• John Khoo

Green Energy in the UK – Promising future or empty promise?

Updated: Dec 20, 2020

John Khoo examines UK developments in renewable energy, particularly in terms of the “Green Industrial Revolution” public policy and advances in green hydrogen.


Renewable energy is a buzzword which for a long time has been a much-discussed but insignificant source of power in the UK. However, is there hope that it can finally take the main role in shouldering the UK's energy burden?


The third quarter of 2019 saw a major breakthrough in the UK’s quest for green energy. 29.5 terawatt-hours (TWh) of renewable power was generated in the months of July, August and September 2019, as compared to the 29.1 TWh sourced from fossil fuels in the same period. This marked the first time where renewables out- generated fossil fuels since the first British power station opened in 1882. PM Boris Johnson also announced his new “green industrial revolution plan” on 17 Nov 2020. But is this enough to make the UK “the world’s number one centre for green technology and finance”?


Courtesy of Office for National Statistics


Current Renewable Energy Supply


In Q2 2020, the renewables’ share of electricity generation amounted to 44.6%, the second-highest percentage on record. Renewable energy in the UK comes from a myriad of sources; but the key ones are: Wind (Offshore and Onshore) and Bioenergy. In total, they accounted for 79% of renewable energy. Britain’s unique geographical position has cemented its status as the current global leader in offshore wind generation, powering over 4.5 million homes annually. The cost of offshore power too has fallen by 50% since 2015, making its production cheaper than gas and nuclear power. Onshore energy is a similarly affordable source, where 12 gigawatts of production capacity have been already installed by the government.


Feasible steps moving forward


With the large steps made in the last 5 years towards renewable energy, are there still other technologies with the potential to become a significant energy source? Hydrogen has been touted as a strong alternative to fossil fuels with versatile applications ranging from transportation to heating. However, a large proportion of it is currently produced using non-carbon friendly means, such as steam methane reformation (grey hydrogen) or coal gasification (brown hydrogen).


Green hydrogen, produced from the electrolysis of water using renewable energy, has been strikingly expensive given the high price of electrolysers and renewables. However, they look set to become the cheapest power generation technology (halving in price by 2030), with the cost of renewables and electrolysers diminishing significantly. For pricing, the government can also consider greater targeted support for subsidy mechanisms, perhaps through contracts for difference that would ensure that green hydrogen prices remain competitive in the energy market.


Additionally, it is worth looking into habit transformation that could even reduce energy consumption. For instance, the government has shown support for cleaner public transport, creating hundreds of miles of cycling lanes. It is realistic, then, to believe that greater efforts could be placed into developing a more emissions-friendly transport network altogether.


The Green Industrial Revolution


The PM’s vision of a “Green Industrial Revolution” rests on a 10-point plan that covers government funding from increasing renewable energy capacity to commercialising low-carbon green technologies. This package costing £12 billion is purported to create or support up to 250,000 jobs in the green sector.


With this, the UK has a fighting chance at attaining 2 ambitious green goals that stand tall:the end of sales of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Some notable investments which will support these endeavours include a £500 million spending on hydrogen and a £2.8 billion war chest on the development of an electric vehicle network and technologies for longer-lasting car batteries.


Critics point to certain glaring issues with this plan, specifically the size of funding directed towards these efforts. For instance, the £12 billion for 250,000 jobs is dwarfed by Germany’s €40bn climate-related spendings and the $1.1 trillion the International Energy Agency projects the world will require to spend on renewables by 2030. Moreover, £5 billion or 40% of the total package is being directed towards flood control and not reducing carbon emissions. As a result, the PM’s hopes of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 seem very distant, and even impossible according to some climate experts.


A Green Economy


Critics point to certain glaring issues with this plan, specifically the size of funding directed towards these efforts. For instance, the £12 billion for 250,000 jobs is dwarfed by Germany’s €40bn climate-related spendings and the $1.1 trillion the International Energy Agency projects the world will require to spend on renewables by 2030. Moreover,ten-point plan, it remains, for now, a noble shot at supporting green energy and making the UK more suited to tackle climate change in the future than it was before.


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