Recent developments in the energy system

To the surprise of some energy policy analysts, private energy companies in the UK adapted gas turbine technology to the generation of electricity. Gas (predominantly from North Sea reserves) had hitherto been used for heating homes and industrial processes, but rarely for electricity generation. The relatively low cost, combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) technology had the advantage of rapidly introducing greater competition into a generating sector dominated by coal-fired power stations, with nuclear energy accounting for much of the rest. Gas consumption grew in the UK from the 1990s, while coal use declined. A fortunate but unintended consequence of this was that UK carbon emissions fell into line with our Kyoto commitments. Unfortunately, what appeared to be a decoupling of economic growth from carbon emissions was not subsequently sustained: UK energy-related carbon emissions are rising in the early 21st century (HM Government, 2006).

Privatisation also opened a small window of opportunity for people seeking to promote renewable energy. Renewable energy technologies had been sidelined by the nationalised energy industries for decades. The state electricity industry had run a small, unsuccessful R&D programme looking at large wind turbines, but was reluctant to move further. The newly liberalised regime allowed private operators to import better Danish turbine technology, connect to the grid, and sell their renewable electricity. More significantly, privatisation ushered in new forms of public support for renewable energy discussed below. Nevertheless renewables as a proportion of total UK electricity supply reached only five per cent by 2008. This attests to the small window for renewable energy and the difficulties these technologies have competing in energy markets as currently structured.

Perhaps ironically, it was nuclear power's advocates who made the case for continued public support in the new world of privatised, market-led investment. Unsuccessful attempts to sell off nuclear power merely served to reveal the high costs and large liabilities that state ownership had hidden. Continued public support would be necessary even under liberalisation. This risked falling foul of European competition law. A compromise was reached by which public support would be permitted so long as it extended to other non-fossil energy sources, like renewables. The ensuing Fossil Fuel Levy funded the Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation scheme that finally opened the way for the development of limited renewable energy capacity, notably electricity from wind farms, landfill gas and waste incineration (the last two of which environmentalists refuse to recognise as renewable). The more recent Renewables Obligation (RO) and system of RO Certificate payments has continued to support this trend.

The first UK wind farm projects were initiated by former renewable energy activists backed by private capital (e.g. Ecogen). The new sector soon came to be dominated by larger energy utility companies, however, through complex processes of restructuring formerly vertically integrated firms, international takeovers, mergers, re-integration, and so on. Owing to the (insecure) regulatory basis for supporting renewable energy, the larger companies were better placed to smooth revenue fluctuations, and to secure more favourable access to capital, allowing them to build and run wind farms more competitively. Renewable energy production has adapted to a market situation that favours more centralised forms. The dominant strain of energy governance has not changed itself to promote a widespread and diverse set of renewable energy practices.

This is evident in the difficulties encountered with a series of more recent policies to promote decentralised and community-based renewable energy projects in the UK, including the 'Community Renewables Initiative', 'Clear Skies', the 'Photovoltaic Demonstration Programme', and the 'Low Carbon Buildings Programme'. Policy is incoherent, timid, and undermined by institutionalised renewables support that favours the large-scale over the small (Walker et al., 2007). All this need not necessarily be a bad thing, especially if it has furnished cheaper forms of renewable energy, though campaigners for community energy would disagree. The purpose here is simply to illustrate how prevailing forms of energy governance in the UK served to shape and influence the way new renewable energy technologies and practices were developed and deployed.

Nevertheless there are genuine questions over whether this form of support is bringing forward a sufficiently diverse and large amount of renewable energy. Sustainable energy advocates point to considerable uncertainty over whether energy governance has sufficient critical mass to transform the energy system, and whether policymakers are willing to attempt to support this diversity through non-market support mechanisms (Watson et al., 2006).

As policymakers in the UK consider how to make energy systems more sustainable they are confronted by an energy system that has become increasingly dependent upon gas (for heating and electricity), but where diversification away from coal and oil includes a small renewable energy sector, receiving public support, and ageing nuclear power stations with significant public liabilities. Meanwhile, the UK appetite for oil-based transportation grows and grows.

Getting Started With Solar

Getting Started With Solar

Do we really want the one thing that gives us its resources unconditionally to suffer even more than it is suffering now? Nature, is a part of our being from the earliest human days. We respect Nature and it gives us its bounty, but in the recent past greedy money hungry corporations have made us all so destructive, so wasteful.

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