How do we continue the growth of renewable energy?

An energy system based on renewable sources is the future. So how fast can we get there at a reasonable cost? What are the barriers? These debates have come to the forefront of UK politics with the Paris climate change agreement and the focus on cost control from government.

The renewable energy sector contributed 25.3% of the UK electricity generation in the second quarter of 2015 up from just 4% in 2008. The south west is seeing some of the most pronounced gains, due to our excellent wind and solar resources. The dramatic growth in renewables in the south west is testament to the dynamic companies and entrepreneurs who have driven the sector.  The south west has also seen an explosion of community energy groups developing their own local energy resources for the benefits of their community.

The key challenge for renewable energy in the UK is drastic reductions in support from the government – at the same time as they are propping up fossil fuel and nuclear generators. The new subsidy system for small scale renewables (Feed-in Tariff or FIT) has a system of caps on deployment and less budget.

However, outside the UK there is a rapid global shift towards renewables. We are close to grid parity in some technologies – the point at which renewable energy does not require subsidy support in order to be viable. This has largely been driven by reductions in cost, for example solar PV prices are 80% lower than in 2008.

The other key barrier to development of new renewable energy projects in the south west is the lack of capacity on the electricity distribution network (grid), particularly for larger projects (more than 50kW – approx. 182 solar PV panels). Installations need a connection in order to export their electricity to the grid and gain an income. Household installations are still viable in most cases.

There are solutions to challenges posed by the limits on the grid including: flexible grid connection agreements – used to limit the amount of electricity exported to the grid at certain times; energy storage alongside renewables to reduce peak output; and demand side response – where consumers adjust the amount of electricity they use at particular times in response to a signal (e.g. a price reduction) from a supplier.

Renewable energy is at a cross roads, having grown rapidly it is now having to adapt to continue that success without government support. The solution is a radical smart decentralised energy system – which the south west is well placed to lead.

Olly Frankland.