Earth, water, wind and Sun: a history of renewable energy in the UK


Renewables are doing quite well in the UK, supplying around 33% of the nation’s electricity, but there are worries whether the energy transition can continue. Business Green’s editorrecently said: “The policy framework that delivered the first phase of this historic transition is fast running out of road…those ministers hailing the success of the UK’s clean energy transition have been dining out on the policy decisions made by their predecessors. Since 2015 there has been a steady erosion of this policy framework”.


That’s pretty much what I also say in my new book on UK renewables policy, although I argue that the problems started much further back. A long way back – there’s been a long history of errors, backtracking and lost opportunities.


Looking back to the early days in the UK is certainly interesting. The idea of switching over to use “alternative energy” was first mooted on the counter-cultural and environmental movement fringes in the early 1970s, and pushed by the so-called “alternative technology” movement.


Although innovative, that was pretty marginal, and as I argue in the new book, which trawls through the subsequent UK history in some detail, the main drivers for wider adoption of the ideas were external events like the 1973/74 oil crisis and, later on, the growing awareness of the risks of climate change. These pressures led to a drive for renewables, although with mixed results, as a brief decade by decade summary should show.


In the 1970s, following the oil crisis, the then Labour government initiated a renewable energy programme. It looked at all the options, mainly via resource studies. Initially, wave energy and, to a lesser extent, tidal barrage power were strongly favoured, with the UK well-placed geographically to exploit both. Solar photovoltaics (PV) was seen as marginal, wind possibly too, and though some project work was supported, it was wave power that dominated.


Despite good progress on wave-power system development by device teams, some adverse economic assessments in 1982 led to the wave programme being more or less halted, amid much dissent (PDF). Following this reassessment by the then Conservative government, the emphasis of the UK renewables programme shifted to wind energy, with some companies becoming involved with significant projects, including a 3 MW wind turbine on the Orkneys. The review of tidal barrages, seen as promising, also continued, as did some work on geothermal energy, with a test project in Cornwall.


However, with public funding increasingly tight under the Conservative government, the emphasis moved to costs with, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the focus on privatization. The leading renewables, like wind power, were increasingly expected to move towards commercial viability so that government could remove support. To help them, a special market-based support scheme was developed – the Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation (see my next post) – although its main initial beneficiary was nuclear power.


The less-developed renewables were faced with diminishing levels of support and the geothermal programme was halted. However, the prospects for solar PV, until then mostly seen as marginal, began to look up and in the late 1990s a new Technology Foresight exercise also suggested a revisit of wave and tidal stream energy. The cyclic pattern of wave — and tidal — ups and downs seemed set to repeat, although the tidal barrage programme was subsequently ended; barrages were seen as unable to go ahead without public support.


In the 2000s, climate change became a major policy issue and the EU set some quite radical carbon and renewables targets. The UK, under a Labour administration, launched its own market-led programme, overseen by a new Department of Energy and Climate Change and backed by a new support mechanism, the Renewables Obligation (RO), as well as a feed-in tariff (FiT) for small projects. Some renewables did quite well under both, although there were problems. The RO turned out to be an expensive way to support growth and, as PV boomed under the FiT, increasing costs were passed on to consumers.


The Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government elected in 2010 replaced the RO with an auction-based contracts for difference (CfD) system for renewables, and also for nuclear. However, with renewable capacity building up rapidly, the cost to consumers was also ramping up, while technology costs were falling. So, somewhat provocatively, radical cuts and caps were imposed on PV and onshore wind. These were continued and deepened when the Conservatives took power alone in 2015 with, for example, the FiT set to be abandoned entirely.


Back to the now

That brings us to the present and, no doubt, more familiar territory. Despite the cutbacks, in the late 2010s renewable capacity has nevertheless built up and some attention has moved to system-balancing and backup, to deal with its variable inputs.


A capacity market was established but, tragically, has mainly so far focused on contracting with fossil and nuclear plants, rather than the demand management and storage options that many thought were more appropriate. However, some attention has also been paid to the demand side and to heating, although there were some failures/backsliding, as with the Zero Carbon Homes programme, the Green Deal, and, arguably, also the Renewable Heat Incentive. With the smart meter programme also looking less than ideal, and the Green Investment Bank being sold off, the government, and the continued expansion of renewables, still face plenty of problems, not least the increasingly hard to justify block to onshore wind projects.


"a long history of errors, backtracking and lost opportunities"

Dave Elliott 


What does this brief skim through history tell us about the current situation and what will happen next? The UK is still well behind most other European countries in terms of its percentage of total energy supplied from renewables (around 10%), but it is catching up, helped by the large offshore wind programme. I argue in the new book that some of the problems have been due to the funding schemes. While competitive mechanisms have their place (see my next post), the UK experience with developing renewables has been mixed, with some, at least, of the mistakes arguably due to an overzealous political belief in the efficacy of markets as a way to identify winners and get prices down rapidly. Nevertheless, overall, some progress has been made, even if it may not have been exactly in the direction originally envisaged by the early alternative technology pioneers.



Whether that matters or not may depend on what happens next. With renewables now being pushed ahead globally by their low costs, will they just become a technical fix for a basically unchanged society, or are there other pathways ahead? More practically, can we ensure that falling costs compensate for the cost of rapid capacity expansion and so avoid consumer backlashes? Or must we expect to pay more to get a green future?


More immediately, with the UK nuclear programme now in tatters, the issue of what to do next takes on a new urgency. Renewables are waiting in the wings to help. RenewableUKsays that around 4.5 GW of onshore wind projects already have local planning permission but have been blocked from CfD support. SSE’s CEO has argued that we need to be more ambitious about offshore wind. PV solar can also be expanded. Wave and tidal power need more support. So does biomass anaerobic digestion (AD) and combined heat and power (CHP). As the head of the National Infrastructure Commission has said, all of that — and much else — needs revisiting and a new approach. Hopefully, it will be more coherent and effective than those in the past.

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