Wind turbines in the mountains Photo by Nico on Unsplash

09 August, 2019

Recording Breaking and Disruptive!

Hello, and welcome to the monthly newsletter from the Oxford Martin School Programme on Integrating Renewable Energy (Integrate).  I’m Helen Gavin and am very glad to have joined Integrate as Programme Manager and Knowledge Exchange Researcher.  Please let me know if there is something you’d like see featured in the newsletter, or if you have other comments or suggestions.
This is a bumper edition of the newsletter as there is a lot to report, with prevalent themes being record breaking and disruptive.

The Need for Cooling

The effects of high and extreme temperatures are far-reaching: from infrastructure failures to an increased mortality risk for the elderly, babies and vulnerable populations.
With ten new air conditioning systems expected to be sold every second for the next thirty years, cooling is necessary for the quality of life of billions of people.  The expected tripling of energy demand from air conditioning by 2050 could drive up greenhouse gas emissions and lead to further warming, if unmanaged.
To focus on these issues, Radhika Khosla and Malcolm McCulloch are leading the interdisciplinary Oxford Martin School Future of Cooling Programme, which will examine the demand for energy for cooling to identify and influence ways it could be sustainably delivered.  The programme is looking for a research associate so please share the job vacancy with anyone you think may be interested.

Bitcoin: the energy intensive currency.  Research from Cambridge suggest thaBitcoin devours more electricity than Switzerland; its estimated annual needs could power all the kettles used to boil water in the UK for 14 years.    Electricity is needed to power computers for ‘mining’; some bitcoin miners have relocated to places like Iceland to reduce costs, taking advantage of the Arctic air for cooling, though as July showed, this is not future proof…July 2019 was reported as the warmest month across the globe ever recorded, with heatwaves breaking records across Europe, and unusually high temperatures within the Arctic Circle, and Antarctica.  The European heatwave was 100 times more likely due to climate-change.

Knowledge Exchange Opportunities

The Achieving Net Zero International Conference is being held in Oxford over 9-11 September 2019.  With themes, “Where are we?”, “Where do we want to get to?” and “How do we get there?” the meeting will explore the social, political, ethical, ecological, governance, and technical opportunities plus challenges around achieving net zero emissions and the necessary actions.

The 8th Oxford Energy Day, 1 October 2019 at the Oxford Natural History Museum, will focus on the key issue of Energy Storage.  As renewable electricity generation rises around the world, the need for storage is increasing: This conference will address technical, economic, and social and policy issues and present experience from research and trials.

Another Oxford based event is the OxFutures Conference, on 27 September 2019.   Speakers will explain how the low carbon energy transition is being achieved in Oxfordshire, what exciting developments are coming, and how to get involved.

Open for applications is the Oxford Policy Engagement Network (OPEN) Fellowships scheme; an initiative from the University of Oxford to bring people together in ways which benefit society on a local, regional, national and global scale, fostering a culture of innovation and collaboration. This scheme supports the development of mutually beneficial partnerships between policy makers and researchers.

Malcolm McCulloch and Thomas Morstyn of the University of Oxford are calling for papers for their special issue of the journal Energies on the topic Transaction-Based Peer-to-Peer Energy Management Systems“.  Power systems are changing due to the rapid adoption of distributed energy resources, such as PV generation, electric vehicles, home batteries, and heat pumps. The ability to access information easily allows consumers to become ‘prosumers’—proactive managers of their consumption, production, and storage of energy.  What is the potential for new transaction-based, peer-to-peer energy management systems to integrate prosumer flexibility into power system operations? The advantages of openness, transparency, and autonomy are matched by the challenges of needing to manage uncertainty and network constraints in a decentralised system.  This Special Issue will present state-of-the art research, solutions, and analysis.

Disruption Needed for Net Zero!

The UK National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO) has released its Future Energy Scenarios which outline four credible pathways, from now to 2050, to meet the 2050 carbon target.
It finds that 80% decarbonisation can be met through multiple technology pathways (including ‘Community Renewables’) but achieving net zero requires immediate action across all key technologies and policy areas, including: greater electrification of industrial and commercial sectors; domestic hydrogen heating; carbon capture, usage and storage are essential; a changed but still crucial role for natural gas (not used to heat homes); a substantial improvement in the thermal efficiency of buildings; significant infrastructure transformation; use of bioenergy resources, and more.

