Setting the Agenda for the UK's Green-Energy Future: The UK Government Recently Published Visionary Targets for the Reduction of Carbon Emissions, Substantial Increases in Renewable Energy and More Investment to Clean Up Existing Technologies. but Is It Just More Hot Air Blowing out of Westminster, or Are the Targets Achievable? (Renewable-Energy Special)

Article excerpt

Back in February this year, the UK government published its long-awaited Energy White Paper. For a nation synonymous with huge coal reserves and North Sea oil and gas, the report, entitled Our Energy Future: Creating a Low Carbon Economy, was remarkable, setting out a plan to reduce carbon emissions by 60 per cent by 2050. And, unusually for a White Paper, the vision of a low-carbon economy was laid out unambiguously, detailing the changes expected by 2020.

Although critics have rightly pointed out that some of the delivery mechanisms are vague, the decision to opt for an energy system based on high efficiency and a growing role for renewables, while shunting nuclear power into the backwaters, is a change in direction for UK energy policy. As Patricia Hewitt, the secretary of state for trade and industry, said in May, "For the first time we've put climate change at the heart of our energy policy."

So what does the Energy White Paper actually say and what will it mean for this densely populated nation? Will we see clusters of wind turbines on every hill; vast tracts of land given over to energy crops and fast-growing trees; significant restrictions in car usage?

By 2020, the substantial depletion of the North Sea reserves will force the UK to import much of its energy--mostly in the form of natural gas from Norway, Algeria and Russia. As a counter-measure, energy efficiency will become crucial. According to the White Paper, new buildings will be designed to "need very little energy and will perhaps even achieve zero carbon emissions". Electricity generation will be more local, with heat and power systems in homes and offices using technologies such as fuel and solar cells and solar water heaters. Small biomass heating and power systems based on local forestry and special energy crops will also be common (see Biomass takes off in the southwest). Excess power will be fed into the national grid through new metering systems that pay a fair price. Substantial offshore wind, wave and tidal systems will also feed electricity to the grid. The electricity network itself will have been rewired to handle more intermittent power as well as more local systems operating closer to the customer.

Delivering the vision

In addition to the target of a 60 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, there are supporting 'aspirational' targets: 20 per cent of energy derived from renewable sources by 2020; a substantial increase in energy-efficiency investment; and a greater role for efficient combined heat and power (CHP) stations. What is the reality of achieving these targets and how will individuals and businesses have to change?

The starting point for the UK's new vision is modest. Currently, about three per cent of our electricity comes from renewable sources and six per cent from CHP plants, while energy efficiency in areas such as buildings and industry is well below that of countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden. In line with government policy over the past decade, energy in the UK is also relatively cheap, giving fewer incentives for people to save energy or switch to renewable fuels.

Wind power will be a vital part of efforts to kick-start UK renewable-energy development. The industry's own projections show that wind power, both on- and offshore, can provide eight per cent of the UK's electricity supply by 2010. Rapid developments in this area are already taking place in Scotland (see Wind of change blow across Scotland).

However, the government's targets won't be met by wind power alone. Biomass energy, currently languishing behind wind in investment terms, hasn't met with the immediate success that it seemed to promise. Two recent technology failures have led to lost confidence among investors and the farmers growing energy crops.

Philip Wolfe of the Renewable Power Association (RPA) is concerned that "at present, there seems little incentive to build a lot of new capacity for renewables". …