Musing on… the future’s bright, the future’s green

A recent Grauniad article got me musing on energy futures (1).

MrsShrink works in sustainable energy and has had various roles from industrial purchasing to consultancy in the last 10 years. It’s probably the only thing she’d blog about on here, but for now I’ll lay some opinions on you with a big statement. Offshore power could be Britain’s next north sea oil. However, currently it is mainly overseas company investing, creating jobs and getting stuff done on the ground. See the massive investment by Siemens in the Humber region, which has made it ‘the envy of the world’ (2, 3). MrsShrink finds it barmy that as an island nation we can’t be energy independent using the resources around us. For a nice AV update, here’s a recent episode of Fully Charged News that covers some of the current investment:

I’m a great fan of Fully Charged, and plan to become a Patreon for all the hard work Jonny and Robert are doing (4).

The nuclear conundrum

This makes the recent decision by the government to invest massively in new nuclear power stations a bit bizarre. The new Wylfa power station on Anglesey will be built by Hitachi for >£15billion, requiring at least £5billion, but more like £9billion, of UK government money (5, 6). This is on top of the recent strike price of £92.50/MWh and investment in Hinkley Point C, run by EDF, which has been dubbed “the dreadful deal” (7, 8). This is not an argument against nuclear, per se. There is a defence argument for maintaining a number of active nuclear reactors to have the ability to produce military grade munitions (don’t let MrsShrink here me saying that). Hot off the press is commendable investment into new nuclear technology, to the tune of £200m (9). This includes £86m into a UK fusion programme (probably to replace our investment in the EU ITER, ejits), £32m for advance R&D for construction, £30m for supply chain, and commitment to clean up ‘legacy’ sites (10). Intriguingly, it will also see £56m for R&D into ‘advanced modular reactors’, seen by many as a move toward U-batteries; small reactors designed to operate intermittently or independently to decentralise supply (11, 12)

MrsFIREShrink deals with plenty of civil servants who are aware of and pushing for a decentralised grid. She was involved in recent R&D funding pushing the current decrease seen in wind cost /kwh to the grid, with a strike price of £50/MWh achieved (13). While this is likely a temporary artificial low, it follows a decreasing curve in renewable energy prices /kwh and cost for installation. International R&D is driving this. The losers here are UK based ‘big-6’ energy companies, who are mainly invested in traditional power supply methods and only now coming round to renewable sources. Interestingly ‘the city’ is fairly evenly split, probably due to the split of UK-based and world-based investment. The disconnect at a political level is between the current politicians in power and the civil servants. I wonder why…

The issue of baseload is often touted as reasons for energy not to be fully renewable. Hydro and pumped storage are one element of the reply. Building pumped storage plants like Dinorwig will provide robust, large-scale storage back-up (13). More of these are being built in abandoned industrial quarries and workings (14, 15). However this continues to follow a traditional power supply train of thought working with a centralised grid. The energy infrastructure and supply field is changing tremendously quickly, and so 10 year old articles don’t cut the mustard.

The current focus of R&D and rapid development is battery storage to solve the cyclic demand for power. Tesla have opened a massive powerbank in Aus (16), however Tesla gets lots of fanboi hype despite being considered the world leader in energy density for batteries. This work is also going on in California, and with more energy dense Li-ion and potentially solid state batteries in the pipeline, the technology is moving as fast as it can be installed (17). The grid and suppliers are struggling to keep up.

Bring the system down

The wider move to decentralise the grid, utilising the smart grid and home/ industrial supply makes sense from cost to the consumer/ company, and from a strategic point of view. Hard to blow up the power supply to an area if every home and factory is contributing. The top end consumer market is moving to home PV and wind coupled to battery storage. Again the excellent Fully Charged show covers this (18):

It’s difficult to find a clear graph to demonstrate just how fast PV costs have reduced. Most data is based on US, Asian or Australian costs, which says something about uptake. These graphs are taken from submissions made by Friends of the Earth to the old Department of Energy and Climate Change (19). Biased, but the data they’re based on is factually correct:





What’s the picture on the ground?

The actual amount in use is again difficult to calculate. The graphs below run to 2016, and since then the Government has been playing around with the feed-in tariff, reducing and dis-incentivising (20). Capacity can be assessed on the amount of feed-in tariff being utilised and the supply being provided to the grid (21, 22):

As prices come down it will make increasing sense to have a bit of solar PV on your roof and a battery in your house to decrease your energy cost from the grid. This is limited but not prevented somewhat by our old house stock. Industrial energy use is changing more rapidly. To briefly summarise it is currently cheaper for many offices to retrofit solar PV and wind, with a hookup to the grid for peak demand, than to just buy from the grid at standard rates. For larger consumers, Combined Heat and Power (CHP) and microCHP plants running off natural gas with grid electricity sell-back is cheaper and more efficient.

The future?

So to get back to the original point, we are reaching a crossroads where either the ‘big 6’ or others recognise that offshore wind coupled to onshore solar PV and battery storage are most cost effective over lifetime of installation than traditional power plants for supplying grid baseload. The cost cross-over is nicely demonstrated when looking at long-term solar PV changes (23):

To date experts have been astonishingly bad at predicting the uptake and use of renewable energy (24):

IEA Solar Predictions for Global Installations

I like graphs

What we find interesting is who is going to invest in this and when; is it the ‘big 6’ (E.On are starting to), is it foreign energy companies, or will it be a smaller network of UK based suppliers (25). The government can’t seem to decide, but is erring on the big companies side; vis Hinkley C’s strike cost of £92.50/MWh for EDF vs solar PVs £50/MWh strike cost and offshore winds £57.50/MWh (8, 12, 26). Big oil companies like Shell are starting to clue up and get in as a way of surviving the death of fossil fuels (27). We’re looking at using a small renewable-only energy supplier for our home. It’s a time of huge change and potential for the energy industry, with lots of great opportunities for investors and new companies. We just hope the UK can find a way to lead the change again.

Have a great week,

The Shrink