 Also examining how to attain Net Zero, the report by UKERC, Disrupting the UK energy system: causes, impacts and policy implications, sets out the disruption that may be needed for four areas: heat, transport, electricity and construction.  Christian Brand and Gavin Killip from the University of Oxford contributed to the report chapters on transport and construction respectively. Gavin comments that, “the construction sector is likely to need disruptive change if it is to deliver a building stock that is compatible with climate change targets.”

Another UKERC study, Disruption and Continuity in the UK Energy Transition: What do the experts think?, released in April 2019, reports the views of a range of stakeholders how to achieve a decarbonised energy future.  There were areas of consensus but also great divergence of thought. Key conclusions are that a mix of approaches are needed, both disruptive approaches, involving dramatic changes over the next two decades shifting towards decentralisation (e.g. promoting distributed energy and greater citizen involvement in regional and local policy) as well as continuitybased approaches based on adapting and repurposing (e.g. upgrading building fabric and supporting large scale renewables).

Alas, expectation of contributions to the energy transition were mostly based on perceived potential, not confidence in policy approaches, with concern expressed about stalled progress and policy shortfalls.  There was high consensus for strong policies to accelerate the development and deployment of low carbon technologies, and to create a larger evidence base, through pilot studies, larger-scale demonstrations and evidence reviews.
Both UKERC reports conclude that disruptive change presents challenges for government policy: decision-makers are recommended to use a wider range of models and tools, consult widely, and adopt a flexible and adaptive approach to policy development and implementation to respond quickly and minimise unexpected consequences.

Flex4RES presents a comprehensive blueprint to resilient, sustainable, cost-efficient, and coherent carbon-neutral energy systems for the Nordics and Baltic region in 2050. Flex4RES combines social and political aspects into techno-economic modelling to more closely reflect real world conditions.
The results show that the Nordic electricity and heat sectors could be carbon neutral by the 2030s, but major policy reforms would be necessary.  Large-scale deployment of clean energy needs to occur in the 2020s and 2030s, and most of the key policies need to be in place earlier than this to support optimal market mechanisms, frameworks and investments.

The Aldersgate Group, in its report Zeroing in, call on the government to prioritise policies to decarbonise power to achieve any net zero emissions target: low regret options that are essential to meet existing carbon budgets. They call for the ramping up of renewable capacity and energy storage, routes to market for more mature renewable technologies; bringing industrial energy customers into demand-shifting and frequency response markets en masse, and the introduction of a robust carbon price that would “improve the economics” of decarbonisation. Nick Molho, executive director at Aldersgate Group, said that UK businesses needed “bold innovation and market creation policies” to give industry and investors confidence to scale up further.

Wind and Solar News

The inclusion of onshore wind (and solar) in the Contracts for Difference scheme is also requested by the Aldersgate Group.  Large energy firms have called on the new UK Energy Minister, Kwasi Kwarteng, asking him to reconsider the current ideological veto of onshore wind in England. A recent BEIS survey showed support for onshore wind from 79% of responses (with 80% support for renewables generally).
The economic case is clear: onshore wind is one of the cheapest forms of energy generation, and recent research by Vivid Economics show that deploying 35 GW of onshore wind by 2035 could reduce UK electricity costs by 7%, support 31,000 jobs, lift productivity throughout the UK and enable a £360m export industry.

Some good news for the UK solar industry, and the wider energy transition, is that the Smart Export Guarantee (SEG) will start on 1 Jan 2020. Under pressure, following the end of the Feed in Tariff, BEIS has introduced the SEG, which obliges certain energy suppliers to offer an export tariff to new small-scale electricity generators for each unit of electricity sold to the grid, measured by a smart meter.  Suppliers need to have the tariffs in place ready for the scheme to start on 1 Jan 2020. BEIS has not set a minimum price, but states the tariff must be “greater than zero pence at all times of export”. Some energy suppliers have already started offering a tariff.

Globally, solar prices continue to fall, with an auction in Portugal resulting in a new world record with the lowest bid being €14.76/MWh, far below the auction’s ceiling prices of €45/MWh.

Technological advances march onwards with the accolade of being the world’s first perovskite-on-silicon tandem solar cell manufacturer being claimed by Oxford PV. The thin film perovskite, when laid on top of conventional silicon solar cells, can result in higher conversion efficiencies; and has reached record-breaking 28% efficiency last year.

Electric Vehicles and Storage

Left: A London hybrid bus over a wireless charging plate

The increase in electric vehicles has raised concern about the potential strain on electricity networks, with the demand exceeding the current UK generation capacity, which could cause infrastructure failures. However Constance Crozier from the University of Oxford argues that the amount of energy is less important than the rate at which it is being taken from the grid and, if designed correctly, smart charging strategies could allow 100% of the UK’s fleet to be electrified without hitting either problem. Indeed, the National Grid ESO’s Future Energy Scenarios suggest that EVs can have a positive impact, by providing n energy storage capacity, with smart chargers enabling EVs to store roughly one fifth of GB’s solar generation.

