At current, the UK is way behind a vast array of countries in the western world. The United States and Germany included. But why we are so far behind these countries is still unclear. Ok, so we may not have an abundance of glorious sunshine to kick start our solar revolution, but we do have windy peaks for wind power, rough seas for tidal power and a plethora of rivers that could be utilised for hydropower.
To find out why the UK is so far behind the rest of the western world on the renewable energy, we decided to speak to a variety of professionals on the subject. This is what they had to say.
Storage, Storage, Storage
Renewable energy produces “intermittent” power at best. The sun is only up for a maximum of twelve hours, the wind is unpredictable at sea level and hydropower is far from 100% efficient as its dependent on the seasonal rain levels.
At current this means that if we switched entirely to renewables vast swathes of the UK could experience power blackouts. To supplement renewables we would need fossil fuel or nuclear power plants running side by side, and unfortunately you can’t just turn on or turn off these types of energy generators. Therefore you need a reliable system for storing the energy. Storing energy is a costly task and you can lose up to one third of the energy in the process.
The aim in the future should be to develop the technologies that store the energy to make it more efficient. We generate the GW’s needed to supplement the UK’s energy needs, but the costs grow exponentially when you try to store the energy for windless days.
While the big decisions like the Paris climate accord are made at a national level, the decisions to approve planning permission to build wind turbines or install hydro plants are still made at a council level.
In the UK, the public are very much in favour of protecting the nation’s green space, and constructing windmills can lead to huge opposition. While UK councillors are still very much protected by party association, their majorities are much smaller than that of Members of Parliament. This can lead to them being persuaded by the sentiment of emotive issues from the local public rather than using logic and fact to make their decisions.
Unfortunately this may stop the UK from fully embracing the benefits of renewable energy for years to come. Realistically it would take a brave government to enforce decisions like this, and while it is rare for a government to overturn a council led decision it did happen in 2016 on the issue of fracking in Lancashire. Interesting.
Quite simply, in the UK, there is a severe lack of an appetite for renewable energy. Similar to the previous point on local councils, there is significant opposition to building windmills or solar fields and there doesn’t seem to be a comparative support to tackle this opposition.
As an example, at the 2015 election, the Green party, who are the main supporters of renewable energy, only managed to receive a 3.8% share of the vote and one Member of Parliament. Compare that to the Green Party in Australia who managed to receive over 10% of the vote in 2016 Australian federal election and the New Zealand based Green Party who managed to receive over 11% of the vote share in their 2014 elections. Unfortunately, it’s expected that their British based Green Party’s share of the vote will decrease in this next election.
While the political system will obviously restrict the Green party from becoming a UK power, the general attitude of the UK public towards renewables is quite lacklustre.
Competition from Fossil Fuels
In many circumstances, mining for coal or extracting oil and natural gas is still the cheapest and easiest method of meeting the high demand for electricity and heating.
While the general tools and technologies for a renewable conversion are available, the tools for transporting and shipping remain quite difficult to convert to renewable power sources. This offers the fossil fuel industry a competitive advantage as they already have the infrastructure available to offer cheaper energy.
In the future we not only need to see investment in the technologies that produce renewable energy but we also need to see investment in the tools that transport this type of energy. Similar to the issue of storing renewable energy, transport of renewable energy remains expensive and wasteful.