In the face of a fragile economic recovery and ambitious
emissions targets, there is a pressing need to find opportunities
that marry "green" and growth. Much is made of some issues,
especially electricity supply (offshore wind, solar power,
nuclear), low-carbon vehicles (whether electric or fuel cell),
smart grids, and energy efficiency (which arguably deserves even
more attention). Yet there remain many "unsung heroes" - equally
important, but much farther from the limelight. Here are five that
more than deserve their place in the headlines.
First, the most under-hyped of our renewable
energy options is undoubtedly heat pumps. They are
the lynch pin of high-efficiency, low-carbon heat, and their roll
out could employ tens of thousands of installers (replacing up to
25% of new boiler purchases by 2020), while saving the UK energy
system billions of pounds. Current
targets call for heat pumps to have a similar impact to
onshore wind (and much greater impact than solar) in meeting our
renewables targets (e.g. by 2020, DECC estimates a heat pump
contribution of 16-22TWhr, which is at least five times that of
solar). Targets are rightly ambitious (growth of 41% a year!) given
its cost advantage versus other options (25-50% lower levelised
cost on average), and the government is moving forward with a
Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) and better installation standards.
However, success will also require a scrappage scheme in
combination with the RHI, significant installer training, and
demonstration and monitoring support to ensure installations
achieve consistently high performance. The benefits of well-fitted,
high performing kit outweighs (by an order of magnitude), the cost
of better training and better performance monitoring. If we want to
engage the public, while boosting green and growth, then heat pumps
deserve centre stage.
biomass is a case in point of missing the forest for the
trees. Biomass is a flexible way to affordably meet targets across
some of the toughest to tackle sectors, and increasing the amount
of biomass available can have an enormous impact on ensuring the UK
is both green and growing. We spend a lot of time discussing the
various ways to use biomass (e.g., biofuel targets, and debates
about the right incentive for co-firing with coal), but far less
discussing the much more important issue of how to make this
biomass available in the first place.
IEA work points to significant unrealised potential for
increasing the amount of biomass at our disposal, with billions of
pounds in annual economic impact by 2020, increasing to tens of
billions by the 2030s or 2040s. However, this requires a revolution
in local land-use planning, transparent and business-friendly
mechanisms to ensure sustainability of supply, and investment in
the technologies that improve the yield and resilience of crops.
Recent attention to DEFRA's waste review is well placed, and offers
an important short-term opportunity. But this is only the tip of an
Third, the most humble (yet still heroic)
is demand reduction in transport. The
CCC's Third Progress Report estimates that expanded
Eco-driving training (helping people get more miles per gallon) and
Smart Choices (a programme that encourages more sustainable travel
behaviour, including public transport, cycling, carpooling, etc.)
would have a greater impact on meeting 2020 emissions targets than
biofuels, low-carbon electric vehicles, or a potential green tax on
new car purchases. Moreover, these measures could be rolled out
quickly (boosting our fragile recovery), would employee people in
all regions of the country, and would save large amounts of money
on imported fuel (which could then be spent on local high streets).
According to CCC estimates of reduction potential and DECC
estimates for fuel use and prices, the reduction in fuel used could
save travellers over £4bn/year (with a direct benefit to the
economy of ~£2bn less in fuel imports). If we combine this with
better enforcement of speed limits, we save even more GHGs (and
fuel costs), and potentially add a source of government income!
This doesn't replace the long-term need for fundamental
transitions in the transport system, but it makes it easier and
cheaper to ultimately achieve targets. And it gives an immediate
double economic boost, both employing under-utilised
resources andimproving cost efficiency.
Fourth, although one hears often about the
importance of innovation, the extent and effectiveness of
UK low carbon innovation policy is rarely
discussed. Innovation drives down the underlying cost, helps
accelerate deployment, and serves a bit like an insurance policy -
creating more options in case we botch things up. Moreover, it is
arguably one of the key drivers of comparative advantage, helping
UK companies capture the value of these new markets. IEA
analysis suggests the UK is decidedly below average when
it comes to low-carbon innovation spending. If we're looking for a
short-term "green growth" boost
(through direct RD&D projects) with a large medium-term "green
growth" upside (billions of pounds/year), then there's considerable
room to increase this spend. But it will require a far greater
tolerance for risk and failure than I've seen to date from the UK
media. It's absurd to criticise government innovation programmes
for failure (by definition, they will and should fail sometimes).
Instead, we need to ask if they've properly assessed the potential
risks and rewards.
connectivity gets my vote for the most under-covered
issue related to low-carbon electricity. In our case, this means a
European and North African transmission supergrid. Recent
studies by the EU point to the enormous value of a
coordinated Europe wide transmission network (€19bn annual economic
gain for EU countries by 2020). Based on this work, the potential
impact of such a supergrid in lowering our electricity costs and
boosting growth is as large as the cost impact of nuclear vs.
renewables. Those wanting to reduce the burden to consumers and
preserve British industrial competitiveness should be focussing as
much on the benefits of interconnectivity as they are on debates
about the best forms of low-carbon generation (e.g. nuclear vs.
Roughly speaking, these five "unsung heroes" are as important to
a "green and growing" UK as those policies that receive most of the
headlines (e.g., FiTs, ROCs, the Green Deal,
the GIB, waste-to-energy, and Smart Meters). Some offer short-term
stimulus potential (i.e., heat pumps and transport demand
reduction), while others pave the way for a more robust "green"
recovery (i.e., innovation and sustainable biomass). Government
policy is not oblivious to these issues, but the lack of media
attention inevitably pushes them down the list of priorities. There
is a pressing need to look beyond the usual suspects (with the
catchy names), to inform the public of the full breadth of
opportunities, and to demand of the government a pervasive and well
balanced "green and growing" strategy.