Time to stop power politics

Mainland Europe is proving that renewables are effective and economical on a local scale, but except for a few isolated examples the UK is held back by regulations. Julia Pierce says drastic action may be needed.

Under its current Renewables Obligations, the UK is committed to producing 10 per cent of its power from clean energy sources by 2010. This currently stands at less than three per cent, and many wonder how the gap can be bridged in such a short time without a fundamental change of emphasis.

The Royal Family is an unlikely source of inspiration for the nation’s energy policy, but may offer a glimpse of a possible way forward.

Last week it was announced that Windsor Castle has been granted permission to build a £1m, four-turbine hydro-electric plant at Romney Weir on the Thames, able to supply one third of the castle’s power needs.

In theory, this high-profile example of small-scale renewable energy generation could be copied across the country, eventually complementing the National Grid with a clean, efficient electricity network. Placing generation in close proximity to end-users means less power is lost during transmission from generator to consumers. So far the UK has been reluctant to commit itself to such schemes (royalty excepted). However, pressure from Europe is growing.

The European Commission recently launched its Sustainable Energy Europe 2005–2008 campaign. This aims to increase renewable energy use by targeting areas ranging from entire cities to individual communities, encouraging local authorities to implement ambitious plans for sustainable energy development.

Though some UK industrial and commercial sites have experimented with using fuel cells, Woking is so far the only town to have pursued this route, with just under 1,000 homes covered by the scheme.

The Surrey town is home to the first gas-powered hydrogen fuel cell CHP (combined heat and power) system in this country, and has also installed nearly 10 per cent of the UK’s total solar energy production. The two systems are linked via a microgrid and work together to produce electricity that, owing to low transmission costs, costs 1p per unit less than that from the National Grid.

Those using municipal heating from the scheme do not have to maintain domestic boilers, a significant advantage for those on low incomes. The scheme has been self funding, with profits from customers paying for set-up costs.

However, installing the scheme was not easy. DTI regulations protecting the UK’s privatised power station operators meant the council had to install a new network to all its electricity customers to avoid conflict with national grid suppliers.

An artist’s impression of how Windsor Castle’s planned hydro-electric plant will work

Allan Jones, instigator of Woking’s project, is now chief development officer for the Climate Change Agency for London, the organisation charged with fulfilling Ken Livingstone’s aim of generating 665GWh of electricity and 280GWh of heat from up to 40,000 renewable energy schemes by 2010.

This would provide sufficient power for the equivalent of more than 100,000 homes, plus heat for around 10 per cent of them.

‘Per private wire site, you can generate up to 50MW,’ said Jones. ‘However, under current rules only 1MW of this can be used to supply residential users. It’s an absolute nonsense. The reason for this is that suppliers make the most profit out of home users. Two House of Lords committees have looked into the issue, but the DTI is resisting change.’

The UK may be lagging behind — despite having developed world-leading technologies within its borders — but on mainland Europe, progress is being made. Scottish firm Ocean Power Delivery, producer of the Pelamis Wave Energy Converter, for instance, recently won a contract to build Europe’s first commercial wave power plant to supply energy to 1,500 homes in Portugal from 2006.

The UK is unlikely to benefit from such a scheme until 2007 at the earliest, when Cornwall’s Wave Hub electricity generation project goes live. Andrew Scott, project development engineer at Ocean Power, said government help is crucial to the success of any UK scheme.

‘The technology is feasible if the product can be sold at a profit,’ he said. ‘The Portuguese government has installed a tariff on the energy produced that enables us to create a large project. In the UK, only onshore wind schemes are viable at the moment under a tariff scheme.’

Though the DTI has recently created a £50m fund to aid wave and tidal projects, Scott said that support was still not as great as in Portugal, particularly as the DTI funding was engineered to support small demonstrators only. ‘Large projects are better because you can benefit from economies of scale,’ he added. ‘You must be able to do this to bring the cost of electricity produced down.’

At present there are few incentives for UK communities to develop CHP schemes, except on an experimental basis. Launched in 1986, Southampton developed the first geothermal energy CHP district heating and chilling scheme in the UK.

The system delivers more than 30,000 MWh of heat and 4,000 MWh of electricity each year to 20 major consumers. Despite its success, the scheme is not set to expand.

By contrast, the Swiss are currently spending £33m on using geothermal technology to provide 5,000 homes in Basel with heat and electricity by 2008 at costs that correspond to those of a new hydroelectric or winddriven power plant. Other cities including Geneva have also earmarked sites.

The UK’s deregulated power supply market means that it is relatively hard for the government to dictate policy to private energy generators. Unlike in Europe, where power stations may be owned by municipalities, allowing them to choose renewables for the benefit of the local climate even when they may not be the cheapest option, UK producers traditionally take a more short-term view.

Their shareholders also require a relatively quick return on capital investment, limiting power companies’ options for using new technologies.

While other nations are busy proving that renewables are both effective and economical when used locally, the UK appears to be trapped by regulatory inflexibility and the demands of its privatised energy market. Building onshore wind turbines seems to be acceptable to both government and electricity companies — though less so to those who must live near them — but this perpetuates the inefficiency of relying on power generated far from its point of use.

To meet UK renewables obligations, drastic action may be needed. ‘It may take more than the economics of renewable sources to make the change viable,’ said Dr Tom Markvart of Southampton University’s department of engineering, who has co-authored a report on the feasibility of microgrids for the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

‘Like making the change from petrol to hydrogen powered cars, the country must have a total re-think of its energy policy.’