Theresa May’s legacy as prime minister was always going to be shaped by Brexit, but in committing the UK to net zero emissions by 2050, her final act may be her most significant.
The reaction to the announcement has been mixed, with many arguing that it is too limited and that action is needed sooner. However, this is undoubtedly a positive step from government and we should all now hold them to account to ensure the commitment is backed up by action.
Whoever takes May’s place inside Number 10 must now take on that mantle, deliver significant new legislation and secure investment to cut emissions. A key element of this must be to support a new generation of onshore renewables in the UK.
Up until 2015, the UK was a world leader in onshore renewable development, so when the government removed support and changed planning regulations in 2015, it was a setback to the industry. Over 10,000 jobs were lost in the solar industry alone and recovery has been slow.
The growth in the UK’s onshore renewable capacity since then has stalled, hovering at around 15 percent of our total generation. However new planning applications for onshore renewables are beginning to creep up again and there was an impressive 2.7GW of onshore renewable electricity capacity submitted last year, so there’s room for optimism.
Many of those new planning applications are from businesses looking to generate their own energy in response to market volatility.
Macro-economic events such as Brexit and the ‘Trump-effect’ are not typically associated with increased interest in renewables, but the uncertainty these events are creating in global energy markets is making the cost of ‘traditional’ fossil-fuel commodities increasingly unstable.
For instance, oil prices – a key signifier of the state of the global economy – rose to a four-year high in October last year but collapsed by Christmas following reports of rising US stocks.
That’s why around a third of businesses with high energy bills are looking to find new ways to shelter from volatility and protect their bottom line by installing renewable generation onsite – increasing self-sufficiency, cutting carbon and reducing reliance on market costs.
Businesses are installing renewables as it stacks up both environmentally and financially Onshore wind is the cheapest form of new energy generation.
But where business leads, government must follow.
To reach our new net zero ambition by 2050, the next phase of the renewables revolution must focus on onshore – it’s the logical and pragmatic choice for any new PM.
All attempts at building large-scale ‘conventional’ energy generation over recent years have failed or gone vastly over budget.
The cost of Hinkley Point C is likely to rise by £1.5bn to £19.6bn and it isn’t likely to generate energy until 2025. Hitachi and Toshiba both decided to halt new nuclear projects at Wylfa in Wales and Moorside in Cumbria.
Attempts to develop the questionable fracking industry have been equally fruitless.
With much of the UK’s coal plants now decommissioned and many of our remaining power stations reaching the end of their design life there’s sure to be a shortfall between the anticipated generation capacity and what the market looks set to deliver.
As the most cost-effective option, onshore renewables are now the only sensible option to increase generation while matching our carbon reduction plans.
The UK Government doesn’t need to change much to start solving the energy supply crisis that’s developing. A few small planning system amendments could boost investor confidence and support wide-spread and successful subsidy-free onshore renewable generation.
Renewable energy projects are almost unique in receiving planning permission for just 20 - 25 years, which reflected the length of time they received financial support.
But now that support has been removed, we should reflect renewable’s crucial role in the UKs energy infrastructure by granting planning permissions in perpetuity (like any other planning consent) to increase investor confidence and ultimately lower the cost of electricity further.
Also, when looking at extending the life of renewable generation, local authorities often assume the asset will be removed and treat it like a green-field site. This makes extending the life of onshore wind and solar a challenge.Unless these planning guidelines are changed, the UK renewables portfolio could start to shrink as projects go offline.
These small changes will help keep the lights on while driving the country towards its decarbonisation targets. And best of all, it wouldn’t cost the treasury a penny.
A significant driver for the change in policy from the Conservatives under Cameron was a perceived lack of public support for onshore renewables, however the landscape has shifted dramatically since 2015.
The Extinction Rebellion and School Strike movements have made the issue of climate breakdown impossible to ignore.
And the public are on board too, with around 80 percent of people supporting renewables according to the government’s own attitudes tracker. This is also demonstrated in a recent video featuring some of the people local to our Caton Moor Wind Farm near Lancaster.
There is a clear and collective ambition to make a change that has now reached politicians and policy-makers.
This year alone, parliament called a climate emergency and both BEIS and the Committee on Climate Change recommend the net zero target which the government has now adopted.
An increase in onshore renewables will complement the significant growth in battery storage, electric cars and smarter consumption, as we move towards a smart grid.
Our businesses, homes and cars will integrate into the system. They will each have batteries that will charge from rooftop solar, an onsite turbine or the grid when demand for power is low and then release energy when demand begins to rise.
Our energy bills will change in parallel, as new tariffs will incentivise people by enabling them to save money by using less energy at peak times.
The relationship between demand and supply will become more balanced and dynamic, where supply will no longer be a slave to demand. By being able to manage peak demand, and ultimately reducing it, we’ll need less infrastructure, saving more money.
The appetite for new renewables from business and the public is overwhelming and must now be matched by government if we are to achieve our net zero ambition.
May's announcement last week could be a major milestone in the UK’s fight to prevent a climate catastrophe, and capitalise our collective sustainable energy expertise, but only if the rhetoric is backed up with action.
Matthew Clayton is managing director of Thrive Renewables.