The 2014 British Renewable Energy Awards, co-ordinated by the Renewable Energy Association (REA), takes place on Thursday at the Savoy hotel in London.
Now in their ninth year, the event celebrates the achievements of companies and individuals who have done something amazing in renewables over the past year.
Ahead of the ceremony on Thursday evening, Blue & Green Tomorrow caught up with five of the event’s judges to find out their thoughts on the future of renewable energy.
Tell us briefly about your current role.
Nina Skorupska (NS): I’m Chief Executive of the REA. I was first introduced as such at last year’s awards dinner, and I’ll be one year into the role on July 29.
Tom Heap (TH): I am a reporter and presenter on BBC radio and television, specialising on environment and rural affairs. My main outlets are Countryfile, Panorama and Costing the Earth.
Rainer Hinrichs-Rahlwes (RHR): I was elected vice-president of the European Renewable Energies Federation (EREF), the voice of independent producers of energy from renewable sources and the umbrella organisation of national renewable energy associations, in May this year.
Doug Parr (DP): I’m looking at technical issues and policy across Greenpeace UK but with a particular focus on energy. That means I try to keep abreast of the challenges facing the transition to sustainable energy in power, heat, transport and other sectors where we are less visible like agriculture.
Simon Leadbetter (SL): I’m the founder and publisher of Blue & Green Tomorrow, the UK’s most widely read and fastest growing sustainable investment magazine. We simplify sustainability for our readers and amplify what it all means to as large a number of people as possible, encouraging them to live, spend and invest more sustainably.
You are on the judging panel for the forthcoming British Renewable Energy Awards. Tell us about your experience at the judging session.
NS: I’m told my first ever REA judging session was actually rather an unusual one. The quality of the entries was not unusual or surprising – with standards just as impressive as ever – but what was surprising was the speed with which the judges, all from diverse backgrounds, reached consensus. It seems this year’s winners stand out head and shoulders above even the best of their peers.
TH: Rigorous yet enjoyable judging panel with each player chipping in with their expertise.
RHR: Very focused and target-oriented discussion. Jury trying to find appropriate prize winners. At the end of the day, we successfully agreed on the prize winners.
DP: It was a really focused session where the discussion was tight and we rapidly were able to get to the winners, except in some cases where it was a close call. It was great to see all the good work that was going on.
SL: A great judging session with a remarkable consensus on who should be the winners. It’s incredibly motivating to see so many companies and individuals doing so much to tackle our greatest problems – climate change and the limits on unsustainable growth.
What could or should the government be doing to boost renewable energy in the UK?
NS: Clear, stable policy is key. Policies need to find the balance of not being too complicated, so that all the different players in renewable energy can work with them, whilst being sophisticated enough to respond intelligently to changing market circumstances, avoiding the need for knee-jerk interventions. It is not easy, and government has made some good progress, but there is a long way to go yet.
TH: Not undermine it with rhetoric or political posing, and that applies to the opposition, too.
RHR: Create stable and reliable framework conditions for all renewable energy, in particular conditions which would encourage new market entrants and independent producers of energy from renewable sources. Overcome nimby (“not in my back yard“) and banana (“build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone“) approach and explicitly facilitate deployment of a smart mix of decentralised (and some centralised) production, in particular encouraging onshore wind and all forms of community power initiatives. And finally, extremely important to avoid stranded investment and unnecessary costs, take clear and unambiguous decisions aiming at system transformation towards a renewables-based energy system.
DP: Treat it with respect as a major part of the solution to our energy issues. Support for renewables (unlike for nuclear or for fracking) has been grudging and apt to change at short notice, and only done because of the EU target. Instead of seeing it as substantive, bankable, and better than their preferred options.
SL: Start taking a lead globally. Ditch the naysayers and scientifically illiterate sceptics in high office and make the UK the global epicentre of sustainable innovation. The first duty of government is to protect it’s citizenry, and the greatest threat to our national security is climate change and resource scarcity in minerals, food, energy and water.
