Renewable energy targets: how Goldilocks got eaten by a bear



The bear

The bear

So how are we doing with that all important target of 15% of final energy use to be provided by renewables by 2020? It is a target agreed with our EU partners and I suppose some will say it doesn’t matter if we aren’t going to be in the EU come 2020. But even then there is the small issue of keeping the UK’s energy carbon output on a trajectory that makes a low carbon energy landscape possible by 2030, and we are of course in the EU right now. So for legal reasons and for reasons of keeping the planet in one piece answering the above question does currently matter.

Last Spring the misleadingly titled Renewable Energy Foundation (REF) (which, we should note, does not seem to be in favour of many renewables, and most notably onshore wind) published and widely trailed a claim that Britain was already well on the way to meeting its EU 2020 renewables target. The organisation therefore concluded that all outstanding onshore wind applications were, in reality, surplus to requirements.

Ed Davey, responding to a letter from Mary Creagh MP about those claims, advised that there isn’t actually a surplus hanging around. He pointed out that REF had assumed that everything in the planning pipeline gets built (he suggested that for example 50% of proposed onshore wind gets planning permission, and of that, 70% actually gets completed). However, despite the above, he did imply that the existence of the ‘pipeline’ means that ‘we remain on course to meet our…2020 renewable energy targets cost effectively’.

So who’s right on this? Remember that the 2020 target is an overall agreed EU target for 15% of final energy use to be met by renewables – which implies a far higher proportion of our electricity to be made up of renewables than that in order to meet the overall goal. It is generally accepted that about 35 – 40 % of our electricity by then should be from renewable sources, which, so the REF tells us, equates to about 33 gigawatts of installed power at average renewable capacity values.

Sorry, I was asking who was right…Well clearly Ed Davey is right to pull REF up on its assumptions about how much ‘in the pipeline’ will actually get built. But he is, I am afraid, now increasingly finding himself guilty of exactly the same assumption: that is that are enough renewable projects ‘in the pipeline’ to come good regardless of the various vicissitudes that the technologies are going through.

Ed’s most recent go at projecting the mix of technologies which would generate the installed capacity we need to deliver the 2020 target line was contained in the December 2013 Electricity Market Delivery Plan, which he helpfully pointed Mary Creagh to in his letter. This report (p.40) lists the range of projected capacity of the various renewables that the Department expects to fill the bill – overall from a minimum of 27.2 installed GW to 40 GW at the most optimistic. And there it sits, in the middle, the ‘goldilocks’ figure of about 33.3 GW. Thank god for ‘the pipeline’.

Well, except that is, if you turn to what DECC told the National Audit Office (NAO) this spring about what actually IS in that pipeline, and what its status is. You can check it out here on p.31 of their report ‘Early Contracts for Renewable Electricity’. At first sight this chart looks like case proven for the Renewable Energy Foundation. No less than 44GW of capacity in onshore wind, offshore wind and biomass listed, and that’s without the 4GW or so of large solar already installed or on its way. But the NAO have helpfully divided the overall figures into what is operational, being built, consented to and what awaits planning permission, and of all the plants in development, which have or don’t have an early investment contract agreed.

If we apply this helpful division into the events of the past few months, then the reality starts to look substantially less rosy.

The government has essentially stopped field solar installations because of Levy Control Framework (LCF) worries. So it is likely that the installed total of large solar installations by 2020 will stay around where it is.

But there’s still onshore, offshore and biomass in the pipeline? Well, Mr Pickles has decided to can onshore wind applications by calling them all in and refusing them, so it is probable that consented onshore will get built at about the rate Ed Davey suggests, but not otherwise.

But what about biomass and offshore? For this we have to turn to the LCF, also inter alia, the subject of the NAO’s report. DECC’s latest figures on the LCF, set out in the Annual Energy Statement in September show that the LCF is essentially bust. Projects that do not already have an investment contract (five offshore wind farms and three biomass plants…oh and of course a whacking great big nuclear power plant which doesn’t count as renewable even though it has scooped up shedloads of CfDs) are very unlikely to get anything now before 2020. Even if one is very generous with assumptions about the knock on the impact of the cumulative total of CfDs from other years, in the figures forward to 2020, it is hard to see anything more than one medium-sized, offshore windfarm getting a CfD, and even then, not before about 2018, by which time it will be too late for 2020. And of course the same goes for biomass. So on these figures, probably best to discount anything that does not now have the prospect of getting a CfD before 2020. Unless you believe that suddenly un-CfD supported projects will rise up and get built – highly unlikely.

And all this means that (and you’ll have to trust my maths on this, but I’ll happily send you a working sheet of the calculations), taking everything into account, we miss the magic figure of installed capacity by about 3GW or 10%. Granted, a good effort compared to where we were a little while ago but way short of where we need to be, way short of where Ed Davey seems to believe, despite the best efforts of his own government, that we will be, and miles off REF’s rambling.

Unless, of course, the LCF is recast to iron out its manifest faults, and/or Mr Pickles is taken away in a van and held somewhere until it’s all over, or of course we leave the EU in 2017. After that we won’t need to worry about the renewables target and the implications of not meeting it, but we might worry that we didn’t have much of an energy economy left, renewable or otherwise.




One thought on “Renewable energy targets: how Goldilocks got eaten by a bear

  1. Not being an energy analyst is quite difficult to follow (what is a CfD as scooped up by the nuclear project?) but well done Alan for this analysis! How about balancing this against the subsidies for fossil fuel exploration? Or better still redirecting them.

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