By 2020 the UK’s target is to achieve 15% of final energy consumption from renewable sources. Will we get there? It’s a simple enough question, but the journey is full of uncertainty. National Grid’s Market Outlook Manager Gary Dolphin explores what it will take to make it happen.
Standing in front of the delegates at the 2013 UK Future Energy Scenarios launch event, I described our Gone Green scenario, through which the UK would meet its 2020 renewables target, as ‘challenging but achievable’. A year on, it’s pertinent to question whether that outlook remains valid or whether it is now beyond the realms of being a credible and plausible outcome.
Our 2014 Gone Green scenario is the most optimistic of our four projections and is the only one that would see the UK meet its renewables target and on time. That doesn’t mean to say it will or won’t happen of course; our scenarios represent the boundaries of a credible and plausible future of energy within which the actual future will play out.
The journey to 2020
Analysis of the UK’s renewable energy figures for 2013 shows very clearly the scale of the challenge ahead. We sit at about 5.2% of final consumption from renewables right now, which means we need to treble that figure (or thereabouts) in the next six or so years to hit the target. Probably the most striking figure within this number-crunching is for electricity, which needs to rise from its current 13.9% renewable sources figure to 34.5% by the turn of the decade.
So, is there a silver bullet technology to make this outcome a reality? Achieving the target through wind power alone would require an extra 50GW of offshore wind, in addition to our existing 10.5GW of capacity. How about biomass? That would call for an additional 40GW of generating capacity – the equivalent of another 11 Drax power stations all running on biomass. The solar route stretches plausibility beyond breaking point, in that we would need an extra 42 million homes to be fitted with solar panels by 2020 and 12 million of these houses are not yet built! The point I am making is that it will require a basket of technologies to give the UK the best chance of meeting its 2020 target, not just one silver bullet.
What history can tell us
For some historical context, how about this quote from Winston Churchill?
“The further back you can look, the further forward you are likely to see.”
In other words, history can tell us a lot about the future and I would argue that this is just as valid when it comes to the outlook for renewable energy.
I’m going to take wind energy as the example because, of all the renewable technologies, it makes the most important contribution in determining the rate of progression.
In 2013, our total installed wind capacity was approximately 10.5GW (3.5GW offshore and 7GW onshore). Our Gone Green scenario calls for 26.5GW of combined wind capacity by 2020, in other words we need to find an additional 16GW in the interim period.
If we take the long-term historical picture first and repeat the same build rates for the rest of the decade, we will only reach about 13GW of installed wind by 2020. However, to look at it another way, new capacity has picked up in the last three years – and if we see these more recent build rates repeated we will actually get very close to hitting the 26.5GW target by 2020.
Overcoming the barriers
Under our Gone Green scenario, we project that combined build rates for wind will be between 1GW and 1.25GW/year through to 2016, rising to between 2.75GW and 4GW/year between 2017 and 2020. Is this feasible? Certainly there are precedents from other parts of the world – China has reached 20GW/year and the United States 13GW/year.
In the UK there is no shortage of potential projects that could fill the void. In fact if we look at offshore wind and add together the total transmission capacity projects that are planned, the figure is a whopping 40GW. There are questions of course. How many of these will make it through the consenting process? Will they attract the necessary funding? And ultimately, when will they be connected to the grid?
The UK currently has about 3.4GW of connected offshore wind connected to National Grid’s transmission system, a further 0.7GW is under construction and another 4GW has consents approved. Yet there is a massive 34.8GW of potential transmission capacity awaiting consents or at the scoping stage. What happens to these projects still in their infancy will define whether the 2020 target is met.
So to try and answer this question, we’ve done some futher analysis of offshore wind project timelines and how they break down between awaiting consents, consents approved and under construction.
The average total project timescale is around 72 months. If those timescales remain constant or improve then it is certainly plausible to meet the offshore wind requirement by 2020, although we would need to see significant progress on consents in the next 12-24 months.
Which brings me to my final point and the answer to the question posed right at the outset. Is our Gone Green scenario still ‘challenging but achievable’? Taking into account all the insights we have gathered through our Future Energy Scenarios engagement process the answer remains yes, although the next two years will be critical.
Richard Smith, Head of Energy Strategy and Policy, National Grid, offers his perspective on the UK Future Energy Scenarios 2014.
Ten things you need to know about National Grid’s Future Energy Scenarios 2014.
Alice Etheridge, National Grid’s Strategy Development Manager, explains what each scenario might mean for the UK as a whole and for consumers.