Low Carbon UK: Matching Natural Resources with Renewable Tech

By Dr Gareth Stockman, Chief Executive Officer, Marine Power Systems (MPS)

Without dispute, 2017 was a landmark year for the UK’s renewable energy industry. Enjoying its first 24 hours without coal in March, history was made in September when two developers agreed to build offshore wind farms at a record-low strike price of £57.50 per megawatt hour.

This price, which undercuts new nuclear in cost, was hailed as a landmark moment in the shift to low-carbon energy sources. As the Economist Intelligence Unit said, this new price shows we are now moving along a trajectory of cheaper renewable technologies that is irreversible.

It is indeed a positive trajectory. Only last week it was revealed by the climate change policy think tank Sandbag that the UK is edging ahead of many other countries in the EU on low carbon energy generation. Last year we produced 27% of our energy from renewable sources (up from 8% in 2010) which contributed to 22% of the rise in renewable generation within the EU.

An interesting outcome of this success is that our national conversation around renewables seems to have changed. We are no longer questioning whether renewables can power the economy but instead asking how can we make it happen.

So how are we going to make it happen? The answer is complex but there are two key components we need to stay focused on. The first is diversification. Since renewables first arrived on the scene, it has been broadly agreed that there is no magic bullet – no one renewable energy technology is going to enable our shift away from fossil fuels. Each country has its own mix of natural resources, energy demands and geopolitical constraints and as such, renewable energy sources should reflect this.

In our July 2017 report Making Wave Power Work, we explain that the UK is the marine energy leader in European Union, holding over a third of its wave energy generation potential. This resource is unique to us – with $450 million already invested in the sector, marine energy can provide our electrical supply and support the economy of the future.

The second prerequisite: finance and investment. One could argue that the investment scene is looking rosy. Global investment in renewable energy has been steadily increasing. A new report from IRENA outlines that ‘since 2012, renewable power capacity installations have exceeded non-renewables by a rising margin, representing about 60% of all new power-generating capacity added worldwide in 2016.’

The UK has made huge inroads in the last eight years and we now produce 27% of our energy via renewable sources. However with a legally binding objective of 40% renewables by 2030 we need to keep the momentum going.

The two critical components of a new, renewable, energy set up that need to be met are: diversification and investment. With investment comes technological advances. With advances we witness cost reductions.

A good example of cost reductions can be seen in the offshore wind sector which saw a fourfold increase in (global) spending between 2013 (10%) and 2016 (25%). The results of this investment are only too evident in the UK – as I mentioned earlier in this blog. With our maritime heritage, the UK is particularly well placed to lead advances in this area of renewable technologies. It is already recognised as a leader in both marine and offshore renewables. If it can maintain this position in the coming years, the benefits will not just be environmental, but social and economic as well.

The aforementioned Sandbag report also outlines that for the first time, renewable sources of power overtook coal, accounting for 20.9% of the EU’s electricity mix in 2017 (up from 9.7% in 2010).

The steady fall in price of renewables are pushing coal off the map. Last month PM Theresa May unveiled the Conservative’s coal phase out plan, which will require all plants to close by 2025. Coal, for all it has achieved, is one of the most damaging sources of energy for climate change and human health. Its phase out cannot come soon enough and this announcement from May (along with the news from the Sandbag report) was welcome.

On the subject of coal, two weeks ago Marine Power Systems made a leap into the very waters that the carbon-rich fuel would have been transported on during the height of the industrial revolution. (I write about Swansea’s coal legacy in my May blog).

This leap – or, to be more accurate – lift, which involved hoisting the 1:4 scale WaveSub prototype from dockside into the sea, then towing her across Milford Haven to safety in Milford Dock is part of a series of tests within an ‘Initial Test Phase’ of the WaveSub’s development. That all tests have been successful to date is hugely encouraging. We remain focused on making continued progress through the year so full scale manufacture can be achieved by 2020 with subsequent grid connection and commercial roll-out.

Wave energy has enormous potential. As with other emerging renewable tech sectors, we need continued investment so we can continue to develop. With adequate financing the UK can build up its skills and resources in a new sector. As Emma Pinchbeck from RenewableUK said to the BEIS committee this January: “We need to look at technologies where there is potential for cost reduction to compete in the market, where there is a global demand for those technologies and where the UK has existing skills and resources. Wave and tidal energy are examples of those technologies – they need a route to market.”

MPS agree. We look forward to a future where the WaveSub is not just generating clean, affordable electricity for the UK, but countries around the globe. In the meantime, we’ll get on with our prototype testing.