Countdown to 2020: can the UK meet its renewables targets?

Rachel Parkes

Part one: In the last days of 2011 the UK government submitted its first report to the European Union, detailing progress towards its 2020 renewables targets. So is it on the right path to achieving its legally binding targets?

After two years of strategies, transition plans, action plans and roadmaps, as well as some fairly upbeat political rhetoric about the UK's potential as a green economy, the dawn of 2012 brings with it something of a reality check for the UK's Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC).

Not only have its green credentials taken a hammering with an on-going High Court legal challenge over its handling of the feed-in tariff reforms, but on 29 December 2011 the UK submitted its first renewables progress report to the EU Commission, putting on show for the first time the country's real progress towards its target of 15% by 2020.

The target is laid out in the EU's 2009 Renewable Energy Directive, which aims to source 20% of the EU's overall energy from renewable sources by 2020. In its effort to comply, the UK has set itself sub-targets, of 30% of its electricity to come from renewable sources by 2020, 12% of heat, and 10% of transport fuel.


The progress report itself makes for fairly positive reading. With renewables contributing of 3.3% to its energy supply at the end of 2010, the UK stands at least a reasonable chance of meeting its interim target of 4% from energy in 2011-2012, and according to the Government, all the balls are now rolling in the direction of rapid renewables sector growth.

A more detailed look at the UK's progress threw up some surprises. Renewable transport contributed 2.9% of energy in 2010, exceeding the government's 2.6% estimate - largely thanks to increased used of biofuels in the commercial sector, while renewable heat contributed 1.8%, exceeding its predicted contribution by 0.8%, with considerable growth expected over the next few years following the launch of the Renewable Heat Incentive in 2011.

But renewable electricity, which will be the backbone of the UK's 2020 effort, fell short of the Government's estimate of 9% in 2010, only reaching 7.4%. A look at the preliminary figures for 2011 suggested some improvement, with renewables accounting for up to 9.3% at some points throughout the year, but whether it will be enough to reach the government's predicted 10% for 2011 remains to be seen.


Indeed, the scale of the challenge for the UK cannot be underestimated. The UK's 15% target is not the highest target demanded by the EU by any means - Sweden must reach 49% and cash-strapped Portugal 31% - but with a starting point of 1.3% in 2005, it represents one of the steepest trajectories faced by any Member State. In fact, it requires a leap of over tenfold from 24 TWh of renewables contribution per year in 2005 to 239 TWh in 2020.

But Dustin Benton, senior policy advisor at environmental think tank Green Alliance, believes the UK has performed well, and stands a good chance of reaching its goals. "The targets are eminently achievable," he says. "We’ve seen a pretty big increase in the amount of renewable energy we’ve got - so a 27% increase from 2008 to 2010. That’s really good. The sort of increase that now we’ve proved we can do it, all we have to do is keep delivering that."

Deployment rate

However, some in the industry are not prepared to swallow the Government's optimism whole.

"I think it’s unlikely we’ll meet the targets in 2020, although I think we’ll get there in the end," says Gaynor Hartnell, chief executive of the UK's Renewable Energy Association. "Our deployment rate has not been fast enough. If you plotted a straight line on a graph from where we are now to where we’ve got to get to, we’re always under the curve which means we’ve got to keep ramping up even faster the nearer we get to the relevant date so I don’t think it’s very likely."

Both the EU interim targets and the UK's own estimated trajectory are working to a slow start followed by a rapid proliferation, meaning that, in essence, most of the significant progress is expected to happen from 2017 to 2020. But Hartnell does not think this is realistic at the moment, especially when there is so much uncertainty surrounding the new support mechanism for renewables from 2017, the Electricity Market Reform (EMR).

“It’s a mixed picture,” she says. “There's a lot of concern about how robust the EMR proposals really are. And that really matters for renewables when you've got to really increase the deployment rate.”

In the next part, Renewable Energy Focus looks at some of the challenges faced by the UK in its path to 2020, and asks what needs to happen to secure target success.

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