Can the UK really meet its green energy needs?

Energy and Power July 13, 2021

By Mike Kelly

As we start to move slowly out of the pandemic, there are increasing calls for government and industry to focus on a global ‘green recovery’. The G7 leaders have now committed to halving emissions by 2030 and meeting carbon net zero by 2050. In response, there has been a real buzz around upscaling green energy generation and its role in helping to achieve carbon net zero. But are we getting ahead of ourselves? Can more green energy alone really be the solution?

It is true that there has been some good progress made, and there is news that Sofia, set to be the UK’s largest offshore wind farm, is now under construction. However, in the UK, as in much of the world, building enough renewable energy plants to meet our energy needs by 2050 is a very significant challenge and is one that we cannot guarantee we will meet. Offshore wind is likely to lead the way in the future, but we will also need onshore wind, solar and green hydrogen alongside a shift to renewable heating options and, dare I say it, a change in our behaviour.

We must be careful not to allow this very welcome enthusiasm for all things green energy to blind us to the real hurdles that the sector must overcome. And quickly. Nobody needs reminding that the climate change clock is well and truly ticking!

The UK’s major challenges in achieving its green energy goals…and how to overcome them

  1. The UK currently lacks the necessary energy generation assets

The required increase in capacity is huge. The UK’s independent Climate Change Committee said in 2019 that if we are to meet our net-zero goal, we would need to build enough renewable energy plants by 2050 to generate around 480 terawatt hours of energy. To put this into perspective, in that same year, the UK had only enough assets to generate 120 terawatt hours of green energy annually. So effectively, the UK needs to increase its green energy generation four-fold in just 30 years!

While this is not impossible, significant effort has been required over the last 25 years to achieve the current position. Progress to-date has been slower than we need and has often been hindered by the lengthy planning consent process. What is urgently needed now is for the government to capitalise on the post-pandemic momentum surrounding the sector and consider new ways to streamline consent processes and policy, while still allowing local communities to rightly have a say on proposals that will affect them.

  1. We lack the land required to upscale our energy generation

If the UK is to quadruple its green energy assets, more land is needed, and this is an issue that is likely to become increasingly difficult as we move towards 2050.

Offshore wind has the potential to provide a huge boost to green energy generation, and subject to the technological advancement of floating turbines, it is far less likely to be encumbered by the availability of land (or seabed in this instance). In that regard, it can be seen as one of the easier wins for the sector, providing that challenges relating to consent and grid capacity can be resolved. It is not a silver bullet and onshore wind and solar will still play a vital role in the generation mix, but offshore wind will certainly be key in achieving our goals.

  1. Geographic variability and the challenges of connections to the grid itself

Building a wind or solar farm is one thing, plugging it into the grid is quite another. Some areas of the UK are well suited to new wind or solar farms but lack sufficient grid capacity to accommodate the energy generated. Upgrades to the grid are often required and network operators work diligently to facilitate them. However, they can be heavily time-constrained and wholly reactive as opposed to predictive, so any initiatives or innovations to make the system more adaptable and streamlined must be encouraged.

But will it be enough?

So, there are major issues to be resolved. And we do not have the luxury of time to reach our collective carbon goals. But maybe, just maybe, the current buzz about green energy can be harnessed to remove significant barriers to progress and development and enable green energy generation to quadruple by 2050.

Then again, perhaps we can also move the goalposts somewhat…if we did not need as much energy, we would have a much greater chance of success. Perhaps we could even strive to reach net zero ahead of time.

By reducing our energy needs through commitments to behavioural change, such as by ditching the car and walking and cycling more and making changes in our homes and workplaces, we can all play our part in achieving net zero. We shouldn’t simply leave it to the renewable energy sector alone to meet the green energy challenge needed to reach net zero by 2050, we need to meet them in the middle and all play our part in the ‘global green recovery’.