Offshore Wind Connections event in Bridlington, delegates were waxing lyrical about the promising future of the offshore wind industry in the Humber. £20bn has already been invested into the industry in the UK, with the new wind turbine factory Green Port Hull being a huge success for employment in the local area. Lord Haskins, chair of the Humber Local Enterprise Partnership, stated that offshore wind is already producing 10% of all electricity in the country, and could well be producing up to 40% in the next 15 years. Through cuts in costs and technological advances leading to increased productivity and competitiveness, offshore wind has made itself an increasingly attractive investment. It looks likely that it will soon be able to rely less on Government backing and stand on its own two feet. As Hugh McNeal, chief executive of RenewableUK put it, offshore wind has gone ‘from the sidelines to the mainstream in less than a decade.’

Here we have two contrasting case studies of relationships with the wider political and economic stakeholder groups. The Moorside project, with its huge potential but financial risks, has less and less enthusiasm from the global business community, yet still has the political leverage to topple parties in the local area. Government will no doubt do as much as possible to make the project happen – Greg Clark has already visited Seoul to talk with South Korean Government officials to secure investment. In contrast, the offshore wind industry, even in the Humber region, still receives mixed views amongst the prospective MP candidates, and is constantly having to justify the benefits it has brought. It is unlikely anyone will lose their seat in Lincolnshire or the Humber due to a lack of support for offshore wind.

Evidently, the offshore wind industry still has a way to go to garner trust and support in the regional and national political communities. It is doing all the right things by decreasing costs, creating jobs and increasing investment returns, but so far has yet to spark the imagination of the country at large. A lot of work has been done to make offshore wind a viable, mainstream source of energy. Yet more work is required to convince everyone that this is the case.