What single technology do you think has the most potential to change the energy sector for the better – and why?
NS: Well, I can’t play favourites from within the renewables family! So I’ll be a bit cheeky and say storage. When we can combine the intermittent technologies – wind, wave, solar – with efficient storage solutions, we will see a step change in the technical challenge of integrating these technologies into the energy system, in the economics of these technologies, and in the ability of on-site generators to greatly increase their independence from rising energy bills.
TH: Tidal: it is a consistent renewable where the parameters are known. Energy storage has to escape its current state of neglect.
RHR: There is no such single technology. What we need is a paradigm change – away from fossil and nuclear baseload driven energy systems and markets, aiming at a flexible and smart mix of all available renewable energy sources: wind, solar, biomass, hydro, geothermal, wave, tidal. Power grids and energy markets (including heating and cooling and transport sectors) have to be redesigned accordingly.
DP: Hard to pick one as there will be several competing. Offshore wind could be huge; so could solar depending on price reductions. Both will need moves on power storage and grid management to gain full potential.
SL: Time travel. To travel back 30 years to actually do what we needed to do then, to stop us from arriving in the hole we’re in today. Seriously, though, I’m a huge fan of harnessing the power of the sea through tidal, wave, offshore wind and ocean thermal. We’re an island nation that built an empire out of our respect and mastery of the sea. It’s time we mastered the sea’s huge potential to power our much smaller nation.
What do you think the national energy mix will look like in a decade? What does it need to look like?
NS: There won’t be any new nuclear plants yet. There will be some new gas plants but no carbon capture and storage (CCS) at scale, and a small amount of UK shale gas. There will definitely be much more renewable energy, because it is generally much quicker to deploy than the other low-carbon options. The biggest step change will be in heating. Compared with 2013, renewable power and transport fuels need to treble between now and 2020, while renewable heating needs to increase five-fold. What it really needs to look like is an energy system with renewables and energy efficiency at its heart.
TH: Not a radical change from today unless we see a meaningful carbon price (which might push out coal) or a sharp jump in fossil fuel costs. A steady increase in the proportion of renewables is likely due to government incentives and subsidies and gradually lowering technology costs.
RHR: There will be more offshore wind, some more solar PV, and there will be deplorably little capacity of onshore wind. Anaerobic digestion (AD) and other biomass (including for heating) will make some good progress. The UK will still not have reached a share of 15% renewables in gross final energy consumption, although this should have been achieved by 2020 already. There will be power outages (or close to), because the grid system will not be adequately adapted, due to incompatible policy incentives. By 2022, the UK government will announce that costs for Hinkley Point C will be – at least – 30% higher than expected and that the power plant will not be ready before 2030. Shale gas projects will have consumed a lot of money, spoiled the environment, but not have produced a relevant amount of unconventional gas. It needs to be led by Wind and PV, which probably could cover around 50% of the UK’s electricity demand: biomass, hydro and some geothermal – heating and electricity – the first wave and tidal projects at commercial scale, gas providing balancing power where needed and the remaining coal and nuclear power plants being phased out, freeing the grid from inflexible production.
DP: It will have a lot more renewables in the power sector; heat use will continue to decline, as will oil use in transport. I’m not certain there will be a massive penetration of renewables in either of those latter sectors, but the platform will be set for them to be much, much larger later in the 2020s, with substantial electrification as key.
SL: I think the short sightedness of our energy policy will leave us over reliant on fossil fuels, when we could have led the world in offshore energy and clean technology. It needs to be a diverse combination of non-centralised renewables, community-owned installations, well insulated residential and commercial properties and a significant take up of energy efficiency products and services.
Also on the judging panel was: Juliet Davenport, chief executive, Good Energy; Virginia Graham, chief executive, Renewable Energy Assurance Ltd; Michael Ware, partner, energy and environment, BDO; and Paul Ekins, professor of energy and environment Policy, UCL Energy Institute, Faculty of the Built Environment.
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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