With a Government promising dramatic changes as part of its response to the pandemic and a looming economic crisis, now is the time for renewable energy to take centre stage, delegates heard at Place North West‘s latest event.
Renewable Energy – Green Industrial Revolution was sponsored by Lexington Communications.
Place North West publisher Paul Unger hosted the discussion, with a panel of experts, on one of the most fascinating sub-plots of 2020 – the Government’s quest to muster support for the narrative of a green recovery as part of its ‘Building Back Better’ slogan.
- Paul Boyfield, managing director of Lexington North
- Myles Kitcher, Peel Environmental
- Helen Thomas, stakeholder & supply chain manager, RWE Renewables
- Paul Maile, partner, Eversheds Sutherland
- Rebecca Lydon, principal consultant, smart energy & sustainability, Hydrock
- How much encouragement for green energy was included in the Government’s white paper this month, Planning for the Future?
- What are the current hot topics and commercial opportunities – is hydrogen the main area of focus right now?
- Could the country’s green infrastructure cope with significant change or is further development needed?
- This month’s planning reforms are just the start: the industry must place innovative ideas in front of a Government keen to do things differently and be seen to do so
- The UK’s stringent regulatory environment can be a strength, making it a place that global operators want to come to test technologies. If it passes muster here, it can be rolled out worldwide
- While the North West has strengths and potential advantages, particularly in offshore wind and hydrogen, energy capture and storage is the critical issue for the next few years
Paul Boyfield said we find ourselves in “very interesting times” post-phase one of the Covid-19 pandemic and amid the Brexit process and an emerging economic crisis, unstable geopolitics, and planning reforms. Covid has brought to the fore people’s wish to live differently: more bike travel and fewer meetings.
It is with this backdrop that the Government plans to introduce an energy white paper, although Boyfield said this might not happen until the New Year. Regardless, this is “a real watershed moment”.
Boyfield noted that more and more real estate developments are including energy storage facilities in masterplans, showing the scale of demand in this part of the sector.
Meanwhile, with the economy in shock, the public sector’s vast spending power is more important than ever. Said Boyfield: “We’re looking at major reform of how the whole public sector works, the planning reforms are just the first tool in [the intention for major changes to the civil service outlined by the Prime Minister’s advisor] Dominic Cummings.
“There are opportunities for the private sector to go to the Government with ideas that tick boxes around green recovery, and now is the time to get their attention. There is an itching appetite to turn things upside down.”
Paul Maile said he believes the attraction of hydrogen is its potential to address areas of energy consumption, where the focus has previously been largely on generation. This is particularly important in relation to transport, where electric vehicles have struggled with perceptions over their reliability over long distances.
In the short term, offshore wind will grow yet more in prominence, with the capacity for energy generation from this source to be more than doubled in the next five years, with more to follow in the Crown Estate’s Round 4 programme, its first leasing opportunity of scale in a decade.
Maile said: “In onshore wind, we need to see policy catch up with the messaging. England is lagging behind Scotland and Wales, where major schemes are still coming forward.
“It might be starting to change, but so far the policy position despite the rhetoric is still where it was in 2015 when the Government pulled the plug – and that needs to change.”
In terms of infrastructure to support electric vehicles, Maile said that is “definitely not there yet” and that all new developments need to to be future-proofed.
Rebecca Lydon said that storage is “the” big issue currently. Globally, there’s an oversupply of renewable energy due to the imbalance between generation and storage. “Energy storage is the biggest thing we need to crack in the next decade,” she said.
Co-location of energy storage, particularly battery storage, in new developments – creating a revenue stream – could be key, she said.
Is there progress on changes to Part L of Building Regulations, concerning the Future Homes Standard? Lydon asked. “Consultation on the [standard, taking in Part L regulations, was closed early this year, and there’s been no news since. There are mixed views in the industry on how strong it needs to be.
“We’re looking at air source heat pumps and photovoltaic panels as standard, and no gas being fitted to new homes by 2025. It would be expected that the commercial world would follow this drive to electrification.”
Myles Kitcher said the biggest challenge around decarbonisation is economic. “It’s the easiest thing in the world to set targets on net zero” but implementation is vital.
He said the government needs to back clusters in different geographies, rather than set them against each other, and that we’re now seeing a step-change in energy in terms of decentralising to local energy networks.
“Storage is going to be critical,” he said, suggesting that the public sector’s main role will be in planning strategically for energy infrastructure, such as establishing where heating networks could work, and where carbon capture storage facilities could be built.
As far as exemplars go, he said, Glasgow has been very proactive in developing networks and low carbon zones. He added that energy-from-waste and tidal power schemes are still making progress, and the North West’s geography gives it a market advantage, combined with the strength of the UK’s “intelligent regulation”.
Helen Thomas said that it’s now “more imperative than ever that the Government supports” green energy.
RWE Renewables has been central in bringing together the Offshore Energy Alliance, in what is probably the UK’s strongest renewables sector. The next step, and a priority, is to work in collaboration with the maritime and hydrogen clusters.
For example, “offshore wind and hydrogen marries together really well, so there is the opportunity for ‘green’ hydrogen, but there is a storage aspect to consider” and the North West’s salt caverns could play a role in this.
Thomas added that one goal is to achieve more targeted interventions, possibly by repurposing former industrial bases to focus on offshore wind. Clustering and getting bodies such as the LEPs on board is crucial, because it means you can generate large returns from a relatively small investment.
She conceded that there is no reason why onshore wind shouldn’t return to the mix – “it’s a good, clean, cheap source of energy” – but the issue is over where facilities go.