07 December 2015

Renewable energy must do more to demonstrate its wider contribution

Adrian Fox, Portfolio Manager for Offshore Wind, asks whether renewable energy must do more to demonstrate its wider contribution to society. 

While most people were waiting expectantly for the Chancellor’s Spending Review this Autumn, many of us in the energy sector were more keenly awaiting the ‘reset’ speech from Amber Rudd, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, setting out Government’s ambitions for energy policy over this Parliament and beyond.

While the commitment to eradicating coal by 2025, alongside the introduction of new gas fired power stations, attracted much of the media attention, it was the welcome commitment to offshore wind beyond 2020 that grabbed my interest.

Rudd rightly articulated that cost reduction would be an integral part of securing the industry’s future in the UK’s energy mix, and there is sound evidence that costs are coming down ahead of schedule and it will be cost competitive with other new power sources by the mid-2020s.

Offshore Wind Works: Offshore Wind Vision

As leaders from across the world negotiate essential carbon budgets this week at Paris COP21, I have been reflecting on how offshore wind is a bit of an unsung hero as a UK infrastructure success story for the low carbon economy. This is an industry that is on course to double its capacity by the end of the decade and meet 10% of the UK’s electricity demand. In fact, we’ve just launched an interactive map that shows the estimated amount of electricity generated every hour by the sector to help demonstrate this contribution.

Offshore wind electricity map

However, by its very location the sector’s impact can feel less clear and its wider benefits remote. We know that the industry has attracted billions of inward investment to the UK and created thousands of high value jobs, directly and indirectly. A BVG Associates report has shown 43 per cent of the content used to build and run UK offshore wind farms has been sourced locally, providing a valuable contribution to UK manufacturing through the supply chain.

Business Green: Nearly half of British offshore wind farms 'locally sourced' (subscription required)

In some places, particularly coastal communities with tough economic challenges, there is significant opportunity for attracting investment and creating long term jobs. For example, Green Alliance has published a report on how offshore wind has helped regenerate Grimsby over the last 15 years:

Growing the UK's coastal economy: learning from the success of offshore wind in Grimsby

We’ve tried to go a step further and recently published a report into the impact of offshore wind on individuals’ well-being. Carried out by independent consultants, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, it draws together a range of literature to build a picture of both positive and negative impacts: from material living conditions, such as personal income and jobs, through to the natural environment and impacts on wildlife, as well as issues relating to quality of life, such as health.

Understanding the Impacts of Offshore Wind Farms on Well-Being(PDF, 1.51 MB)

On balance, the report shows that the sector has broad support and a positive impact on people’s individual well—being. However, it also raises some interesting questions, particularly relevant in light of the Paris negotiations, that we don’t have a clear understanding of what the individual trade-offs are that people are willing to make around well-being in order to ensure a safe, secure and low carbon energy supply.

In short, renewable technologies must prove themselves – from a security and affordability point of view, but perhaps just as importantly, they need to be able to tell a compelling story about their wider contribution to society, particularly when Governments have difficult decisions to make about which competing technologies ‘to back’ in the transition to a low carbon economy.

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