The number of energy efficiency measures being installed to help homes save energy has collapsed as a result of government policies according to the Association for the Conservation of Energy.(1) Yet an ambitious programme of insulating buildings, and producing more energy directly from buildings themselves could net savings to the economy averaging £12.1bn per year from now until 2050.(2)
“The government’s energy efficiency policies are in free fall” says Ed Matthew, director of the Energy Bill Revolution campaign, “as a result, fuel poverty is getting worse and people are dying.”(3)
Meanwhile, the crisis in Ukraine has heightened worries about energy security, yet the European Commission seems fixed on an unambitious energy efficiency strategy.(4) If the Commission were to set three targets for 2030: a cut in carbon emission cuts of at least 55% (compared to 1990), a renewable energy share of 45% and a reduction in primary energy consumption of 40% (compared to 2005) overall fossil fuel import requirements could be 45% lower.(5) Attempts to reduce the political impact of Russian gas imports just by diversifying fossil fuel supplies do nothing to increase European economic resilience against volatile global prices.(6)
An energy saving target of 25% by 2030, rather than a more ambitious target of 40% will only cut EU gas imports by 9% per cent but a 40% cut would reduce European gas dependency by an amount equal to current levels of Russian gas imports.(7)
A quite cautious Global Energy Assessment (GEA), produced by an international team led by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, notes that the share of renewable energy in global primary energy could increase “to between 30% to 75%, and in some regions exceed 90%, by 2050”. The GEA sees nuclear power “as a choice, not a requirement”.(8)
The Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) argues that without an energy storage breakthrough, renewables cannot provide the base load power we require.(9) But David Elliott, Emeritus Professor of Technology Policy at the Open University, says given the political will, coupled with serious attention to energy saving, it should be possible to squeeze most fossil fuels out of the system in many places by around 2050, without nuclear.(10)
That still leaves fossil fuels playing a role for some time ahead – but as renewables and energy savings kick in – it will be a diminishing one. Fossil fuel fired plants will be needed for a while for balancing grids as variable renewables expand. Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plants can use fossil gas more efficiently and, linked to heat stores and district heating networks, can help with grid balancing. Gradually that role can taken over by green gas fired CHP plants, using biogas and gas produced from surplus wind and solar power, when production exceeds demand.
We will also need new energy storage systems and ‘smart grid’ demand side management measures, and the development of a continental-scale supergrid will allow countries to balance their electricity supply and demand, smoothing out local peaks of production and demand. But the basic point is that we can head for a near 100% renewable future should we wish – and along the way we can eliminate fuel poverty and cut Europe’s dependency on Russian gas while we’re at it
(1) Eco and the Green Deal, June 2014, Energy Bill Revolution & ACE.
(2) Sustainable Energy Association 7th July 2014