At the Green European Foundation Seminar in Brussels this weekend I had a detailed look at how European energy policy was developing and a 'heads up' some of the issues that will be facing the European Parliament over the next couple of years.
One speaker had a slide that caught my attention. It showed a map of Europe indicating progress towards the EU 2020 Renewable Energy Target and the UK standing out as one country that was looking unlikely to achieve due to slow progress. The target is legally binding for each member state so each can play their part in achieving an overall 20% of total energy to be derived from renewable sources by 2020. This target does not just cover electricity but also embraces heat energy and transport fuels and the UK proportion of the 2020 renewables target is 15%. This lower than 20% target reflected the UK's poor starting point when the directive was signed. At the time only Malta and Luxembourg had a lower proportion of their energy coming from renewables. Other countries which had made more progress had higher targets such as Sweden and Germany to help make up for those countries that had been historically backwards in promoting wind, wave and solar technologies like the UK. It was a bit humiliating, I felt, that we had such a low target but even this was regarded by many in the last Labour Government as a tall order. The story goes, apocryphal or not, that we thought we were signing a Renewable Electricity only target and didn't realise that we would also have to make significant progress on renewable heat and transport fuels. True or not, it has all the characteristics of the sort of cock up we might expect from a Blair Government which never really grasped or understood the potential of the renewables sector.
So what of the 'greenest government ever' and their action towards achieving the target? A couple of years ago as the cuts to the feed in tariff for solar was being introduced I shared a platform at an event in Westminster with Climate Change Minister Greg Barker MP and I made the point that the drastic cut in the level of feed in tariff would massively slow down the deployment of solar photovoltaic panels and put at risk the likelyhood of us hitting our EU target. Minister and officials insisted I was wrong and they were confident that the target would be achieved. I left suitably chastened. Well maybe not!
So why are we where we are? Why are we behind the curve compared with other countries on renewables? Onshore wind has been slow to deploy due to many applications being held up in the planning process. Offshore wind has made significant progress, is less controversial for some (not Donald Trump) but is expensive to install with long lead in times. Solar is quick to deploy but the FIT cuts massively slowed down this mass market and popular technology. Co firing of coal fired power stations with wood, with its dubious environmental credentials, also hilt the buffers with Drax shelving plans to go 100% biomass. A lack off assurances from Government on funding made them drop this one. Renewable Heat has been slow to get off the ground. The last Labour Government first consulted on a Renewable Heat Incentive RHI (a sort of feed in tariff for heat) in 2009 and now the domestic element of this will be introduced next year, nearly 5 years after I installed my panels on the back of the announcement. To be fair though the RHI looks like a good scheme and will be popular with those industries that install solar thermal, heat pumps and biomass boilers. The transport element of the target is dictated by the biofuel content of petrol and diesel. This has been an area of conflict between the renewable energy sector and environmental NGOs both of who often seem to take absolutist positions on what has unhelpfully being characterised simplistically as a 'food v fuel' issue. So the pressure to achieve the target has been heaped onto the electricity element of the target and wind in particular.
Of course there is another approach to this whole issue. Rather than simply seeking to accommodate demand we should be seeking to reduce energy demand through energy conservation measures but we lack effective, fit for purpose policies and mechanisms to deliver energy efficiency measures at the level we would need to make a difference. Reducing the total amount of energy we use would make a percentage target easier and cheaper to achieve. Predictably The Green Deal is not turning out to be as popular as the Coalition hoped and the Minister has talked of a long term 20 year timeframe for it to come up to speed. 'Green Deal' is now being reframed to refer to action taken as a result of Green Deal assessments and installations under the Energy Company Obligation. We have now entered the 'throwing money at it' phase with an initial £20million being offered by Government to Councils who can come up with plans to promote Green Deal finance in their areas. When that fails , as it inevitably will, we will then enter the 'who's to blame' cycle and hopefully the development of an energy efficiency mechanism that will actually work.
Here ends my first Blogpost typed while travelling on the Eurostar hopefully more to come over the next few years should all go well next May.