SR Chief Exec: three ways to COP21 success


After two weeks of intense diplomacy, the 21st yearly session of the Conference of the Parties in Paris reached what is being hailed as an historic accord. Here, Scottish Renewables Chief Executive Niall Stuart highlights what the energy sector can do to make the agreement into reality.

It may have taken two weeks of intense negotiations and working through days and nights to reach agreement, but the signing of the international agreement on climate change on Saturday marks the beginning of the hard work – not the end.

Countries around the world now have to define how they will keep their end of the bargain, and take the steps necessary to achieve the targets they have signed up to.

Here in the UK, that is likely to require at least a doubling of renewable electricity and a significant improvement to our record on renewable heat and transport, even with a massive improvement in energy efficiency, according to our own Committee on Climate Change. But after a series of cuts and closures to schemes designed to support the growth of the sector, how do we hit the re-set button and get the industry – and government – looking forward again?

Firstly, we need to focus on the ‘quick wins’ that can still be made in the power sector. That is best achieved by maximising the use of the two low carbon technologies which are already on the cusp of competing with gas-fired power – onshore wind and solar power.

It makes no sense to abandon them to the market after years of growth, ever-decreasing costs and improved understanding of what they can contribute to our energy mix, as government seems to intend. Continued support through existing schemes could see the equivalent of several ‘conventional’ power stations deployed over coming years at no additional cost to consumers compared to alternatives.

In fact, based on the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s predictions for power prices, we could even see future onshore wind and solar schemes under-cutting other forms of energy by 2030, even without the cost reductions we are confident both sectors can deliver over coming years.

The other technology that can deliver serious scale between now and 2030 is offshore wind. Ministers have pledged to support another 10GW of capacity in the 2020s (equivalent to four new Longannets) – but only if costs come down. That will best be achieved by government and industry working together to chart out a long term course for the industry’s growth and setting out how we meet our joint aspirations.

Another important technology is biomass, which can of course provide heat and power and be ‘dispatched’ at times of peak demand, meaning it has the potential to play a greater role in the future energy mix.

We should be doing all we can to get the UK out the bottom three of the European league for forestry cover, and seeking to turn unproductive land to productive sources of renewable heat and power for our homes and businesses.

The second priority is to focus on the parts of the energy sector where we know the UK is behind even its modest 2020 targets – heat and transport. Here we need a myriad of different interventions, making the challenge more difficult to manage.

Some of the quickest wins will be in the migration from fossil fuels to electricity for heating and transport, reinforcing the need to grow all forms of renewable power, but especially low cost and readily-built onshore wind and solar.

Longer term, the focus on ‘smart’ meters has obscured the need for smart tariffs which would encourage the use of power for heating and vehicle charging at times of high output and low demand, supporting the shift from gas for heat and road fuels for transport. And there is plenty more we can do to incentivise electric and hydrogen vehicles through simple measures like removing road tax and introducing free parking and use of bus lanes.

We also need to look at alternative means of producing heat, such as combined heat and power for district heating, and also look to expand existing but small-scale sources of gas for heat and power such as waste and agricultural ‘by-products’.
Likewise, there is growing interest in the production of hydrogen from renewable power, and the use of this to dilute natural gas from fossil fuel sources. Alternatively, the hydrogen can be a store of energy for power or heating.

Which brings us on the final priority – the development of new technology. Quite simply, our existing toolkit is not up to the mammoth job that has just been agreed for the world’s energy sector. We need new ways of harnessing energy, but also of storing, distributing and using it.

Because whether governments decide to go for large, expensive and inflexible nuclear plants, or renewables with variable output, we will all need more sophisticated ways of matching up the hourly, daily and seasonal changes in demand for energy.
This will see us going ‘back to the future’ to large pumped storage hydro schemes like Cruachan and modernised ‘white meter’ type storage heating at home, but also increasing our focus on the three main areas of industrial scale heat, hydrogen and battery storage.

While there is a global R&D arms race to develop technologies in each of these areas, there are already ways in which we can deploy them at scale. However, the rules that govern our energy markets need to be updated to recognise the benefits of storage in terms of reducing energy costs and investment in new grid, and even inter-connection with other countries.

The development of storage solutions is also perhaps the clearest way in which the challenge of climate change presents economic opportunity, so let’s focus more of the huge budget for energy R&D on the development of cost-effective and efficient energy storage and seek to reap the economic rewards of doing so.

COP21 is being seen as a historic moment for international action on climate change. With the right actions from our own government it could also be a defining moment in the development of renewable energy here in the UK after months of uncertainty and damaging cuts to support for the sector.