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The long and short-term future of renewable energy

Matt Lovell

Some serious questions still remain unanswered as to the UK’s long-term power strategy and "we urgently need clarity," writes Matt Lovell.

Green energy is imperative. It needs to be an increasing part of our lives. Global warming and climate change are two massive, potentially catastrophic worldwide issues, and what that tells us is a big change to our behaviour regarding power generation and consumption is well overdue.

Big energy consumers, such as data centre owners, have a responsibility to lessen their impact on the environment. But what are our options and plans regarding longer-term power generation options?

By 2020, the UK and many other EU countries have agreed to use renewable energy to generate at least 20% of all their electricity. Latest statistics from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) indicate that the UK recorded the highest ever share of renewable electricity generation at 22.3% in Q1 2015, up 2.6% from 12 months earlier. Approximately 79% of this renewable capacity has been attributed to large-scale solar plants.

The added rise in wind energy over the last 12 months has resulted in an increased debate regarding wind farms, with critics often labelling them eyesores and a threat to the environment, while question marks remain over the cost-effectiveness of offshore wind farms. The acceleration and approval of onshore large-scale solar plants may further intensify the pressure on wind energy but recent unexpected government changes in financial support may challenge this.

With uncertainty increasing around topics of long-term power generation and renewables, and a number of the UK’s gas, coal, nuclear and oil power stations now approaching end of life, we urgently need clarity. With the changes needed to meet long-term emission reduction targets, some serious questions still remain unanswered as to the country’s long-term power strategy.

Since 2010, the UK has been a net importer of electricity, mainly from France, the Netherlands and Ireland. Net imports have remained largely unchanged over the last four years, equating to 4.9TWh, or 5.2% of our total electricity usage. By 2020, it’s possible that we could be importing as much as up to 12GW of electricity, which does not create a cost-effective solution for anything other than for managing peak demand.

A wider issue is the combined loss of coal and nuclear plant capacity within the next ten years. In total, eight nuclear reactors are due to be decommissioned by 2025, equating to a total of 14GW of capacity. The cost of decommissioning nuclear plants, which takes up to 60 years, will also increase considerably placing further constraints on any new investments.

France is facing a similar issue. Around 75% of electricity generated originates from nuclear. Despite increased investment in hydro and solar power, significant investment energies would be needed to directly replace their outgoing fleet of nuclear power stations, which will be decommissioned over the next 20 years.


So which direction could, and should, our electricity generation strategy take? Nuclear generation capacity in the aftermath of events in Japan has slowed significantly across the globe. This has been compounded further by the economic and financial risks required to build, run and decommission further nuclear power stations.

Fossil fuels will continue to decline, and while hydroelectric and geothermal sources offer more predictability and consistency, they are subject to certain geographical and geological constraints. We will continue to invest in solar, wind and wave, but these cannot be relied upon during the colder months of the year as domestic load increases.

In the UK, coal-fired power plants operate with an average efficiency of 38%, compared to 52% for gas-fired power plants. CHP efficiency can be as high as 80% and can be applied to renewable and fossil fuels as part of a cogeneration process. So there must be a greater opportunity to increase the efficiencies of our existing power generation sources in the short term, reducing the transmission losses across our national networks.

The same logic can and should be accelerated to make our homes more efficient and self-sufficient as reducing the domestic peak load demands will reduce the scale of the central generation investment limited and achieve our carbon reduction targets. But this will only work with the correct central legislation and support.

In the US, the development of shale gas power plants has accelerated enormously over the last five years as recent discoveries of gas reserves have challenged the significant legacy of oil and coal-fired power plants. The UK has not experienced the same level of transformation, and fracking still has to gain widespread public support, even if and when UK natural reserves are identified.

Longer term, we need to invest in technologies to store electricity more effectively. We must acknowledge and push for far greater levels of renewably generated capacity, and reduce our overall electrical consumption, as difficult as this will be, and find a more effective strategy for heating our homes and buildings during the colder months. Gas-fired power generation for short-term capacity replacement will be good for another 40 years and should be built with CHP.

Another area to explore more is hydro power. While there are obvious environmental issues to consider, it has the potential, alongside other biomass generation technologies, to balance out our reliance on wind and solar. Within this timeframe, the true cost and scale of decommissioning our existing nuclear fleet will be more clearly understood, which may alter our desire to build more nuclear power stations.

What is clear, however, is that there remains a lack of leadership and decision-making in regards to our short and long-term power generation strategies. Time for some real clarity from the Government.


Matt Lovell is CTO at Pulsant, an enterprise class provider of IT infrastructure in the UK.



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Energy infrastructure  •  Policy, investment and markets  •  Solar electricity  •  Wave and tidal energy  •  Wind power




08 August 2015
Excellent article.
Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

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