Renewable energy: an uncomfortable position

Ian Marchant

Ian Marchant FEI, Immediate Past President

I have been looking at how the UK is doing against its EU renewable energy targets. These set us a target of having 15% of all energy from renewable sources by 2020. The government would have us believe that all is well. It’s most recent report (published in January) took great delight in saying that we comfortably met the interim target up to 2013/14. But is that really the right measure? Interim targets are just that: interim, and it’s always tempting for them to be made easy to push trouble down the road to someone else’s term of office. So let’s look at where we actually are in terms of our final target, against the rest of Europe and against long-term requirements. As you might expect, this gives a far from rosy picture.

Firstly, let’s look at how we have done. The baseline for the new targets was 2004 and in that year we achieved a pathetic 1.2% of energy from renewables. After ten years and by 2014 it was 7%. Some simple maths puts this into context. We needed an increase of 13.8% in 16 years and we have managed 5.8% in ten years. In over 60% of the time, we have managed 42% of the target. If we carry on at the same rate, we will only hit 10.5% from renewables. In fact, according to leaked internal government correspondence, they privately think we may only get to 11.5%. I have seen some analysis looking sector by sector and technology by technology which gives a range of 10% to 11.5%. That doesn’t look at all comfortable.

Secondly, let’s see if the international picture gives any comfort. The EU actually has an overall renewable energy target of 20% and has agreed country by country targets within this, with the UK having a lower than average figure of 15%. The EU have recently published a progress report and nine countries have already achieved their final target (no interim target nonsense for them) and we are third furthest away from the end goal (only France and the Netherlands are further away). Despite the government’s trumpeting, our 7% only ranks us 24th out of 27. Outside of Europe we are behind most other countries including Canada, Mexico, Switzerland and even the US. We are level with Australia and ahead of Japan and Russia. Being near the bottom of international league tables doesn’t feel comfortable.

Thirdly, let’s think about where we are against the long term. I hear DECC ministers talking gleefully about the deal they secured in Paris. Leaving aside the UK’s role in securing anything, by 2020 we will be one third of the way from 2004 to the 2050 deadline by which time the global leaders expect the energy industry to be largely carbon free. I can’t see how that can be achieved without renewables contributing over 50% to the energy mix and, at the current rate of progress, even if it is maintained for another 34 years, that suggests we will only get to around a quarter. So the long term doesn’t provide much comfort either.

All three perspectives feel uncomfortable and whilst progress in 2015 may be quite good, this was before the current government’s attacks on onshore wind and solar. One final bit of analysis – it is possible to turn the UK’s likely shortfall into the electricity output measures of TWhours. On this basis, the shortfall will be between 50 and 70TWh (to provide context, the UK annual electricity demand is usually just over 300TWh ). There are obviously choices as to how the gap could be filled but the UK government has ruled out using more onshore wind and solar and expects to boost heat and offshore wind. Given the UK’s track record on heat (in 2014 we were bottom of the heat pile in Europe), I’m not optimistic and offshore wind, although it’s getting cheaper, will always be more expensive than onshore. I’ve calculated that for every 1GW of onshore wind that isn’t built but is replaced by offshore wind, it will cost the UK £100m every year (that’s 2.5TWh of output at a £40 per MWh cost differential). There’s probably another 6 to 10GW that could be built so the total cost could get to as high as a billion a year.

So we aren’t in a comfortable position at all, however you look at it, and we seem to be making things more expensive and difficult than they need to be. A classic case of not accepting the short term headlines.

Facing the future head on

Louise Kingham OBE FEI Chief Executive

Louise Kingham OBE
Chief Executive

Gloom and doom casts a shadow across headlines about the oil and gas industry as economic slowdown and the continuing falls in commodity prices wipes millions off the value of stock markets around the globe. These circumstances are forcing companies to reshape their businesses with the inevitable pain of the impact this has on jobs, productivity, progress in the shorter term and the wider social impact which can be much longer lasting.

Industry cycles are expected – as are the’ ups and downs’ we experience when we’re in them. Clearly it’s important to ride the down times as well as you can but, at the same time, good leadership always has an eye on the future. Making time to think and understand how things will be different going forward and what that means for our organisations and so, being able to reposition to embrace change is essential.

At the same time, worldwide pledges have been made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as part of the COP21 commitment. This takes engagement from the oil and gas sector and so, while managing the downturn, the industry is also examining  the challenges and opportunities these environmental responsibilities present.

With that in mind, listening to the impressive line-up of leaders gearing up to speak at International Petroleum Week in London in less than two weeks’ time to tell us how they are facing the future head on will be time well spent. Bob Dudley FEI from BP, Patrick Pouyanne from Total, Ayman Asfari FREng FEI from Petrofac and Igor Sechin from Rosneft are among the many taking part in presentations and panel debates between 9-11 February. I’d suggest you can’t afford to miss it.

