On-shore wind U-turn

Dave Toke says renewables plus storage is the most secure energy strategy   

As Britain faces a crisis caused by the country’s reliance on extremely high natural gas prices, we desperately need an environmentally sustainable alternative to reliance on such an expensive energy source. Renewable energy and energy efficiency are solutions that can be deployed relatively quickly at low cost. Together with storage, they are also much more secure than nuclear power or fossil fuels. Crucially, they provide an effective path to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.  

The current government is incompetent in delivering on energy efficiency, either in existing or new buildings. The last Labour government implemented efficiency rapidly in existing buildings. But the Conservatives scrapped Labour’s programme and have been unable and unwilling to pick up the ball that was stupidly discarded.   

Policy inertia has continued the deployment of the plans set up originally in the latter days of the Labour government for offshore wind. However, the Tories scrapped most of the onshore wind programme in 2015.   

A recently claimed ‘U-turn’ in policy in allowing more onshore wind in England still leaves onshore windfarms facing large obstacles that did not exist before the Conservatives put them there in 2015. The fact that the Government decided not to impose an effective ban on planning new solar farms in England may only be thanks to the fact that it thought it would look bad at the same time as giving the go-ahead to a new coal mine in Cumbria.  

Nuclear power is promoted as a secure alternative to so-called ‘intermittent’ renewables. Yet wind and solar power are not only predictable but are so cheap that their products can be stored. Nuclear power and fossil fuels like natural gas are not stored, and as we are finding now with natural gas, are not backed up by affordable energy sources. In practice, we are having to drastically cut back energy services – heating – to survive the crisis.   

Meanwhile in France, the year 2022 has seen a deep crisis for its nuclear industry with, at some points, half its reactors closed for different reasons. France makes Europe’s energy problems worse by having to import power from its neighbours, including the UK, when they can least afford to help France’s ailing nuclear industry.  

An energy system based on renewables will be very secure. That is because we know already we shall have to have effective storage systems to ensure that when there is not enough wind or sun, we still have energy supplies. That does mean having large reserves of stored renewable energy.   

We can store renewable energy in the same way that countries like Germany already store large quantities of natural gas. Indeed, one plan is to convert renewable energy into carbon neutral methane. This can be done by using renewable energy to suck carbon dioxide out of the air and add hydrogen produced by electrolysing water with renewable energy. The results are combined to produce methane. Carbon neutral methanol can also be produced using a broadly similar process. Methane and methanol can be easily stored.

Producing hydrogen on its own from renewable energy may be cheaper than all of this, but hydrogen is much more costly to store in large quantities compared to methane and methanol. Methane and methanol can also be used to power conventional gas turbines and engines to generate electricity when we need it – when there is not enough wind or sun over long periods. Of course, the daily fluctuations of renewables can be ironed out by use of batteries, a lot of which are coming into existence anyway in the form of electric car batteries and home batteries which accompany solar PV on rooftops.   

The risks involved in a 100% renewable energy systems are known and calculable. They can be managed. But the risks of fossil-fuel-based systems, such as oil crises and gas crises, have not been calculated or managed (certainly not by the UK). Likewise, the risks of breakdowns or accidents in fleets of nuclear reactors are known but are not easily calculable.  

Yet the UK Government’s plan for achieving net zero carbon by 2050 involves continuing consumption of natural gas in large quantities, albeit with the carbon captured and stored. Meanwhile, British politicians blame each other for a failure to build nuclear power plants when the problem is not the politicians but the cost and deliverability of nuclear power technology.   

There has to be a better way. It is called 100% renewable energy. The campaign group 100percentrenewableuk will soon be producing a model comparing a 100% renewable UK with the Government’s plans for energy. You will be able to judge for yourself!  

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