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Renewable Energy – Costs, Risks and Unforeseen Outcomes

The UK government has been warned against 'derailing' offshore wind and nuclear development after enforcing energy policy changes which threaten to impede the progress of a low carbon energy system for future generations.

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“Do not derail them. Or if you do, recognise the cost penalty for the future that will come with it.”

That’s the warning about existing government plans to deliver a low-carbon future, which David Cameron received from the panel of energy experts he asked to report to the Council for Science and Technology. In a perhaps unforeseen outcome, the Royal Academy of Engineering said the government’s apparent energy policy ‘reset’ is deeply unhelpful – and even risks our ability to secure a secure, low-carbon system for generations to come.

It points to the current consultation to reduce the Feed In Tariffs for solar panels. Even though the Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom recently said she’d keep an open mind about the options renewable experts believe in the end it will be taken out of her hands. Sources told The Independent, “This decision’s going to be made in the Treasury rather than DECC.”

Dr David Clarke, from the Energy Technologies Institute who led the study, said, “The message from this report is that there are a number of major programmes already in train in terms of UK government policy and policy support.  Four of those programmes are offshore wind, new nuclear, carbon capture and storage and heat. They are already in train” and the government should follow through.

It was echoed by the chair of the UK Energy Research Centre Dr Keith MacLean who said of the sea-change in policy regarding renewable subsidies, “It suggests that we’ve got magical new policies and technologies which we are suddenly going to pull out like a rabbit from the hat. And that is just an illusion.”

Instead it has a number of alternatives and urges the government to develop large-scale pilot projects to show how the future project will work. “So far, despite the obvious challenges, the system is on course to meet the targets set by UK and EU, but only just, and all the easiest actions have already been taken… It will only get more difficult and there is a serious risk of non-delivery”.

It has thrown its full weight behind support for the nuclear programme, saying that “as a secure, baseload source of low-carbon electricity, it is essential.” To ensure its success – which is defined as being capacity by 2030 of a range from 5GWe to 15GWe – would require at best three but definitely two final investment decisions on new plants within the next five years, “at least two need to be underway by the mid-point of this administration just to keep up with closures.”

In addition there are calls for urgent policies to deliver energy efficiency schemes for homes to help customers and tackle fuel poverty and support for plans to develop carbon capture and storage. There are added benefits to CCS aside from enabling the UK to keep burning fossil fuels – it would facilitate the generation of hydrogen as an alternative to powering cars and putting in the gas grid for heating homes. The RAE wants the government to commit to two CCS schemes currently competing for £1bn in government backing, saying quite plainly, “We have to get on with what we have today.”

The RAE hopes it’s provided food for thought but concludes by warning, “Failure to plan the development of the whole energy system carefully will result at best in huge increases in the cost of delivery or at worst a failure to deliver.” The Prime Minister is now faced with the dilemma that faces every government that asks itself tough questions – act on the report’s findings or smother them?