We don’t want energy storage

Ian Marchant

Ian Marchant FEI, Immediate Past President

Claiming that we don’t want energy storage seems like a provocative thing to say. For example, the Energy Institute (EI)’s 2015 Energy Barometer report, a survey of professionals in the energy industry, rated storage as the area most in need of innovation. My point isn’t that energy storage isn’t important; it is. My point is that, of itself, it’s not something we actually want. You don’t hear people say that what they want for Christmas is just some simple energy storage along with some socks and a chocolate orange!! In thinking about the technicalities of energy storage we should first think about what we actually want and I believe we want two things: RESILIENCE and FLEXIBILITY.

Let me illustrate with the energy storage that most of us are familiar with, even if we don’t recognise it as such; the fuel in the tank of our car. The typical fuel tank holds 50 to 60 litres of fuel that gives us both instant flexibility even on a cold morning (modern cars are so good at starting nowadays) and a couple of weeks worth of resilience assuming average mileage. Indeed, if we knew there was a supply crunch most of us could probably stretch that full tank for a month or so by car sharing, using public transport and the like.

So that unseen energy storage which comes free when you buy a car and only ties up £50 to £60 in fuel gives us a lot of resilience and flexibility in our mobility. The energy system that has evolved over the last hundred years or so has embedded within it quite a lot of hidden resilience and flexibility. As well as our car fuel tanks we have petrol and diesel at filling stations and tank farms, we have piles of coal at our diminishing number of coal-fired powers stations and we have natural gas in the network of pipes, in dedicated storage facilities like Rough and Hornsea and offshore where at some fields production can be ramped up quite quickly.

However, the energy world is changing. We need to decarbonise our electricity system and then the rest of our energy system. This second stage is likely to increase the role of electricity in meeting our heating and transport needs. The problems are that firstly our current electricity system only has embedded in it the resilience and flexibility that the current uses of electricity needs, and secondly what little already exists is in decline principally as old coal stations shut.  This is exacerbated by the fact that  low carbon forms of energy, be they renewables, nuclear or clean fossil fuels, are not currently known for their inherent flexibility or resilience. So we will be faced with less of what we need just when we start needing more. What will happen when our electric car battery needs to be recharged at the same time as our heat pump needs to work and we want all our lights and gadgets to function but it’s a still calm night?

This is the reason why so many energy professionals put energy storage at the top of their innovation agenda. In deciding on where that innovation should be targeted we need to think about what level in the electricity system we can best provide resilience and flexibility. There are four possible levels: the source of demand (our home for example); the local area (think of the transformer at the end of your street); the generator itself; or the grid as a whole. The answer may be a combination of all four levels and, importantly, may be different for resilience than it is for flexibility. It will be determined by things like economies of scale, the efficiency of sharing the capabilities with others (we don’t all need to meet our own maximum flexibility – if we can pool with others then the flexibility needs of the system will be less than the sum of all the individual needs) and the value of providing security close to demand. I have a hunch that the answer may involve local or even domestic level resilience and generator or grid level flexibility but time will tell.

Debate about energy storage tends to get dominated right from the start about technology, be it batteries, phase change material or pumped storage hydro. However, we need to separately assess our current and future needs for resilience and flexibility, then decide at what level in the system that need can be most efficiently met and only then determine the choice of technology. We have to put needs before technology.

Gearing up for the EI’s 2016 Energy Barometer

Louise Kingham OBE FEI Chief Executive

Louise Kingham OBE
Chief Executive

Although we only published the first Energy Barometer this year, it has already become a widely recognised and understood report by those that help to shape the energy world we, as energy professionals, work to sustain and develop.

From its launch in the Palace of Westminster to the desks of CEOs, to the offices of Ministers and senior civil servants to the national, local and trade media, the Barometer has travelled far and wide, encouraging debate and development of the discussion around knowledge transfer, innovation in energy developments, investment in energy technologies and engagement with customers. The EI has also begun work to address solutions to some of the challenges members raised.

Now it is time to develop the 2016 report. In 2015 we invited some members to form a College. We will soon be sending out invitations to some existing College members and, as we promised, extending membership of the College to new participants to balance continuity with the opportunity for wider participation among the Fellowship and Graduate members in particular. We hope you will want to contribute to this important work.

Officials within the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) are also getting involved this time around to enhance the direct effectiveness of the useful resource that the Barometer has already become. The Barometer is an essential conduit for the energy professionals’ evidence to be heard – I hope you will add your voice to it.

Making heat ‘cool’

Professor Jim Skea CBE EI President

Professor Jim Skea CBE
EI President

Energy decision-making is widely varied. There are mega-decisions about nuclear reactors, gigawatt-scale offshore wind farms and interconnectors that criss-cross the North Sea. Then there are the literally millions of decisions, each modest in itself, which collectively shape energy needs and markets. Policymakers and headline writers love the big stuff. Nevertheless, it is the more humble things which will shape out the energy future and which really challenge policymakers.

