National Infrastructure Commission
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A renewable future for Britain is about more than meeting net zero

Just a decade ago, the jury was out on renewables. We questioned whether wind and solar would ever be affordable and resilient enough for us to rely on them. But today, it’s a different story. This year has seen a promising milestone in Britain’s transition towards a greener economy.

In September, the government awarded Contracts for Difference to twelve new renewable energy projects. With some schemes being delivered for as cheaply as £39.65/MWh, enough generation will be provided to power over seven million homes at record low costs.

For the first time, large scale renewables are expected to come online below market prices and without additional subsidy on bills. This adds further evidence to a key finding in the Commission’s National Infrastructure Assessment published last summer: the UK can and should have low-cost and low-carbon electricity.

We recommended a highly renewable energy mix as the low-cost option to meet Britain’s power needs. This is non-negotiable if we are to reach the government’s target to get to net zero by 2050. But beyond cost, there are additional benefits that decarbonisation could bring.

The UK already has world-leading capability in offshore wind generation and smart energy systems, enabling it to compete globally. Data from the Office for National Statistics shows the UK exported £611 million worth of renewable goods and services in 2017, to a market place made up of at least 44 countries.

Between them, these nations are currently spending £188 billion on renewables and £217 billion on energy as a whole. There is also an appetite among some, including Spain, the USA and China, to install cutting-edge new technologies, such as floating offshore wind turbines, which the UK is at the forefront of developing. These ground-breaking exports have the potential to be a key driver of innovation in the UK economy.

There is also scope to gain from fostering an expert understanding of how a highly renewable system might operate in practice. The energy sector will have to become more flexible and use smart energy systems to meet the challenges of intermittent generation, as outlined in our Smart Power report.

The technology required to facilitate this will again provide the UK with a chance to tap into new markets on the world stage. The Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund programme, “Prospering from the energy revolution,” is looking to take advantage of this opportunity, with $2 trillion a year estimated to be invested in global energy infrastructure. The government has committed to contribute up to £102.5 million for research to develop smart systems that can support the global move to renewable energy.

Being an early adopter would help to create skilled jobs across the country. Renewable generation is already delivering this and the pattern is likely to continue in the future, with factors such as the UK’s shallow marine floor making it ideally suited for offshore wind.

As part of its Industrial Strategy, the government is seeking to generate more employment opportunities in offshore wind across the UK. If this was widened to include all other viable types of renewable generation, the potential for job creation would be greater still.

Green energy plants require maintenance to keep them up and running, just as their polluting counterparts do, so these jobs would provide sustainable employment into the future. At present, the average lifespan of an onshore wind turbine is around 21 years, meaning replacement and maintenance programmes must happen alongside new installation.

Historically, renewable projects have brought an array of benefits to their neighbouring areas. Offshore wind developers have provided funding for initiatives like lifeboat services for England’s South Coast and community centres in Norfolk. Likewise, the onshore sector has the ‘Onshore wind community protocol’ that requires developers to fund good causes for people living in close proximity.

Renewables offer a rare and important opportunity for Britain. These technologies are a cost-effective way to meet our climate change ambition, while boosting UK plc and building new foundations to help the economy thrive nationally and regionally. If we make the right choices now, this could be the start of a real success story.

Jonathan Morris is a policy adviser for the Commission

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