The pace of change in the energy system is quicker than ever. RenewableUK is establishing a brand new Member Forum to discuss all the challenges and questions around this transition to a clean, smart system, as explained by our Director of Future Electricity Systems, Barnaby Wharton.
Here in the UK’s renewables industry we have had a good few weeks. New research from Carbon Brief shows that in the third quarter of the year renewable sources generated more electricity than fossil fuels. This comes on the back of the offshore wind CfD auction results, which bought new capacity at just £39.65/MWh. Bear in mind that in 2012, the offshore wind industry committed to commission projects at £100/MWh in 2020. We expect that it will be cheaper to build new renewable generation than run existing fossil fuel plants by the middle of the next decade – about the same time that electric vehicles will be cheaper over their lifetime than their fossil fuel equivalents.
For those of us in the industry, none of this comes as a surprise. We have lived and breathed the technological developments and have seen this day coming. What we did not quite expect was the pace of change. As Michael Liebreich, the founder of the research group Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) whimsically put it recently “the first 1% takes forever, 1% to 5% is like waiting for a sneeze – you know it’s inevitable but it takes longer than you think – then 5% to 50% happens incredibly fast”. Well, in the UK, the energy sector has sneezed: it took more than 100 years for wind and solar to go from nothing to just 0.1% of generation (in 1996) and then 10 to get to 1% (2006). It was another six years (2012) to break the 5% barrier. Just six years after that – in 2018 – wind and solar generated more than 20% of the UK’s electricity. According to BP’s conservative “evolving transition” scenario, renewables are already penetrating the energy (not electricity!) system faster than any other technology in history.
At the same time, coal is going the other way. Just think for a second: in 2012 coal generated close to 40% of the UK’s electricity. Today it struggles to get a couple of per cent of the market.
Here at RenewableUK our job for many years has been to help the sneeze come out. We were set up by engineers to help take the crazy idea that wind could help power the grid, and in time started working with other renewable technologies to help them along the way too.
With all this change, we no longer just need to think about how we can support getting more renewables onto the electricity system (though we will – grid issues, planning, innovation and market access are all challenges that we work with daily). But we will also need to think about how the electricity system needs to change to enable more renewables on the system and what needs to change, more quickly, to enable us to take full advantage of the renewable generation boom.
As well as falling costs of renewable generation, we know that a smart, flexible energy network will lower costs for consumers. Reports like the National Infrastructure Commission’s Smart Power report, or Imperial College’s analysis of whole system costs for renewables make that pretty clear. This is supported by falling battery costs and the astonishing pace of change in the world of data analytics and communications. Electric vehicles and batteries, which will be crucial to the energy transition, are following a similar path to wind and solar.
For these reasons and more, RenewableUK is establishing a new Future Systems Member Forum. The forum will bring together our members and industry experts to explore what is changing, and what needs to change, to make the transition as successful, and quick, as it can be. Over the course of the coming meetings we will be asking questions like:
• What role will EV smart charging play, and how can it support variable renewable generation?
• How will the electrification of heat change generation needs?
• Can we deliver interseasonal storage? Will hydrogen production be a viable market for renewable generators?
• How will data and digitisation change support demand management to match renewable output?
RenewableUK members can register here to join us on 14th November, but we are keen to ensure that this discussion is as wide as possible, do get in touch with me if you want to know more.
The pace of change and the excitement it brings makes it a great time to be working in the energy sector. Do come and join us.