How can we do more with less? That’s one of the fundamental economic questions of our time. It’s at the heart of the UK’s productivity puzzle that politicians have been grappling with for years. It’s a demand that public services have been trying to answer for nearly a decade. And it’s an increasingly live debate in responding to climate change. Decarbonising our current economic model is the strategy that drives almost all of the global policy responses to climate change that we have seen thus far. The Paris Agreement envisages a phase-out of sources of emissions by the middle of the century, replaced by low carbon technologies. In recent years, however, some academics and environmentalists are ever louder in advocating a more radical ‘de-growth’ approach, requiring rapid changes to how our economies and societies operate in order to respond to climate change – a lot of the demands from the Extinction Rebels in London will be familiar to those following this debate.
Both sides of this debate are, fundamentally, pursuing the same end – economies that produce less carbon and societies that are more sustainable. The UK is, in many respects, a world-leader in effective responses to climate change. Greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by 40% and we have a legally binding framework to cut emissions by 80% by the middle of the century. But it is an uneven story and progress in cutting emissions has largely been delivered by the investments RenewableUK members have made, supported by Government policy. In sectors like transport and industry emissions have changed little since 2010, while in the power sector we have moved rapidly to renewables and emissions have fallen by over 53% in that time.
Onshore wind has been a key part of this story. In 2018 it provided nearly 10% of the UK’s power – up from under 2% in 2008. Over the same period the cost of power from onshore wind has plummeted and it is now the cheapest option for new power. It’s a good thing too, we’ll need even more low-cost clean power sources in the next ten years. The Committee on Climate Change has warned that we face a power gap of just under a fifth of our current power demand and newly released Government figures show the UK slipping further off-track on meeting carbon budgets.
At RenewableUK, I’ve been working with our Project Intelligence team to see what the opportunity is to increase the power we get from the UK’s existing onshore wind farms. As any economist will tell you, technology is the key that unlocks productivity gains and for onshore wind we can upgrade existing wind farms with a new generation of turbines to produce more power, more cheaply. Our new report, Onshore Wind: The UK’s Next Generation, shows the scale of the opportunity.
The earliest commercial-scale wind farms in the UK’s existing 13GW onshore fleet were built in the 1990s with an expected lifespan of 20-25 years. By 2040, over 8GW of onshore wind capacity – enough to power more than 5 million homes – will be past their expected lifespan. Losing that capacity would worsen the energy gap and push our carbon targets even further out of reach. We set out, however, that through a mix of upgrading and replacing old turbines with the latest technology we can grow the amount of power we get from onshore wind – and do it with fewer turbines than we have now. To date, 19 wind farms projects have repowered and increasing power capacity by 160%, using just two-thirds the number of turbines. We are doing more, with less.
This is a new frontier in the UK as repowering hasn’t been done at a large scale yet. There is no national policy to guide planning authorities. Our report urges Government to seize the opportunity to secure investment in new low carbon power, and local investment and jobs for communities. Replacing turbines on existing sites should be a more straightforward process as sites have proven their record at producing power and operators of sites will have had 20 years’ experience of identifying and addressing any impacts caused by the wind farm.
Climate protesters on the streets of London want to see an economy powered by renewable and other clean energy sources – and the Government agrees with that objective. However, environmental protesters are rightly calling on Government to go further and faster, pointing out that a rapid expansion of renewables will help unlock wider climate benefits.
It is vital the Government recognise the importance of, at least, maintaining the current contribution from existing onshore wind. To meet the looming energy gap and hit our climate targets, de-growth of onshore wind is not an option. Repowering onshore wind offers us an opportunity to secure new investment, increase productivity and avoid backsliding on out climate change ambitions.