Monthly Archives: November 2019

The UK’s political consensus on climate change

The major political parties all make commitments in their general election manifestos on policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  

All the UK’s main political parties have now published their manifestos for the forthcoming general election on 12th December.  These include their programmes on climate change.

The most remarkable feature of the manifestos is the similarities between them.  All make specific commitments on climate change.  All envisage reaching net zero emissions.  All see an increased role for renewables, see the need to improve building insulation, and recognise the role of land use.  All refer to the opportunities created by a green economy.  Compared with only a few years ago this is substantial progress.  Of course, commitments set out now may never be implemented in government, but the fact that parties need to make such commitments is a sign of the increased recognition of what needs to be done.

The table below summarises some of the main points from each manifesto.

2019 UK general election manifesto commitments on climate change 

  Conservatives Labour Liberal Democrats Green
Net-zero target date 2050 2030s 2045 2030
Renewables 40GW of offshore wind by 2030 90% renewable electricity and 50% renewable heat by 2030, including roll out of heat pumps and hydrogen 80% of electricity from renewables by 2030 70% of electricity from wind by 2030.
Buildings £9.2 billion on improving energy efficiency Upgrade insulation for almost all of 27 million homes, zero carbon standards for all new homes Insulate all of Britain’s homes by 2030, new homes to be built to a low carbon standard, £6 billion p.a. on home insulation and low carbon heating A million homes a year to near zero carbon, improved insulation for all who need it, roll out of heat pumps
Surface Transport Consult on earliest date for phasing out sale of petrol and diesel cars Improve public transport. Aim to end sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2030. Invest in public transport, and make sure all new cars are electric by 2030 Major shift to public transport. All new vehicles zero carbon by 2030
Industry £800 million on CCS, support gas for hydrogen Invest in new technology Supporting CCS and new low-carbon processes for steel and cement Start deployment of CCS
Land Use 75,000 acres p.a. of additional trees Ambitious programme of tree planting Planting 60 million trees a year 700 million new trees by 2030.
International and supporting action International partnership to tackle deforestation Assess emissions in imports and suggest policies to tackle them. Require companies to set targets compatible with the Paris Agreement Economy wide carbon tax, with border tax on embedded carbon

Reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 will be very difficult, requiring huge transformations of the UK energy system alongside changes in land use.  Reaching net zero earlier, and especially in 2030 or the 2030s as proposed by the Greens and Labour, seems impractical.  Otherwise, there is much to welcome among what is proposed.

However, there are significant differences between the parties along with the similarities.  The proposals from the Conservative party appear weaker than the others, and the manifesto does not contain a clear programme for the necessary scale of transition towards net zero emissions.  The other parties’ programmes look similar in many respects.  However, looking at the detail, the Liberal Democrats’ programme looks to provide the best set of policies, judged on a combination of comprehensive coverage, likely effectiveness, and realism.

The inclusion of extensive proposals from all parties for reducing emissions is an encouraging sign of how far the debate has come.  However, the real test will come when the next government must decide on implementation.

Adam Whitmore – 25th November 2019

 

 

Cheap, abundant solar power looks increasingly likely to transform prospects for decarbonisation

Cheap, widely available electricity from solar PV in the coming decades looks increasingly likely.  It could transform the world’s energy system, and prospects for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Only a decade ago solar was a niche source of energy, accounting for a tiny fraction of world electricity consumption.  It was also very expensive.

Since then its status has been transformed.  The installed base grew by a factor of about 17 between 2010 and 2018, with consecutive doublings of cumulative installed capacity every two years or so.  By 2018 output was over 2% of world electricity demand, and continuing to grow rapidly.

Over the same period prices came down by a factor of four.  Analysis by the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) shows average prices to have fallen from $240/MWh in 2010 to around $60/MWh in 2018 (see chart, which also shows that prices for wind power have also fallen, but by a much smaller proportion).

Chart 1:  Global average prices resulting from auctions for solar and wind, 2010-18

Source: Irena[i]

Some recent solar PV contracts are already well below the level found by Irena.  Prices are below $20/MWh in some cases (see Table 1).

Table 1:  Some contract prices for solar PV in 2019

Location Price ($/MWh)
California 1 22.0
California 2 20.0
Brazil 17.5
Portugal 16.5
Dubai 17.0

Source: press reports[ii]

The reasons for the differences between these costs and the higher costs shown by Irena appear to include:

  • Comparing global averages with world’s lowest cost. For example, the Portuguese contract is an outlier, with most contracts in Europe remaining above $50/MWh.  Similarly, the Dubai project may benefit from cheap land, and perhaps low-cost capital.
  • The inclusion of incentives reducing some of the contract prices. For example, the California projects’ prices would likely be closer to $30/MWh without production tax credits available to the projects.
  • Continued fall in costs since 2018

So how far could solar PV costs go in the long term?

