Can renewable energy sources power the world?
Can renewable energy sources power the world?

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Can renewable energy sources power the world?

1 UK renewable energy futures

Firstly we’ll discuss renewable energy futures, starting with the prospects for deployment of renewables in the UK.

How much of the UK’s energy needs could renewables supply in the coming decades? Figure 13 in Week 1 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   illustrated how the UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) envisages the potential contribution of renewables growing from 2020 to 2030.

Its analysis suggests that by 2030 renewables could be providing between:

  1. 28 and 46% of UK delivered energy
  2. 30 and 65% of electricity supplies
  3. 35 and 50% of heat
  4. 11 and 25% of transport energy (CCC, 2011).

The prospects for UK renewables deployment on a shorter timescale, to 2020, were published in 2011 by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in its Renewable Energy Roadmap (DECC, 2011e). The UK is committed under the EU Renewable Energy directive (European Commission, 2009) to produce some 15% of its gross final energy from renewables by 2020, and the Roadmap sets out in some detail how the UK government proposes to achieve this.

Table 1 DECC Renewable Energy Roadmap’s central view of the deployment potential of renewable energy technologies by 2020

Technology Central range for deployment in 2020/TWh y-1
Onshore wind 24-32
Offshore wind 33-58
Biomass electricity 32-50
Marine 1
Biomass heat (non-domestic) 36-50
Air-source and ground-source heat pumps (non-domestic) 16-22
Renewable transport Up to 48
Others (including hydro, geothermal, solar and domestic heat) 14
Estimated 15% target 234
Source: DECC, 2011e

Table 1, summarises the ranges of annual energy contributions of the eight technologies DECC considers likely to make the most significant contributions to achieving the 15% goal in its ‘central view’ of their deployment potential.

Watch this video, which looks at EU and UK Renewable energy targets for 2020 and 2030, at fossil fuel supplies, and the factors involved in a transition to low-density renewable sources. The potential resource available from solar power in the UK is discussed, along with the case for major investments in renewables.

Download this video clip.Video player: track_01_renewable_energy_and_the_uk.mp4
Skip transcript


In 2009, under the Renewable Energy Directive, the European Union committed itself to supplying 20 percent of its delivered energy from renewable sources by 2020. Within this framework, the UK has accepted a binding target to produce 15 percent of its delivered energy from renewables. Is the UK on course to deliver?
We've seen a huge improvement in terms of the output from renewables in the United Kingdom. We're now well into double figures in terms of renewable electricity. And so we're moving very strongly in the right direction. I think if you go back just a few years, people thought the 2020 target, when we've got to get 15 percent of our energy and over 30 percent of our electricity from renewables, many people thought that was unattainable.
But increasingly people can see it that it can be done. We're changing the funding regime to give much greater certainty to investors, because we know that they need longevity. And we've also put in place a carbon floor price, and so people who are looking to invest understand the framework of the market in which they're investing. That there will be an extra charge on those who are generating electricity from hydrocarbons, because of the carbon floor price.
Currently, the European Commission is considering even more ambitious targets for renewable energy beyond 2020. However, while the UK government has been taking steps to meet its current targets, it is hesitant about longer term commitments. Should there be a more specific target for renewables? Or just a more general target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2030?
I think that's a case for a low carbon target EU wide, but I think it should be left to be not sector specific in terms of whether that's renewables or other sources of low carbon. So could that be nuclear? Could it be carbon capture and storage attached to coal or gas? The objective is low carbon. Renewables is one of the way of getting there. Renewables isn't necessarily an objective separately in its own right.
But I think what we do need to see, if we're going to get the industrial gain from this, is greater clarity about what each technology can deliver in the 2020's. Because if people are going to invest in building wind turbines or the blades or the pylons here, then they need to know there's a market which is there for a decade, 15, 20 years. If it's only there until 2020, they can't justify the investment.
And I think without the jobs coming through on the industrial side, people are going to say, well, hang on a minute. Why are we paying more for our electricity sometimes? Why is that money going abroad, because many of these are foreign owned companies, and the jobs are going abroad as well. And so in terms of the public support for this, I think it's incredibly important that we have an industrial strategy which goes with the energy strategy. And that needs greater clarity about what each sector can deliver.
The UK used to be self-sufficient in oil and gas, but around the year 2000 output peaked and started to fall. By 2004, Britain had become a net importer, and is soon expected to be importing 3/4 of its gas.
So what are the future prospects for oil and gas supplies, not only from traditional sources, but also from new unconventional ones?
One of the problems that are nipping at our heels is a supply of conventional hydrocarbons- oil and gas. There are very large amounts of oil in various sorts, oil in shale rocks. Perhaps staggeringly large amounts of gas in things called methane hydrates, which we haven't yet learned how to exploit, and so on. So nobody should be worried on the total resource space.
But where the difficulty comes is in the sorts of oil and gas that we know how to get out, which are relatively cheap to get out. Those we've known about for a surprisingly long time are relatively small in amount, and you go over what's called a peak. You go over maximum production rate, not when you've used them up, but when you've used up roughly half of what you have available. For something like 30, 40 years we've known that somewhere between the year 2000 and 2010, we were likely to be hitting problems on the supply.
What are the problems involved in making a transition from high density concentrated fossil fuels to dispersed low density renewable sources?
One of the problems with renewable energy is some of the sources are relatively weak in terms of the amount of energy per unit area of land. It applies to biomass. It applies to wind. In most places it applies to solar. Some of them are area constrains, and some are not. So if you're a country with a high population density, and you're only depending on some of those weaker energy systems in terms of the ones where the energy density per square metre is relatively low, then you're going to have to work very hard to make a large percentage of your energy come from renewables. It can be done. You can do calculations for any region. They've done it for Japan- a relatively high density. They've done it for UK. You can show 100 percent renewable calculations enough there, but it's a lot tougher than if you're living in a country with a relatively low population and a large resource just outside your door.
With solar energy, we face cultural problems. There are people who don't like the visual impact of a solar farm in particular, or even blue solar modules on rooftops. And my thought for those folk is there are no free lunches with energy. Every form of energy has its downsides. We don't need as much land as our detractors say. With solar, for example, we have calculated that if we cover all available roof space and the facades of buildings- not that we'd want to do that in the real world, but if we did just to show how potent the technology is even in cloudy Britain- we could provide more electricity than the country currently consumes.
So what does the UK need to do to move forward?
I think an important thing when we talk about how can we convince politicians? How can you convince the public that this is the route we should go down? Is to go beyond just looking at the simple numbers of how much something costs, and actually start talking about what we spend money on. Yes, building 10,000 large offshore wind turbines will cost in total many, many billions. But what we say is, look. You know, spending many, many billions on building all this renewal energy infrastructure would be a tremendous opportunity for creating employment in this country.
The choice that we have about the future isn't one between are we going to have cheap energy, or expensive energy? We will have to pay a lot of money for energy in the future. And we think overall we should be aiming to rather spend money on creating the infrastructure to produce our own energy in this country, rather than saying let's just spend more and more money on finite energy sources from other countries. I think that's the debate we need to have. Not just how much does it cost, but what are we actually spending the money on?
End transcript
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Download this video clip.Video player: track_01_renewable_energy_and_the_uk.mp4
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