UK renewable energy policy policy has taken an interesting turn which illustrates a point of interest beyond geeky energy matters, because it’s a case where campaigners need to get the “debate” or “issue” re-defined. Analysis by of a new UK Government Renewables “Road Map” (ie a general policy direction) by ENDS Report shows that solar power is now forecast to supply 20 gigawatts of solar pv by 2020, not the 2.6GW it said up to 2011. ENDS magazine is most excited that “The new document contains a ten-page chapter on solar, double the length of those dedicated to other renewables, as well as the statement vastly increasing the level of ambition”. All good but it’s even more important than that.
This switch comes about because the UK Government massively under-estimated the potential to establish a solar pv installation industry, and the appetite of home-owners and others for the technology. In part this is down to changing costs (panels getting cheaper) but it’s also probably because the UK Government failed to anticipate the multiple psychological effect of signals created by a Feed in Tarriff and the ‘social proof’ effect of a public seeing renewables becoming a reality. Much the same thing happened with recycling in the UK a few years ago – the appetite to recycle was under-estimated and local and national government mandated far too much incineration to deal with ‘waste’ which people now want to recycle (proven to have a better environmental performance).
Official, even wanton myopia aside, campaign groups need to ignore the renewables industry squabble now developing as rival elements of the industry (wind, wave, solar pv, AD, biomass etc) fight for their share of the “target” and the associated funds and permissions. The UK Government will be happy to manage such a fight and for the resulting press coverage to bemuse the public, because it does not want to expand renewable energy towards its true potential – yet that is what is required to best combat climate change. Which is where the campaigns need to position the issue.
ENDS notes that the UK has an EU target to get 15% of its energy from renewables by 2020, and had achieved 3.8% in 2011. It notes: “If the amount of solar on the system in 2020 is now expected to be up to 20GW rather than 2.6GW, this suggests other renewables need to give way as otherwise far more renewables will be built than needed”.
Which is ‘the point’ – that’s what’s “needed” for the existing target. It’s not what the target should be.
Similar effects are being seen in other countries such as Germany, the US and Australia. The coal, gas and nuclear industries are desperate to constrain the growth of renewables which are increasingly cheaper, as well as massively more popular with voters. Left to do their thing, even existing renewables capacity would be displacing more fossil fuels than they do at present: instead, they are sometimes being shut down, as well as being shut out of the future market.
Key to the hopes for expansion of the coal, gas and nuclear lobbies is that the public does not realise what renewables can actually deliver – and government control of energy policy, and investment or lack of it in things like storage and better grids, is the way they hope to keep a lid on renewables (and let the climate go hang).
Climate and energy campaigners need to redraw and to popularise the political debate about energy and climate, beyond meeting targets drawn up when large-scale renewables were a novelty, and instead reframe them as about politicians doing as much as is technically and economically possible to create renewable industry infrastructure.
With climate impacts real and being more and more felt by the public, and the chances to limit disastrous climate damage rapidly slipping away, the stakes could not be higher, nor the urgency greater.
The need is climate safety, and the potential to deliver that is the potential of renewable energy. Governments must let the industry off the leash and promote it, not constrain it.