When it comes to green energy progress in the European Union, few countries have had more challenging paths than that of the UK. But a new report by alternative energy analysts GlobalData found that if renewables continue to grow along its present path in the UK, their combined capacity could meet that of fossil fuel capacity by 2025.
The GlobalData report found that cumulative installed capacity of renewable energy plants is expected to reach 79,000 megawatts (MW) by 2025. This is just 2,000 MW less than the predicted installed fossil-fuel capacity by the same year.
So where are all the renewables coming from? For starters, there is wind energy (which won’t surprise anyone who has ever visited coastal UK). Wind is expected to grow from about 6,000 MW in 2011 to 53,000 MW by 2025. Accelerated growth has resulted in part from government support and investment in offshore wind farms.
But it is not all wind; solar energy is growing, too. Growth of solar photovoltaics in the UK is expected to take installed capacity of just over 1,000 MW in 2011 to 13,338 MW in 2025, according to the GlobalData report.
All this, of course, is based on the presumption that the UK government continues its support for the renewable sector in the form of subsidies and other actions designed to encourage growth in alternative energy. But to many industry observers, this support is not strong and defined enough to be counted on.
In August, about 170 UK-based green technology and energy businesses signed a letter to UK Prime Minister David Cameron by the Renewable Energy Association that called for a public declaration of support for green energy. The letter also called for a resolution to the uncertainty that surrounds renewable subsidies, reported the Guardian. Prince Charles was one of the signatories of the letter.
The Renewable Energy Association and its supporters worry that government subsidies, once clear-cut and strongly supported by Parliament, are being undermined. While offshore wind subsidies are carved in stone until 2017, subsidies for onshore wind projects will be subject to another review in the near future, and solar subsidies are up for review again next year, with no certainty that support will continue. The association maintains that this patchwork of subsidy regulations and renewal dates is confusing and scaring off financial backers from renewable energy projects.
Martin Wright, chairman of the association, said:
Renewables must not be treated like a political football, kicked between the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Treasury. Government shouldn’t squander this once in a generation opportunity to transform our energy system into one fit for the future, with all the jobs and inward investment this will bring.
So who are the players of this “political football”? Most of the association’s charges are currently being aimed at George Osborne, a member of the Conservative Party and the UK’s top economic and financial minister. Osborne is reportedly committed to cutting the UK’s deficit, and green energy proponents worry his measures will come at the expense of support for renewables.
Detractors have accused Osborne of trying to scrap green energy legislation to placate Conservative Party backbenchers in Parliament, many of whom are already actively campaigning in their constituencies against wind farms and new transmission lines for carrying the generated electricity to population areas. Existing transmission resources are at full capacity, and the push to expand wind power in the UK cannot be accomplished without more power lines.
Osborne has offered to allow subsidies for onshore wind projects to be cut by only 10 percent, rather than by the 25 percent that the Treasury previously demanded. But, in return, the Treasury has proposed that 2030 targets to drive down carbon emissions and expand renewable energy in the UK be eliminated.
Conservatives aren’t the only ones in the UK who are sour on wind turbines. Nature lovers, too, have objected to more onshore wind turbines, particularly those slated to go up in areas of great natural beauty, such as Snowdonia in Wales and the Lake District in northwestern England.
The UK, of course, isn’t on just a feel-good mission with renewable energy. As a European Union member, the UK is compelled to meet EU targets for renewables. At this time, the EU is working toward a published goal of getting 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. These renewable sources will include wind, solar, hydroelectric, biomass, tidal power (marine energy) and geothermal, in addition to cutting-edge technologies such as osmotic power, which is still in experimental stages. Meanwhile, the UK’s National Renewable Energy Plan, published in 2009, dictates that the nation must attain 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 — compared with just 1.5 percent in 2005.
The UK is well behind some of its fellow states in Europe. Sweden has the highest renewable energy mix in the EU, achieving 47.9 percent in 2010. Latvia, Finland and Austria have reported over 30 percent renewable energy mixes. Malta, Luxembourg, the UK and the Netherlands are the stragglers, reporting the lowest shares of renewables in 2010. (Although Norway has the highest rate of green energy Europe, at 61.1 percent, it is a EU nation.)
The UK may be facing the most significant challenge in Europe when it comes to green energy. Scotland, with its growing nationalist movement and a nationalist First Minister, Alex Salmond, has been moving more steadily toward a push for independence from the UK. Scotland, of course, sits on the North Sea, the location of most of the UK’s oil reserves.
Salmond plans to hold a referendum vote for independence in 2014 (a symbolic date that will coincide with the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, Scotland’s most famous military victory over England).
Westminster has good reason to be alarmed. Support for independence within Scotland is on the rise, thanks to deep spending cuts resulting from austerity budgets that many Scots feel have disproportionately affected them.
Detailed examination of UK oil and gas have found that Scottish waters account for 91.1 percent of the nation’s North Sea fossil fuel revenue in 2009, totaling some £13 billion (over $21 billion). Heated discussions are taking place in both the halls of power and on Internet blogs about to whom the oil and gas reserves belong: Scotland or the UK.
If it belongs to the UK, then Scotland is likely better off remaining part of the union. In 2009, the Treasury spent about £54 billion on Scotland and received £43.5 billion in revenue in return, indicating that Scotland is economically dependent on the UK, according to BBC Channel 4’s Fact Checker website.
Should Scotland succeed in breaking away from the UK and take its billions of pounds of oil revenue with it, the UK may be forced to purchase that oil, which would drive up prices for petroleum and its derivatives even further.
This might be one more reason for Conservative Party backbenchers and others opposed to expanding renewable energy generation to back off, as the UK may have no other energy options in the future. Of course, it is also important to note that currently, the majority of the UK’s large-scale wind farms are located in… wait for it… Scotland.