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09 September, 2019

Electricity is the vector of the future!

Hello, and welcome to the monthly newsletter from the Oxford Martin School Programme on Integrating Renewable Energy (Integrate). Please let me know if there is something you’d like see featured in the newsletter, or if you have other comments or suggestions.  If you have been forwarded this email and like it, please do subscribe directly!     Helen Gavin 

Are energy standards promoting gas over electricity?

Yes.  This is the conclusion of work by Dr Sivapriya Bhagavathy and colleagues at Oxford University who examined whether energy labelling schemes and the Energy Performance Certificate have an inherent bias, favouring gas over electricity.

In the context of the global need to achieve Net Zero emissions, and the UK declaring no gas boilers in new homes from 2025, there is a need to move to low carbon sources for power and heat, which includes greater use of electrically powered systems.  There have been great advances in these heating systems however policy and standards have not kept up and are now outdated. The standards also use inconsistent methodologies when assessing gas and electricity powered systems.  As a result, energy efficiency labels give higher ratings to gas-heated tanks than to electrically-heated tanks, which is wrong.

We call for an update to the assumptions and methodologies that underpin energy labelling schemes EU 812/2013, EU2015/1188 and the Energy Performance Certificate.  Organisations that set standards must review them very regularly in recognition of rapid technological advances.

Could you live without electricity?

Around one billion people do, as they have no or little access to electricity, and instead use kerosene and diesel generators that are noisy, toxic, and expensive.
Electricity has a significant positive impact on people’s lives, and there is a clear link between electrical energy use per person and higher Human Development Index scores.
One reason for the lack of access is due to the cost of connecting rural communities to centralised electricity networks. However, a local direct current (DC) “nano-grid” can provide a real alternative.

This is the focus of the Oxford University Robust Extra Low Cost Nano-grids (RELCON) project which aims to provide access to affordable, smart, productive power.   A decentralised small-scale DC nano-grid can produce low cost power as it doesn’t require expensive mains-voltage cables and inverters, and uses local (and inexpensive) solar panels.  This is a good match for rural Africa because most personal loads, like LED bulbs and phones, only require DC.

Field trials with prototypes start in November 2019 in West Ngosini, a small village 200 km south east of Nairobi, Kenya.  The nano-grid will connect 10 households initially, using touch-safe extra-low voltage lines that provide power during the day and charge the batteries for power at night.  This electricity will raise living standards, enabling people to use lights, charge mobile phones, run fridges, radio, cooking devices and more.

Net Zero Government

The UK Environmental Audit Committee held its first evidence session on achieving Net Zero on 3 September.  It is easy to be demoralised by the “debate” that occurs in the House of Commons chamber, so it is refreshing to watch the work of select committees. In this session, the government bodies of Network Rail and Ministry of Justice were scrutinised on their progress in meeting the Greening Government targets, and Net Zero, in terms of energy sourcing, energy use, the management of the estate and electrification of their vehicle fleet.  Government departments set their own actions and targets and can be accused of ‘marking their own homework’, as they are currently not on target.
Many prisons are located in old buildings which pose large challenges in managing heating and cooling: during the July heatwave, internal temperatures soared as cooling systems struggled to cope, and windows cannot be opened.  Low carbon heating is another challenge: apparently HM Prison Risley in Warrington still uses coal!
It was flagged that with no clear guidelines nor specific road map set for them, many government departments and bodies believe Net Zero is for BEIS to deliver: they do not understand their critical role to play.

Following the demise of the independent Sustainable Development Commission in 2011, it may only be select committees that can hold the government to account to ensure the needs of the environment, the economy and the environment are balanced.  Six select committees have stated they will hold citizens assemblies in Autumn/Winter 2019, to engage the public on the challenges of getting to net zero and give people a say in shaping the future policies to achieve the target.

The lack of action by the government to date has been unacceptable by the Science and Technology Committee said. Given parliament’s declaration of a Climate Emergency, the Government needs to take a leadership role, setting out clearly and implementing what needs to be done for Net Zero, demonstrating the feasibility of required actions. The government also needs to incentive newcomers and decentralised actors to innovate and help a fast transition to low carbon energy, not just the incumbents or central big players.

Showing leadership means looking beyond current regulations to ensure we meet the requirements of tomorrow.  However the 2019 spending review allocated  only £30m for Net Zero projects for the next year: just 0.1 per cent of the £20bn-£40bn recommended by the Committee on Climate Change to reach the 2050 target.   This can be contrasted with the annual  £10 billion subsidy provided by the UK government to fossil fuels  through tax breaks and budgetary transfers, more than any other EU state, with plans to roll out more, not least allowing old North Sea rigs to remain in situ.