There are other effects too:  China’s fleet of ~400,000 electric buses has been shown to have dented global oil demand, however the electricity powering the buses is not carbon free: in 2018, 25% of China’s electricity was generated from renewable sources; the remainder from fossil fuels and nuclear.  The reduction in oil demand from this sector will likely decrease further given other countries are investing heavily in e-buses, for example, the Mayor of London, Sidiq Kahn claims that London has more e-buses than anywhere outside China (and is trialling hydrogen, biogas and induction charging); Russia has stated its intent to have 600 electric buses in Moscow and India has ordered 1,000 e-buses: both by the end of 2019.
India has also issued a large tender for renewable power to alleviate peak demand issues on the grid, in effect mandating energy storage systems.  Likewise, Australia’s state-run green bank will prioritise investment in storage and grid stability in the 2020 financial year.
On an economic vein, a report by the bank BNP Paribas concludes that, “The economics of oil for gasoline and diesel vehicles versus wind- and solar-powered EVs are now in relentless and irreversible decline, with far-reaching implications for both policymakers and the oil majors.” Read Jeremy Leggett’s summary.

Energy Sources

In June, the National Grid declared the passing of a ‘tipping point’, and that in 2019, more UK electricity will be derived from zero-carbon sources than from fossil fuels, with wind, solar, nuclear and hydropower energy sources having doubled their contribution to Britain’s energy mix from 22% in 2009 to 48% in the first half of 2019.  In the US, electricity  from renewables surpassed coal for the first time by April 2019.

Also in June, the UK’s new record breaking streak without coal power came to an end on 4 June after 18 days and six hours:  the longest continuous period since the first coal power station opened in 1882.

Unsurprisingly, there have been announcements that three UK coal-fired power stations will close by 31 March 2020, with one of the owners, RWE, citing “challenging’ market conditions” as a reason.

Similarly, in Poland, a district court accepted a challenge that a new coal fired power station posed an “unacceptable” financial risk to investors, thus blocking its construction.  These risks are such that two major insurers, Chubb and Zurich, have announced restrictions on underwriting or investing in coal assets and companies, actively playing a role in the transition towards cleaner energy.

Domestic coal purchasing however is a different story, with legislation put forward by HM Treasury to retain VAT on coal and gas at 5% while increasing VAT from 5% to 20% on energy saving materials, including domestic solar-battery systems from 1 October 2019; a proposal made on the same day when Parliament debated the government’s new net zero carbon target for 2050. This tax increase could delay decisions to install insulation, PV and battery storage by years.

Energy Efficiency

A more positive policy development is that on 1st July 2019, sections 54 to 65 Energy Act 2011 entered into force. This allow Scottish Ministers to implement energy efficiency regulations targeting the Scottish private rented sector, considered to have low efficiency levels. Ministers are expected to introduce minimum energy efficiency thresholds, requiring private rented properties to attain at least an Energy Performance Certificate Band E by March 2021, then Band D by March 2022.  These measures are intended to drive energy efficiency, tackle fuel poverty, support climate change objectives, as well as driving economic growth through creating jobs in the green construction industry. Band E is pretty low though…

But is efficient sufficient?’ This was the subject of a joint UKERC and CREDS workshop during the 2019 European Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ECEEE) Summer Study.  Building on Sarah Darby & Tina Fawcett’s concept of energy sufficiency, participants considered the structural changes needed live and work more sufficiently, and how sufficiency could be as a positive choice that citizens support.  This workshop, amongst other events concluded that, while there is no shortage of actions individuals can take, achieving scale needs structural responses, and while it is very important, efficiency alone is not sufficient to meet the Paris Agreement.

Nevertheless, “improving energy efficiency is by far the cheapest way of cutting our emissions and must be a key plank of any credible strategy to deliver net zero by 2050” says Rachel Reeve, Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, which presented the results of its energy efficiency inquiry to Government. In July.  Energy efficiency is the cheapest way to reduce emissions, yet house insulation measures installed under Government schemes had fallen by 95% since 2012. The committee call on ministers to revive “failing” energy efficiency policies and improve energy efficiency in buildings for the numerous benefit it brings.


Thanks for reading to the end!  We conclude with the key message of Flex4RES project, which is a desire for stronger collaboration:
being different but acting together is much more effective in finding solutions than acting alone.