“Heat” has become a catch-all term to describe all forms of energy use that are not electricity and not transport – and that’s a very large share of energy demand. There is a tendency to describe heat as a “sector”. Winston Churchill once famously said that India was no more a country than the equator was. Well India is certainly a country now but, in my view, heat is no more a sector than a kettle of boiling water is. And talking about heat markets is also bizarre. There may be some district heating schemes where heat is priced and traded but, for the moment, heat largely stays within the premises where it is generated and used.

It is also odd that the energy labelled “heat” in commercial buildings is more often used to keep us cool. Hence, the not entirely facetious title of this blog – we could really do with a catchy term, which covers the energy needed to keep us comfortable, whether it involves nudging temperatures up or down. “Heat” makes it sound as though policy is all DECC’s job. Something round “buildings” or “built environment” would make it clear that other government departments, notably Communities and Local Government who look after building standards have a rather important role to play.  Suggestions welcome!

One of the consequences of regarding heat as a sector on par with real sectors, such as electricity, is the temptation to mimic policy mechanisms that work well where there are functioning markets, c.f. the complexity of the Green Deal. Smaller consumers do not make decisions with the same degree of sophistication as finance officers in major utility companies – and nor should they. If we want to promote energy efficiency and renewable heat then simple, understandable rules and incentives are needed. I was talking to a Swede yesterday who pointed out that Scandinavians value simplicity in all things from furniture design to energy policy. They look with bemusement at the elaborate mechanisms that the UK uses to shape electricity markets and energy consumption patterns.

So where does this rather grumpy rant take us? First, I think we need a holistic approach to keeping people comfortable in indoor environments. It is basically about minimising energy use and maximising inputs from environmentally sustainable energy sources. Second, a joined-up vision of where we are going would help. Top-down views of UK low carbon energy futures suggest a big role for heat pumps for example – but it is fair to say many energy professionals remain sceptical.  Every time an old boiler is replaced by a modern combi boiler we lose the hot water tank – the cheapest form of energy storage for buildings – that would be needed to get heat pumps installed. Are we locking ourselves out of a low carbon future in the longer-term for more incremental gains in the short term? Finally, we need rules and incentives that match the needs of households and businesses and the way they make decisions. When DECC presses control-alt-delete on energy policy after the Spending Review is concluded, let’s hope “heat” is one of the areas that gets the attention it deserves.

The Heat Conference will be held on 25 November in London and is organised by the Association for Decentralised Energy and the Energy Institute.

Restless disposition in energy policy

Ian Marchant

Ian Marchant FEI Immediate Past President

In preparing for a conference on energy policy, I came across this quote from Walter Bagehot – ‘If you keep altering your house, it is a sign either that you have a bad house, or that you have an excessively restless disposition – there is something wrong somewhere’. As a constitutional expert, he was talking about the problems of Government in the 1800s but his comment is so true today.

It was the phrase ‘restless disposition’ that caught my eye, as it is theme that Professor Anthony King uses in his book, Who governs Britain, to describe one of the problems with 21st century politics.  All new ministers want to make an impact; want to be seen to be doing things; want to make announcements that attract headlines. They are always in a hurry.

Energy policy has been a notable victim of this syndrome. This century we have already had nine ministers with cabinet responsibility for energy (counting both DECC and the various forerunners to the Department for Business). It’s even worse at Minister of State level where we are on number 14.  All this change means that the new minister, who arrives with a restless disposition, is also in a tearing hurry as they only have one to two years to make their impact; less time than it takes to build any assets in the energy industry. This timescale precludes thoughtful consideration, proper consultation and assessment of the impact of any change on the whole energy system before action, and completely rules out any learning from the results of previous activity.

The civil service used to act as the brakeman to the ministerial bobsleigh but senior officials change almost as often as ministers and rarely build up expertise in one policy area, seeming to need to switch departments to get promotion. It is no wonder that we have such a patchwork of interventions and plethora of changes and amendments and no wonder that we do not have a joined up, robust energy policy. We are getting what the politicos system is designed to produce – ‘something wrong’ to quote Bagehot.

And EI members agree with me. The EI’s inaugural Energy Barometer  survey reports that EI members see policy continuity as an essential component to reduce investment risk and encourage a longer-term view.  In fact, EI members deem it to be one of the biggest challenges facing the energy industry in 2015. The complexities of the energy system require clearly communicated policies that are consistent over time and with each other.

If we are to have a thought through, robust and enduring energy policy we need a fundamental change to the governance and political arrangements that determine this policy. The stability, longevity and independence of the Governor of the Bank of England is the sort of role we need. And no; I am definitely not interested in doing that job!