Small generators must be central to the UK’s zero-emissions future

Posted in: Energy

Posted on: 07.05.2019

This is an important moment for climate action in the UK.

The combined impact of nationwide climate protests, David Attenborough’s new documentary, and Greta Thunberg’s speech to MPs has created huge momentum and media attention.

Last Wednesday, Parliament voted in favour of declaring a national environment and climate emergency. The non-binding resolution is a major step towards politicians taking decisive policy action in the near future.

Into that cauldron comes the Committee on Climate Change’s report on the UK’s journey towards zero-emissions. Last year, the government requested advice on the feasibility of going net-zero within the next 30 years. The committee’s report has a range of powerful, and sobering, suggestions on how the UK can end its contribution to global warming.

If the protests and speeches were calls to action, the document is one roadmap to tackling climate change head-on. It shows us where there have been serious gaps in leadership from Government, the major investments required to change course, and the cost-effective solutions to transform our economy.

We fully agree with its emphasis on a “just transition across society” where consumers and vulnerable workers are protected from the oncoming changes. There are important recommendations, such as ramping up electric vehicles, expanding our forests, and reducing energy consumption across the board.

For too long, our energy system has been heavily reliant on big power plants and a tight-knit group of suppliers.

It is also no surprise to see strong support for increasing the amount of low-carbon power, with a quadrupling of supply by 2050. Renewable electricity is one of the current success stories of the UK’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and this must continue.

What is missing from the report is the opportunity to highlight the central role for small generators as contributors to our energy future. There are almost one million households and businesses in the UK which have installed small-scale renewables, making a serious impact on energy demand and carbon emissions.

And we have barely scratched the surface. For too long, our energy system has been heavily reliant on big power plants and a tight-knit group of suppliers. The past 10 years has shown how quickly that can change with clean technologies transforming how we use, generate and share energy.

This has clear benefits in enabling more people to take ownership over their energy usage and become part of the solution to a high-carbon society.

But it is also necessary. Experts are agreed that as we increase the amount of renewable power on the grid, the system has to become more flexible and capable to respond to a different way of working.  

The committee chose a more top-down approach on power, recommending a nine-fold increase in offshore wind capacity by 2050. This technology has its place as one of the tools in our armoury, but small-scale generation needs an equal role. Our current capacity of localised solar PV can power the equivalent of over 2 million households, with rooftop alone helping to cut 771,000 tonnes of carbon last year. This is from a position of almost zero capacity in 2010. Why can't we support even greater growth over the next ten years? The sky is the limit for new solar if we enable this crucial, yet untapped, solution to the climate crisis.

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