Projecting cost trends following such large changes is inherently uncertain.  However there seems no clear reason why changes as large as those that have already taken place should not happen again.  Costs fell by 75% between 2010 and 2019 in response to capacity increasing by a factor of 17, following a typical experience curve.   There is scope for a similar increase in capacity – a factor of about 17 would take solar to around 40% total electricity production, plausible over the next few decades.  This may lead to a similar reduction in costs of around 75%.

Indeed cost reductions may occur much more quickly than that.  The transformation to date has happened very rapidly, and there may be as yet more unrealised gains as more fundamental R&D, which is longer lead time, comes through.

There may also be potential for currently higher cost locations where the industry is relatively undeveloped to catch up with the best.  This may reduce average costs, even if the best projects do not reduce costs as rapidly.

Conversely, some efficiency gains, such as those in construction costs of large scale installations may be one-offs, and similar gains may not be possible in future.  These limits have not been binding so far, but may be more so in future.

Taking these considerations together, a very rough and ready estimate would suggest widespread availability of unsubsidised solar power at prices at around $10/MWh or less within the next 2 or 3 decades or so, and possibly much more quickly than that.

This would make solar the among the cheapest form of large scale, high value energy the world has ever seen.  By comparison, annual average crude oil prices dropped to $7/MWh (in $2019) only briefly at the end of the 1960s before the oil crises of the 1970s took effect and prices increased[iii].  Oil is currently around $25/MWh ($60/bbl), and is a less valuable and versatile form of energy than electricity.  Coal may in some cases be cheaper per MWh but is expensive and inefficient to convert to electricity, so total fuel costs may exceed even some current solar costs.  Coal is also, of course, highly polluting, with expensive CCS required to reduce its emissions.

What are the implications of this?

To bring low carbon energy prices to close to the levels prevailing for high carbon energy in the era of cheap oil would be potentially transformative for emissions reduction.  Effects would be widespread and may include the following.

  • The generally expected route of decarbonising the power sector and electrifying end use becomes much easier with plenty of cheap low carbon electricity. This is supported by falls in the costs of batteries, which will help solar based systems cope with large daily variations in output.  Land availability for solar is not a constraint globally, but maybe in certain places where population density is high and there are other uses for land.
  • It will also support electrification of transport, helped by electric cars being much more efficient than internal combustion engines anyway.
  • Hydrogen is more likely to be produced by electrolysis than by natural gas reforming with CCS, especially as large amounts of surplus solar may be available at times of peak production. And with cheap electricity, hydrogen use is likely to be focussed on applications where its specific qualities are needed, for example some industrial processes requiring high flame temperatures.
  • CCS is also likely to be focussed on a few special classes of emissions, especially those from industrial processes.

Some things seem likely to remain true even with cheap solar …

  • Wind power is likely to continue to play an important role for reasons of system security, diversity, and different locations of resource.
  • Improving energy efficiency, especially in buildings, will continue to be worthwhile, as it makes the transition to lower emissions easier in many respects.
  • The emissions reduction challenge remains daunting, not least because of the scale of the transformation required is formidable, and existing assets are long lived.
  • Long-haul aviation looks likely to continue to be a challenge, perhaps requiring synthetic fuels or biofuels.
  • Land use emissions from deforestation and agriculture remain a large problem.

So far modelling of the energy system seems to have largely ignored the possibility of very cheap solar being widely available.  This is an area which needs much more consideration.  Nothing gives greater hope for solving the climate change problem than the prospect of abundant cheap low carbon electricity.

Adam Whitmore – 18th November 2019

[i] https://www.irena.org/publications/2019/Jun/Renewable-energy-auctions-Status-and-trends-beyond-price

[i] See here for contract prices quoted in the table and commentaries.

https://pv-magazine-usa.com/2019/09/30/solar-plus-storage-pricing-record-set-in-california/

https://www.pv-tech.org/news/brazils-solar-price-record-seen-as-global-renewable-milestone

https://reneweconomy.com.au/coal-and-gas-on-notice-as-us-big-solar-and-battery-deal-stuns-market-60011/

https://www.energy-reporters.com/opinion/by-adding-solar-portugal-pushes-all-in-on-renewables/

https://reneweconomy.com.au/solar-pv-prices-fall-to-record-lows-in-tender-for-900mw-solar-park-in-dubai-51069/

[iii] Based on $12/bbl (source: BP statistical review of world energy) and 1.7MWh per bbl of crude oil