Wales and Scotland however are taking up the mantle, declaring that decarbonisation and net zero must be at the heart of planning. Following its Well-being of Future Generations Act, the Welsh Government is seeking consultation on its Draft Development Framework:  a 20-year vision on how to transform the country into a clean, connected and sustainable powerhouse.  In its programme for 2019-2020 Scotland has committed to make changes  and take early action to achieve net zero by 2045, following the recommendations by its Climate Emergency Response Group.

Change can happen quickly!

Things can change quickly with the right circumstances, which include policy and market conditions. So much has changed in the UK over the past 10 years: check out Carbon Brief’s comprehensive and interactive map of energy production which shows how the UK has transformed its electricity supply in a decade, and why, and expected future change.


Is it more effective to manage refrigeration chemicals than install onshore wind turbines or cut down on food waste?

To minimise the effects of climate change, our global society needs structural change, with action from policymakers, industries and individuals.  There are many things that can be done, but they vary in terms of their effectiveness.

Try this quiz by CNN and Project Drawdown to learn more about the solutions, and see how you fare at ranking actions in terms of their effectiveness (expressed as the carbon dioxide emitted by millions of cars).  Of course, we need to implement all of the solutions, but you might be surprised at the relative effectiveness (I was!).

The Power Cut on 9 August 2019 in England and Wales

The power outage on 9 August affected left almost a million people without electricity, across England and Wales.  While power was restored within a few minutes, the impacts of cutting power to critical infrastructure affected people for hours afterwards, with railway systems particularly affected.

The National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO) have set out the sequence of events: a lightning strike preceded loss of power from Little Barford gas station, followed almost instantaneously by Hornsea wind farm.  The total generation lost from the two generators was 1,378 MW, causing the frequency of the grid to move outside its normal operating range.  Keith Bell, co-director of UKERC, has written an excellent explanation of how the grid system works, and what happened.
Ofgem and BEIS have called for inquiries into the outage, the decisions taken, the ramifications, how the system could be more resilient, and the National Grid has called for the prioritisation of sectors which should retain power under such circumstances; decisions which lie with regional distribution network operator.  There are suggestions of splitting the ESO from the privatised National Grid, and nationalising it, to serve the public interest.

One of the ways in which the ESO balances the inputs and outputs, and maintain the normal operating range of 50Hz is to draw on its reserve capacity: on the 9th August this comprised 1,000 MW (including 475 MW of battery storage).  The reserve was drawn upon successfully but was insufficient to offset the lost generators. As a result, the automatic Low Frequency Demand Disconnection scheme started to disconnect consumers on the distribution network, to protect the grid infrastructure. In this instance, 5% of Britain’s electricity supply was turned off to protect the other 95%.

The power outage incident demonstrated the utility of battery storage, and how it played a vital role in balancing the grid.  Storage assets were called upon to (1) provide power when following the loss of the first generator, but also (2) to absorb excess power, when the grid cut off part of the network.  There are calls for further decentralisation as potential solutions, and greater battery reserve capacity.  It is estimated that doubling the amount of rapid-response back-up power would be cost-effective compared to the level of economic disruption that occurs following a power cut; it may only add £2 to the average annual household energy bill or National Grid shareholders could absorb the costs.

Frozen peas could be the UK’s largest battery

The reserve capacity comprises organisations that can quickly supply extra power (e.g. generators and batteries) and also large energy users who agree to not use electricity at certain times: this is termed “demand side response”.

Asda has enrolled in a deal with National Grid that will use the fridges in 300 stores and 18 distribution depots as a decentralised, virtual, 13MW battery pack.  This deal benefits Asda, as it will simultaneously reduce its carbon footprint and generate revenue while still adhering to the industry standard practice of a daily defrost cycle.  Algorithms will match both the defrost timing to demand surges on the grid, and thermal inertia of the fridges to negate any threat to food safety.   Tesco is also exploring this area, and it’s fridges could create a virtual battery of 25-50 MW.

Given the UK food retailing sector alone uses 3.4% of total electrical consumption per year, of which ~29% is used by in-store refrigeration units, the use of fridges as cold energy batteries could have a significant impact.  With increasing adoption of smart meters and domestic appliances, and the Internet of Things, your frozen peas could soon have a double life as a cold battery too….

Renewable capacity and clean transport

Ellen, the zero emission plug-in E-ferry

Researchers in Germany report that Europe has enough resources to meet electricity needs by using systems based entirely on solar and wind power.  Other researchers find that almost 25% of current EU electricity needs could be met by wider adoption of rooftop solar (compared to the 3.94% produced by rooftop PV in 2016).

Research by the Universities of Sussex and Aarhus has found that Europe has the capacity to produce more than 100 times the existing generation of energy, via onshore wind turbines, with the potential to supply enough energy for the whole world until 2050.  Turbine-generated power, but from those located under the sea, are behind the world’s first ocean powered data centre, off Caithness.  This development will not only offset the need to power the centre but also to cool it.

