Two of Britain’s leading clean energy firms have gone into administration within hours of each other, and a third has sold his UK business, with two of them blaming the government about-turn on energy policy.
Nearly a thousand staff have been laid off as the Mark Group, one of the UK’s leading solar-panel installers, fell into administration yesterday. On the day same, Climate Energy, which describes itself as ‘the UK’s largest provider of energy efficiency solutions’, posted a notice on their website saying they have gone into administration.
Speaking to Greenpeace’s Energydesk, world-leading solar clean tech giant SunEdison, which sold the Mark Group just months after acquiring it, blamed the government’s ‘draconian policy proposals’ which it said ‘will essentially eliminate the solar PV market in the UK’. The Mark Group management told local media that ‘recent changes to Government policy on energy efficiency put a lot of pressure on the business.’
The news comes just a day after the prime minister, David Cameron, boasted that there are “more foreign investment flooding into our country than anywhere else in Europe” in his speech at the Conservative party conference. It followed a speech by George Osborne in which the chancellor insisted on the need to build more infrastructure projects.
In a further embarrassment to government claims that consumers are their top priority, new Bloomberg data has shown the costs of wind and solar keep falling. It also shows onshore wind is now the cheapest source of power in the UK.
Commenting on the latest development, Greenpeace UK chief scientist Dr Doug Parr said: “For all his rhetoric about building, it’s not scaffolding George Osborne is bringing to Britain’s clean energy sector but a wrecking ball. Evidence is growing that the Chancellor’s policies are putting people out of jobs, damaging investment, and harming one of the country’s most promising industries. This should be a wake-up call for David Cameron, who faces international embarrassment ahead of crucial climate talks. As prime minister, he has a duty to leave internal party politics aside and rein back a rogue Chancellor who’s putting investment, jobs, and growth at risk.”
Last month, a report by financial consultancy EY said the government’s policies on renewable energy threatened to undermine investor confidence in fracking and nuclear projects, as well as in the green sector. In a strongly worded report, the firm said the Conservatives had sentenced the renewables industry to “death by a thousand cuts”.
Responding to news , Friends of the Earth energy campaigner Alasdair Cameron said: “These huge job losses are likely to be the first of many as Government attacks on efforts to build a low-carbon economy begin to bite. Government policy threatens over 20,000 UK solar jobs – with many more at risk in other green sectors.
“It seems the Treasury is happier to give sky-high subsidies to Chinese nuclear power, than support British solar. The renewable energy industry around the world is booming and costs are falling rapidly, but the UK government seems to be stuck in the wrong century.”
Dave Sowden, Sustainable Energy Agency Chief Executive, said: “This is disastrous news for the thousand or so employees that have left Mark Group buildings today to tell their families they no longer have a job, and could easily have been avoided if the Government had paid attention to clear signals about the need to instil confidence in the market. Ministers were warned long before the election of a confidence problem in the sector due to lack of clarity on policy and frankly could have easily prevented this.
“Energy measures in buildings are by far the most cost effective way of meeting our energy policy objectives and the best way for the energy sector to help deliver George Osborne’s long term economic plan. The Government’s rhetoric on meeting climate change targets, on placing energy efficiency at the heart of energy policy and the effusive support given by Ministers for solar, today feels hollow and empty.
“There can be no stronger case for quickly filling the policy vacuum in all these areas affecting energy measures in buildings and we call on the Government urgently to agree to a new Energy White Paper that properly places buildings at the heart of energy policy”
Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?
Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?
But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?
The Big Picture
The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.
That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.
One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.
There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.
As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.
Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.
Make and Model of Car
Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.
On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.
The Bottom Line
Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?
Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.
New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035
New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.
New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.
Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.
Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”
The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.
Zero net emissions by 2050
Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.
Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.
She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.
Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”
A worldwide shift to renewable energy
Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.
Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.
Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.
Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.
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