Offshore gets a gold star, but the rest of the UK power sector must try harder

Excellence in offshore wind must be replicated in other sectors to make the UK economy genuinely green.

We hear a lot about how the pandemic has accelerated trends that had already been on the rise before it hit. Positive examples include digitalisation and decarbonisation. Sunday 10 May, for example, marked the UK’s first coal-free month since the industrial revolution, thanks to low energy demand and high turnout of renewable energy. Extraordinary as it may sound, it is in fact an event that was already anticipated in the wake of the longest coal-free run in 2019, which lasted for 18 days.

Wind power is undeniably the part of the fuel mix enabling this step change. With topography and climate making the UK less suited to the more established types of renewable energy such as hydro and solar, the country took some time to come into its own as far as green energy is concerned.

Offshore wind farms, which are higher capacity, more stable and less contested aesthetically than their onshore counterparts, first emerged in Denmark in 1991. But almost 20 years passed between the first demonstration windfarm beginning operation two kilometres off the Northumberland coast in 2000, and the instalment of the 1GW Hornsea 1 windfarm, the world’s largest, 12km into the sea.

Thanks to the sharp increase in wind power generation, the UK last year reached a tipping point, when combined renewable energy, accounting for 40 per cent of the total, exceeded the amount of energy provided by coal-, gas- and oil-powered stations. (Wind made up 20 per cent of the renewable fuel mix, followed by biomass and solar, at 12 and 6 per cent respectively).

Major structural changes like this don’t happen overnight. It takes strategic planning on governmental level, realistic targets, consistency in implementation – and the importance of independent oversight bodies monitoring and benchmarking government initiatives can’t be overstated either.

Strengthening sustainable growth

Clean growth is at the forefront of the UK government’s Industrial Strategy, launched in 2017 with a view to raising productivity and repairing living standards. A year later the Industrial Strategy Council (ISC), headed by Andy Haldale, Chief Economist at the Bank of England, was set up to monitor the progress of the government’s scheme.

Having criticised the narrow focus of the original Industrial Strategy in its last annual report, the council recommended four so-called grand challenge areas instead of the original ones entailing clean growth alongside AI, ageing societies and the future of mobility. As regards implementation, the council called for more co-ordination between ministries, consistency and scale.

Clean growth, however, has many aspects. In order to make the UK environmentally friendly as a country, the new Environmental Bill, a landmark legislation, is already in the pipeline. In addition to air quality it will also tackle age-old problems such as quality of surface water bodies, the scarcity of woodland and shrinking biodiversity to make the UK greener.

The bill passed its second reading at the end of February. There is no denying that some of the measures suggested in it can have far-reaching positive impact on the UK’s future. Giving powers to the government to make producers responsible for 100 per cent of the packaging they create (ERP) is paramount to tackling plastic waste. Moreover, the commitment to ban plastic waste export may finally put an end to the hypocrisy that pitched dumping plastic on Asia as responsible waste management.

However, as critics, the Council for Climate Change among them, point out, ERP can’t be enforced unless domestic plastic recycling capacity is expanded and more facilities, such as Viridor’s Avonmouth recycling plant, are built. Deposit return schemes (DRS) can become cornerstones of the new “reduce, reuse, recycle” approach, but can’t work without the necessary network of reverse-vending machines in place. Without investment in missing infrastructure, the success achieved by the renewable energy sector cannot be replicated in other areas, while making the proposed watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, independent of the government could ensure that any divergence from the original goals is corrected.


By Zita Goldman

© Business Reporter 2020