Like everyone, we love a good news story, and also like everyone, we love to see the massive growth in renewable energy taking place in both the UK and around the world.
Within the last decade, renewable energy in the UK has seen growth of around 150%. While in 2011 we were creating under 10% of our electricity from renewables, we have now reached a position where renewables are already overtaking the use of fossil fuels in our national grid.
The Government maybe hasn’t given the necessary support and stability of decision making to the wider renewables sector that was needed, but an environment of solid policy incentives for offshore wind in particular has seen the cost of renewable power begin to plummet. One of the reasons we know we need to get our Local Electricity Bill into law is so we can broaden and accelerate some of the changes that are already underway.
What some of you might have noticed, however, is that in the sentences above we’ve used different words to describe the same situation. “Energy”, “grid”, “power”, “electricity” – what does each one mean and is the difference important?
The answer is a definite “yes” – it is important – but while “power” is generally used to mean “electricity”, and electricity is currently the success story of UK energy, we need to be aware that the UK – in both its industry and in our homes – has a massive heat and transport usage that isn’t coming down fast enough. Even without the inconvenient fact that almost all of the energy used in transportation is still derived from burning petrol, the lack of progress in making our heat energy renewable is enough to mean we’re not going to hit the legally binding carbon reduction targets enshrined in our world-leading Climate Change Act of 2008. In all fairness, we’re not even close to missing those targets … we’re way off target.
It’s not that there aren’t opportunities for good things to come from the declining cost and carbon intensity of renewables. Where the price of electricity comes down it might, for example, become more attractive to buy an electric car or bicycle, especially if the longstanding freeze on fuel duty is finally removed. Where the cost of electricity comes down and heating bills keep going up, homeowners might be more likely to insulate their buildings, and developers are more likely to install heating systems that are powered by electricity rather than fossil fuels. The remote Scottish island of Orkney – where near-constant wind and a tidal energy test centre creates an abundance of clean, cheap electricity – has seen electric cars become increasingly attractive to islanders. Orkney is now progressing towards using the surplus electricity to make clean hydrogen power that will run some local ferries currently burning fossil fuels.
There is no doubt that, in stories like this we are seeing glimpses of a future, but it’s not enough to focus only on the positive news of electricity and wait for it to spill over. With targeted interventions in the supply of renewable heat and reducing our overall energy demands, there is nothing stopping us from seeing the same headway in other types of energy that’s already being witnessed with electricity. We also know that legislation like the Local Electricity Bill can accelerate and share more equitably the changes underway in energy generation generally. But if the growing awareness of climate change is revealing anything it’s that such a large and complex problem requires targeted interventions, and targeted interventions probably need to be backed-up with precise language.
We know that the results witnessed for electricity can also be achieved in the reduction of our carbon footprint for heat, food and transportation, but first of all we might have to say clearly what we mean – that all electricity is energy, but not all energy is electric.
2020 will be a defining year in the fight against climate change. The solutions are there, we just need to pressure our elected officials to implement them. Sign up, take action and spread the word.