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Wind and solar could power the country, but is the ambition there?

Research from Oxford’s Smith School shows wind and solar could generate almost ten times the current electricity demand, but suggests that UK lacks ambition
19 October 2023 , Steve Smethurst

University of Manchester expert says achieving this vision would rely on extensive infrastructure upgrades and garnering public support for renewable energy facilities

A lack of ambition, rather than technical feasibility, is preventing the UK from meeting all of its energy needs through wind and solar power, according to a policy brief published by Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment.

The research shows up to 2,896 TWh a year could be generated by wind and solar, against the demand forecast of 1,500 TWh/year for 2050 – almost 10 times current electricity demand (299 TWh/year).

The ‘intentionally conservative’ estimates consider concerns around land use and the visibility of installations, according to the authors. They said that the grid will need significant upgrades to handle this amount of renewable energy, including the scaling of energy storage. But they believe these challenges can be overcome with investment and policy support.

Dr Brian O’Callaghan, lead author said that the UK was lagging in the ‘global green race’. He said: “Instead of hitting reverse, we should be turbocharging on renewables with US-style incentives and gearing up our grid for the surge that is already underway.”

Cameron Hepburn, Battcock Professor of Environmental Economics at the University of Oxford said that initiatives to speed up renewable projects were the “silver lining in an unfortunately poor set of policy announcements” from the government recently.

Although Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged to end bureaucratic delays holding back renewable energy and storage projects, he announced a five-year delay in banning the sale of new petrol and diesel cars to 2035.

Professor Hepburn said that the Oxford analysis found it was ‘entirely possible’ to power the country on wind and solar alone, although he said that nuclear power and other renewables would also have a part to play.

“There is a need to use every tool at our disposal to reach net zero. Moving to electric vehicles, for example, was expected to deliver significant carbon savings of 23MtCO2e per year on average between 2033-2038.”

“The main hurdles are delays in planning and grid integration that cause years of delay and put off investors.”

Maria Sharmina, Professor in Energy and Sustainability at the University of Manchester said that the economic argument against scaling up wind and solar energy ‘no longer holds’.

“The main hurdles are delays in planning and grid integration that cause years of delay and put off investors. Grid upgrades, flexibility and energy storage are also required but would pay off in energy resilience by reducing the UK’s vulnerability to global fossil fuel prices."

Jaise Kuriakose, Lecturer in Climate Change and Resilience at the University of Manchester admitted that plans to transition the UK's energy supply to rely solely on wind and solar power were ‘ambitious’.

“To make this vision a reality, we'd need an extensive network of new pylons and overhead lines to transmit electricity across the country," said Kuriakose. "Additionally, [we’d need] large-scale energy storage systems and improved weather forecasting to manage the fluctuations in power generation and demand.”

He warned: “Building pylons and other infrastructure upgrades has already met with long planning battles and faced opposition in East Anglia. Achieving a decarbonised energy system in the UK isn't just a matter of technology; it's about garnering public support for the necessary changes. Balancing the benefits of green energy with the concerns of local communities will be crucial.”

Image credit: Shutterstock

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