Patricia Thornley, Director of The University of Manchester’s SUPERGEN Bioenergy Hub, comments on the UKs desperate need for a road map to renewable energy implementation.
- In the UK around a third of our energy consumption is used for heating – the next government should mandate energy efficient building design in all new housing developments.
- Low carbon alternatives must be a priority and policy incentives and infrastructure investment are key ways to make this happen.
- The environmental cost of aviation needs to be addressed as part of a wider coherent strategy.
- We need a policy framework and incentives for developers to adopt “negative emission” technology.
Significant progress has been made in renewable energy implementation in the UK, but there is still a very long way to go. Any politicians who seriously want to protect the UK from the very real dangers of climate change need to think beyond electricity to heat and transport. Around a third of the UK’s energy consumption is used for heating. We complain about the rising costs of fuel bills and yet back away from enforcing energy efficient building designs. These should be mandated in new developments.
Once we have minimized building energy consumption we need to look at how we provide the energy. District and community heating schemes can deliver low cost, secure heating and these can be fired from low carbon sources, such as biomass, waste or recovery of low grade heat from industrial processes. Low carbon alternatives to natural gas can be introduced into the gas grid to reduce carbon emissions. These require policy incentives and infrastructure investment, which should be top priorities for the next parliamentary term.
Having reduced the carbon intensity of the energy supply, how do we encourage consumers to actually use less energy? The current tariffs offered by energy companies fail to do this. Assigning a significant proportion of the charges levied to fixed or standing charges weakens the link between consumption and cost and reduces the incentive for consumers to reduce their energy consumption. This is exacerbated by the facts that a unit of electricity costs about 5 times as much as a unit of gas, but the carbon emissions associated with a unit of electricity are only 2-3 times that of gas. So the price signals sent out by the tariffs don’t incentivise reduction of carbon emissions. An overhaul is needed so that consumption that emit more carbon actually cost more. Even then the savings achieved may be too small to encourage people to act because the UK enjoys relatively cheap energy costs. Increasing prices (with appropriate protection for vulnerable groups) would help to incentivise reductions in consumption.
Aviation has brought global benefits of mobility and trade which have transformed our world. But these have been achieved at significant environmental cost and the long term sustainability of aviation needs to be addressed. The next government could do this through a combination of low carbon fuels, novel technologies or reduced utilisation – for it to have impact it must be part of a wider coherent strategy.
And when all the above is said and done there remains a gaping hole in the UK’s emission budgets that will be filled by “negative emission” technologies. These technologies remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere for example biomass with carbon capture and storage. These are largely unproven technologies with uncertain costs and there is no policy framework to incentivize developers to adopt them. Clearly there is an urgent need to develop a road map that demonstrates the feasibility of achieving in the real world the level of negative emission being assumed in models.