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Appetite for renewable energy grows, and the UK is hungry for more investment I’m heartened to see that public support for renewable energy in the UK has risen to an […]

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By Geoff Curran

Appetite for renewable energy grows, and the UK is hungry for more investment

I’m heartened to see that public support for renewable energy in the UK has risen to an all-time high, according to the results of a poll released by DECC at the end of April. And perhaps just as well, because compared to most other European nations, we in the UK are lagging behind when it comes to the renewables share of our overall generation mix.

According to the latest Public Attitudes Tracking Survey, those backing the use of renewable energy has jumped three points to 82% over the past three months. Even onshore wind farms, which if you believed all the negative media reports you’d think were hugely unpopular, have received a four-point boost, with 68% now in favour.

Yet despite such strong public backing, the UK still only generates just over 4% of our energy from renewable sources*, with a goal to reach 15% by 2020.

This puts us close to the bottom of the European league table, below Italy, Germany and France as well as Ireland, Greece, Poland and Romania. Sweden sits at the top, already generating close to its 2020 renewables goal of 49% as a result of its investment in bioenergy. But to be fair to Britain, many of these top-performing countries offer hefty subsidies for renewable technologies, so encouraging faster development.

However, Portugal – a country where subsidies have been cut and the energy sector is being restructured following 2011’s EU/IMF bail-out – has still managed to generate a whopping 70% of its total energy consumption in the first quarter of 2013 from renewable energy. Although favourable weather conditions combined with unexpectedly low demand due to the country’s recession helped to make this possible, it’s still an impressive achievement.

What’s also interesting about Portugal is that it’s able to balance different renewable sources thanks to its investment in a smart grid (something we in Britain are yet to do). Wind, which by its very nature can be notoriously intermittent, contributed a record-breaking 27% towards the energy total, up 60% on the previous year. Perhaps surprisingly for a country so sunny, solar accounted for less than 1%. But the real stability in Portugal’s renewables mix comes from hydro, which supplied 37%.

Hydro capacity also aids energy storage, as hydro-electric dams can be used as giant batteries, storing water when demand is low, then releasing it through turbines to make energy when required. But as I mentioned in my recent blog on energy storage, space and topography – as well as available water supply – are essential to make use of hydro, and as the figures show, Portugal clearly has all three.

In the UK, we already have a long-established hydro sector, and this accounts for about 18% of our renewables mix. But wind is our real growth area – according to the latest UK Renewable Energy Roadmap produced by DECC, the UK has the best wind, as well as wave and tidal, resource in Europe. Wind energy already accounts for more than half our renewables generation. In 2012, we had 8.4 gigawatts (GW) installed – making us the third largest wind energy generator in Europe, as ranked by the European Wind Energy Association. RenewableUK estimates an additional 2GW will be added each year over the next five years.

At npower, we strongly believe in the value of renewables. Our sister company npower Renewables is the UK’s largest developer of renewable energy and has invested more in this area than any other major energy company. While wind is a key focus, tidal, marine, hydro and biomass projects also contribute to the overall portfolio.

Businesses are also helping to boost the UK’s renewables profile, with many of our larger customers investing in on-site renewable generation, where it makes sense to do so. Others are providing the necessary support to enable third parties to develop renewable generation in exchange for an exclusive source of carbon-free power to sleeve into their own energy portfolio.

But clearly, for the UK to achieve similar levels to those of many of our European neighbours – let alone the impressive performance of Portugal – the efforts of business need to be joined by support from government. Forthcoming Electricity Market Reform will aim to incentivise greater investment in the renewables sector, but as ever, the balance between support and the cost to consumers needs to be carefully weighted.

* 2011 figures, UK Energy in Brief 2012, DECC

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