The panel: Is 100% renewables possible in the UK?

The panel: Is 100% renewables possible in the UK?

The first panel discussion at Prospect’s energy summit asked a distinguished panel to consider if it would be possible for the UK to generate all of its electricity from renewable sources.

The session was chaired by Sue Ferns, Prospect senior deputy general secretary, and each panellist was given 10 minutes to make an opening statement. 

Here are edited summaries of each panellist’s remarks:

Humphrey Cadoux-Hudson

Humphrey Cadoux-Hudson, managing director, nuclear development, EDF Energy

There was a moment last October when Scotland was already, more or less, 100% renewables and this got a lot of publicity. Some days we produced too much and some days too little, but across the month as a whole, there was the same amount of generation, as there was demand.

However, the question is, even if we are 100% renewable, are we actually zero carbon? How do we fill in the gaps when the wind is not producing enough electricity?

We have produced several models for ‘filling in the gap’: building battery storage, building Combined Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT), or use an interconnector with the rest of the UK. However, building a battery farm large enough would be prohibitively expensive and the other two solutions would not be zero-carbon.

The purpose of me saying this is that we believe, as a company, in renewables and we need to build a lot more renewables in the country, but if we want to deliver our aim of zero carbon we're going to have to do it with a mix of different technologies.

To ensure grid stability and deliver electricity when it's needed, we will need a mix of generation. Our belief is that a base load of around a third of our electricity from nuclear would make the problems of getting into zero carbon much, much simpler.

Javier Cavada, CEO, Highview Energy

We are trying to fill the gap that Humphrey has highlighted. Today, about 15% power generated globally is from renewables. So there’s a way to go but we see the need for large, long duration energy storage.

Highview is a UK technology company that is about 15 years old but the real growth and inflection point was about three years ago when renewables was starting to be integrated into the National Grid. This created a lot of reliability challenges especially with the intermittency of wind.

Highview Power built the first long duration storage plant in 2014. It was pilot plant outside London. Now, we’re also in Birmingham and have the biggest long duration cryogenic storage plant in Manchester. We’re also building a plant in Kansas, USA and another in South Wales.

It is a cryogenic battery, it utilises oil and gas equipment but it does not use any fossil fuels. All this is proven technology and we can take it anywhere. Our main competition is market slowness and regulation. Yes, 100% renewables is possible in the UK, no doubt it is possible.

Tom Burke

Tom Burke, chair, E3G

Climate policy and energy policy are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have a successful energy policy and we cannot, and should not, expect anybody to sacrifice secure, affordable energy services just to make the transition to zero carbon.

One hundred per cent renewables is possible, but it ducks the important question is it is reliable, deliverable and affordable? The answer is still yes but not without thought, not overnight and not without effort. Certainly, not with current government policy.

Nor is it possible if we continue to develop climate energy policies in isolation from the labour and social policies that must accompany them if they are to succeed. There is no prospect that markets can deliver the energy transition on their own. 

We need four things to happen:

  1. We need improve energy efficiency.
  2. Need to ask the right policy questions. It’s a systems issue not technology.
  3. Decisions must command investor and public confidence. There must be national consensus and transparency.
  4. We've got to develop a much more sophisticated idea of innovation. This means technology, it also means using data, using artificial intelligence and financial innovation.

If we can do all those things, then it makes the non-nuclear path to a zero-carbon electricity system a much better bet.

Fintan Slye

Fintan Slye, director, UK systems operator, National Grid

We have announced our ambition that by 2025 we will have transformed how we operate the grid, so that it can operate at zero carbon. I would say there's no other grid in the world that can do this, is doing this, or will do this. We believe it's hugely ambitious and we also believe it's achievable.

If you look back on the UK's history with decarbonisation of electricity it is littered with achievements. Six of the 10 largest offshore wind farms in the world are connected to the UK grid and last year we operated for 72 hours without any coal for the first time since the industrial revolution. 

In March last year for the first time ever the demand overnight was higher than the demand during the day. The traditional paradigm has been completely turned on its head.

So we have undergone a huge transformation but we have already picked a lot of the low hanging fruit around integrating renewables in the system. What has got us here, is not going to get us where we need to be. If we're to reach that zero carbon ambition we need to think differently and to innovate. We don’t want the grid to be a barrier for 100% renewables. 

In closing, we have talked largely about the electricity system but if we're really going to tackle climate change we need to tackle the energy system. Electrification of some sectors will certainly play a part, for example in transport, but we need to tackle heat.

How we are going to solve heat and how we are going to decarbonise heat is a really big, gnarly social question for the UK. Unless we have affordable and reliable power for all people when they need it, we can’t bring everyone with us on this transition.

Read an edited transcript of the audience Q&A that followed.