Renewal: why clean energy should power the ‘new normal’

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While no one would welcome the tragic losses and suffering caused by the coronavirus crisis, among the silver linings are cleaner air, new social bonds, a slower pace of life and a fall in carbon emissions.

Having much of the population stuck inside while the sun shines has been no fun for anyone, but it has benefitted the environment. With factories closed or at limited capacity, demand for electricity slumped at the height of the pandemic; down by a fifth, according to National Grid. Not only that, but electricity sub-stations have fizzed with solar power in proportions never seen before.

On 25 May, renewable electricity accounted for up to 67 per cent of the UK’s total power supply and on 10 June the UK reached a milestone of going two months without firing up its coal power plants – the longest period since the Industrial Revolution. Clean power producers are holding onto their hats, though – and not because of high winds. What makes them cautious is the prospect of the old, powerful fossil-fuel guard lobbying for a return to business as usual when restrictions are fully lifted.

To stave off that prospect, a group of more than 60 business leaders and heads of environmental organisation are pushing the government to take the opportunity to build a fairer and more sustainable economy.

In an open letter, the motley alliance, which includes the RSPB and supermarket chain, Iceland, calls on policymakers to design a recovery package that holds out hope of a “climate-safe, nature-rich, healthy world for all”.

“As individuals and businesses, we need to pressure the government to make sure that they stand firm now and don’t shift back into their old habits,” says Juliet Davenport, chief executive of renewable electricity provider Good Energy and a signatory to the letter.

Such a transition will require concerted effort, concedes Davenport, who likens it to the government giving up smoking. There are grounds for optimism when it comes to the UK kicking its fossil fuel habit, not least because other powerful groups are calling for the same thing.

In a separate letter, almost 200 chief executives from major UK corporations – including the National Grid and, curiously, Heathrow Airport – expressed their hope for a “clean, just” recovery that, among other aims, delivered on the government’s own goals of becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

Public support for climate action
Equally promising is the seismic shift that appears to have occurred in public sentiment. According to a recent survey by pollster Ipsos MORI, 66 per cent of people in the UK now believe climate change is “as serious a crisis” as Covid-19, while 71 per cent believe the government will be “failing them” if it doesn’t act to avert today’s climate emergency. A separate YouGov poll, meanwhile, found that six in ten adults in the UK think improved social and environmental outcomes should be prioritised above economic growth when pandemic is over.

A clean bounce-back also increasingly makes economic sense. Not only are solar and wind now generally the cheapest forms of energy, particularly when compared to coal, but a buoyant renewables sector could also generate thousands of new jobs and spur inward investment. Were UK lawmakers to throw their weight behind a net-zero transition, the nation’s economy could benefit to the tune of £90bn, according to estimates by the World Wildlife Fund.

But it won’t happen for free, warns Shaun Spiers, executive director of the Green Alliance, another signatory to the first open letter, who says energy networks need upgrades to bring them up to date. Emerging technologies, such as hydrogen production and carbon capture and storage, also need investment.

Finance doesn’t necessarily have to come from the government, but it can spur on private industry. Spiers gives the example of Contracts for Difference (CfD) schemes, which incentivise investment in renewables by providing developers of projects with upfront costs and fixed prices for future renewable power.

A simple spring clean of the UK’s byzantine energy regulations would also go a long way, says Good Energy. Last year the company tried to get an energy storage project off the ground with the Eden Project, but was stymied by the “massive complexity” of regulation. In the end they gave up.

“There needs to be a total redesign of the market to allow for greater flexibility of supply [through energy storage] and for more renewables,” Davenport says.

We need to pressure the government to make sure that they stand firm and don’t shift back into their old habits

A green recovery isn’t just about clean energy, though. In their recent letter to the prime minister, the cross-sector group of leaders also called for greater space for wildlife and people, tighter rules to protect nature and a blanket net-zero emissions test for all new investments, from roads to real estate.

Again, there are reasons to be hopeful. Two government bodies, Defra and the Environment Agency, for instance, recently agreed to co-fund commercially viable habitat restoration initiatives in a bid to attract private-sector funding. The initiatives, which were identified by the Bristol-based ethical bank, Triodos, include a natural flood management scheme in Lancashire and a pollution reduction drive in Poole Harbour.

It is this joined up thinking around a green vision that the signatories of the open letter are urging the government to adopt. As they declare: “we ask you to create something better”