Hydropower proves 6% of the electricity needs of the US, providing a flexible renewable resource.  However, many dams are reaching the end of their lifespan and may not be replaced given the large environmental impact they can have such as impeding migratory species, sediment trapping, and hydro-ecological regimes. An American study shows that banks of solar panels would be able to replace every electricity-producing dam in the US using just 13% of the space.

The world’s first solar powered railway line has been installed in the UK.  A pilot scheme with 30kW is powering the signalling and lights on Network Rail’s Wessex route, proving the case for a larger project capable of directly powering the trains that use the route.
India is home to 250 trains powered by solar panels attached directly to the roof of the train; in August 2019 Indian Railways, the country’s single largest energy consumer, revealed its ambition to become the world’s first 100% “green” railway network in 10 years’ time by installing 30GW of solar generation capacity on some of its 51,000 hectares of vacant land.

The world’s largest electric ferry, capable of carrying 30 vehicles and over 200 people, and with a record breaking 4.3 MWh battery allowing 22 nautical miles before charging, has started operations serving a 22 mile Danish inter-island route.


As we know, energy storage is critically important to the further integration of renewable energy generation.

While there are different types of batteries, conventional types require minerals and metals that are mined, such as lithium and cobalt.   In 2017, the World Bank estimated there will be a 1,000% increase in demand for key minerals used in energy storage, solar and wind energy under a 2degC scenario.

This can provide opportunities for the developing countries and emerging economies with reserves of these minerals.
However, let’s not overlook the fact that metals mining is one of the world dirtiest industries, and linked to severe human rights abuses: the August 2019 Tracker report of the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre shows that most mining companies have faced allegations of abuse including land rights infringements, corruption, violence or death.

Cobalt is particularly needed for electric vehicles: a report comments that if 18% of new car sales are electric by 2025, then electric vehicle batteries would constitute more than 80% of world cobalt  and lithium demand, 40% of graphite, one third of nickel and about one twelfth of copper demand, with further growth as demand increases.  Changes in the electronic architecture of the cars and battery chemistry can significantly change the demand for metals; manufacturers are starting to move away from cobalt but much more can be done by carmakers and consumers to know the source of the component metals, lean on suppliers to improve conditions on the ground, and to further extend battery efficiency and capacity.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has the largest known reserve of cobalt: more than 70% of the world’s cobalt is mined in this country with many informal workers and child labourers.  The mines also have the highest number of human rights allegations, with 31 allegations were recorded between 2007 and 2019.

Glencore, a company with many allegations of human rights abuses, and under investigation for its business practices, has announced it will halt mining for cobalt in the DRC because it is “no longer economically viable”, following fall in price of the metal and also the imposition of higher taxes under a new mining code that was signed into law last year. The DRC implemented its new mining code despite opposition from mining companies, and includes an increase in the state’s equity, royalty payments, 10% of shares to be held by Congolese citizens, and a 50% tax on excess profits; all of which aim to boost socio-economic conditions in the country.

To provide equity in access to the benefits of clean energy for all, companies and governments must ensure ‘climate smart mining’ is adopted: the energy required for mining is derived from renewable energy; that resources are used as efficiency as possible, and minimise toxicity.  Manufacturers must deploy suitable procurement rules requesting stringent human and environmental standards.  Products must be designed for reuse and efficient recycling of components and minerals, with systems established to ensure a true circular economy, and scale up the use of recycled minerals.  It will take more than technological fixes though: we must all minimise our consumption, and share products and transport.


China has set itself a target of 2030, for peak emissions, but there is cautious optimism that it will achieve this target earlier, by 2022, though the effect of the trade disputes with America may hamper this ambition.

China has a large capacity of renewable energy generators, but many of them are not connected to the grid, or are subject to curtailment.
One of the reasons for this is the vested invests in generated energy from coal power stations.Following the cessation of its subsidies in 2018, China has developed new subsidy-free solar policies in order to drive more cost effective energy, and prevent overdevelopment.  The new system includes a renewable energy certificate scheme, similar to those in Europe and the US, where new projects must match or better the price of coal. It also includes support for residential solar, a first for China.  However, under the new arrangements, the profit margin is much smaller, meaning that the amount of curtailment becomes a revenue risk to investors.  In sending in inspectors to clamp down on wasted renewable energy, and encourage local authorities to buy renewable energy, China is looking to support investors and ensure there is sufficient grid capacity and development to maximise the use of renewable energy sources.

Events, Opportunities and Consultations

Finally, if you are looking to express your opinions, the UK government is currently seeking views on a number of consultations relevant to renewable and net zero energy:

Thanks for reading!