UK Climate change – progress report

Ask many British industry experts whether the UK has an energy strategy and you’ll mostly be met with laughs or exasperated expressions. But while the UK may look like a mess to industry insiders, the country has been remarkably successful in de-carbonising its economy.

Let’s start with the big question: is the UK on track to meet its legally binding 2007 target of reducing CO2 emissions by 80% below 1990 standards by 2050? The answer appears to be yes. From 1990 to present the UK has reduced its gross emissions from 800mn tonnes of CO2 per annum to under 500mn tonnes. On a net basis (including emissions captured by newly planted vegetation or offset against renewables/re-forestation in other parts of the world), the UK has also fallen from 600mn tonnes in 1990 to 400mn tonnes by 2015.

UK climate target

But if emissions are falling, the next question is whether this is due to government policy or if this was inevitable. Examples of an inevitable decline would point to aspects like declining economic growth, de-industrialisation, declining population growth and basic energy efficiency gains. Thus, the question is whether any of these features have a role to play in the UK’s declining emissions story.

The answer is a partially. The UK population grew by over eight million people between 1990 and 2017, while the UK economy grew from USD $1trn in 1990 to USD $2.6trn today. These factors should have contributed to increased greenhouse gas emissions, but offsetting some of these rises is the decline in manufacturing from 17% of UK GDP in 1990 to 9.69% in 2016 . Nevertheless, UK CO2 emissions per capita have fallen from 9.7 tons in 1990 to 6.31 tons in 2017 .

As a consequence we can state that the fall in UK emissions seems to be primarily driven by alterations in the UK energy supply.

UK Renewable Generation

As the table above shows, the UK has expanded its share of Renewable Generation from 5GWs to 35GWs in little over 7 years (the equivalent of 10 – 12 Hinkley points). However it is worth noting that a significant proportion of the renewable electricity generated has come from re-converting the Drax power station in Yorkshire, so that 50% of the towers now run on biofuels (aka woodchips). Drax power station was the 2nd largest power plant in Europe when it was built, with ~4GW of coal capacity. Today over 60% of the electricity it generates comes from woodchips, mostly from North Carolina and Canada. Perhaps not (in this authors view) exactly “renewable” but certainly a step up from Coal.

It’s worth pausing to mention coal briefly. In 1990 the UK relied on coal for circa 30% of its electricity needs. Today that figure is below 9%. Moreover no new coal plants will be built in the UK and in April[1], the National Grid reported that the UK had its first day without any coal fired electricity generation in over 200 years. This trend seems set to continue. In 2017 Scotland set a record for 70% of generation coming from renewable resources, while the UK has averaged 50% of electricity from renewable resources for the 2017 period to date.

Bizarrely perhaps for people accustomed to thinking of the UK as wet and windy, the leading source of Renewable generation in the UK is now Solar PV.

UK Renewable Energy techs

The stalling of wind has been largely driven by strong local community resistance and cuts to the UK’s principal subsidy tool, the Feed in Tariff regime. However Solar PV has surged and UK developers now believe that Solar PV can be built without subsidies and will compete at around the £70 – £90 per Megawatt hour. This is comparable to the Levelized Cost of Energy that a new Combined Cycle Gas plant would require. In a further sign of confidence Blackstone (a leading Private Equity fund) and Lightsource (a leading UK developer) approved a £1bn fund to buy already operational UK solar sites in 2017[2]. It is precisely the emergence of a secondary market, through tie-ups between PE firms and Developers, which reflect the maturity of Solar PV in the UK market and should attract further buyers.

Beyond the wholesale market, the most exciting new frontier is on the retail side. The latest papers by the UK energy regulator Ofgem and the UK Department for Business, Energy, Industry & Skills (BEIS) have highlighted sweeping changes to the classification of battery storage and how these assets can earn revenues. Alongside more favourable battery deployment laws, the UK is also introducing TimeOfUse tariffs into the retail sector, allowing savvy energy users the opportunity to reduce their electricity bills through smart meters and smart appliances. In a sign of things to come, Ikea has announced a scheme to sell Solar PV panels and Lithium ion storage batteries to UK home owners. These changes, while still too early to fully assess, indicate a continued progression towards a distributed UK clean energy system.

Of course the UK has much more it can do. At circa 100,000 Electric Vehicles on the road (from over 20mn ICE vehicles), the UK has a long journey to reach a 20% reduction in transportation by 2020. Similarly on the heating side, the UK will be fortunate to reach a 10% reduction, despite a committment to a 20% reduction by 2020. But these failures have to be placed in context.

Improving Energy Efficiency is the key to reducing heating emissions. But replacing/refurbishing existing housing stock is extremely hard. The simple fact is that if the UK built more new homes (the current rate is a pitiful 100-150k per annum) to even moderate specs, the UK would make significant progress in reducing its heating emissions. On the transportation side the UK may be lagging, but with the 3rd largest EV fleet in Europe (Norway is the largest) its hardly a laggard. EV’s remain expensive and at any rate the real emissions in transportation come from freight, rail, aviation and shipping. In all of these regards, the move towards electricification, hydrogen fuel cells and second generation bio-fuels is progressing and the UK remains a leader in funding Hydrogen deployment.

In short the UK probably deserves a 7/10 on its climate change score card. Could it do more? Certainly. But is it behind its targets? The evidence would suggets otherwise.

[1]Real Estate IPE, 2017 https://realestate.ipe.com/news/investment-vehicles/uk-pension-funds-allocate-11bn-to-blackrock-renewables-fund/10019933.article – Blackrock renewable funds

[2] Guardian, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/apr/21/britain-set-for-first-coal-free-day-since-the-industrial-revolution

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