Navigant Research Blog

Renewables in U.K. at a Turning Point

Dexter Gauntlett — April 18, 2012

The United Kingdom seems to always be trailing the European renewable energy starting line-up of Germany, Denmark, Spain, Sweden, and any one of Holland/Finland/Portugal.

As we’ve observed in our offshore wind, small wind, and marine and hydrokinetics reports, though, the U.K. has taken enormous strides to stimulate its renewable energy industries and is taking on some of the most difficult technological challenges in cleantech today.  (See this map to locate offshore wind and marine energy activity.)  Below are a few of the highlights:

  • The U.K. has a current target of 15% target for renewables across electricity, heat and transportation sectors and has enacted almost 50 policies and programs to achieve that goal
  • The U.K. has been at the forefront of offshore wind since 2000 and is one of the world’s leaders in terms of current installations, nearing 2 gigawatts (GW), and a potential pipeline of more than 40 GW
  • The U.K. is the clear leader in incubating marine energy companies with leases approved for 1.6 GW of wave and tidal projects; with Scotland aiming for 2 GW installed by 2020
  • The UK is home to one of the largest markets for small wind turbines, in large part thanks to a generous feed-in tariff scheme passed in April 2010 and great wind resources

Current events, including the recent announcement by German utilities RWE and E.ON that they are scrapping their plans to build two nuclear reactors in the U.K., plus The Economist’s apparent obituary on new nuclear plants in Europe (and the United States), seem to underscore the trend in favor of renewables.

At the same time, however, U.K. members of Parliament are increasingly scrutinizing the country’s renewable energy incentives, and there are even hints that the U.K. is moving closer to a “low carbon” strategy, opening the door to a wider role for nuclear which currently provides approximately 20% of the U.K. electricity mix.

No doubt the financial crisis has changed the equation for many U.K. political leaders, and each country will choose its own carbon reduction path – but members of Parliament must keep in mind that there are trade-offs.  The most critical trade-offs include the possibility that tying up precious capital on nuclear could reduce investment in smart-grid/transmission infrastructure required to realize the ambitious offshore targets and to enable distributed generation to succeed at scale.   Opting out of new nuclear, of course, is the path that Spain, Sweden, Denmark and Germany decided to take, instead doubling down on renewables (Germany’s reduction in solar feed-in tariff rates notwithstanding).  That’s why they’re in the starting line-up.

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