The goal is ambitious: to install 33 gigawatts (GW) of wind power capacity in the next ten years to supply electricity to 25 million homes.
The means are unprecedented: to build about 7,000 offshore wind turbines around Britain’s coastline.
But this could just be the start of a huge expansion of renewable energy in the UK, though wave and tidal power and even solar energy would need to be harnessed if the government is to meet its objective of drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions while also retiring a generation of old, polluting coal and nuclear power stations.
Last Monday (February 18) UK Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said that a Climate Change Bill currently going through parliament could contain a mandatory target for cutting carbon emissions as high as 80 percent by 2050 if an independent expert panel recommends this in response to scientific evidence that climate change is happening more quickly than thought.
The current draft law contains a binding target of a 50% cut in carbon emissions by 2050.
Also, the bill includes a provision for introducing a carbon trading scheme that could set higher prices for carbon emissions. Analysts say that increasing the price of burning fossil fuels would release significant funds for renewable energy investments.
“Renewable energy is an integral part of the Government’s strategy to delivering on our climate goals and will play an increasingly important role in our moves to a low carbon economy,” Philippa Heap, press officer for the UK Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform said.
The government has conceded that meeting its target of having 15 percent of its electricity coming from renewables by 2020 would mean a giant leap forward. The 15 percent target was set by a European Union (EU) directive, but it is still under discussion.
The UK generated 2908 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity from wind power in 2005, and the country has one of the lowest proportions of energy from renewable sources in the EU.
Critics say that the UK government has made a rushed energy policy announcement without putting adequate plans in place. They say that the focus on wind power is one sided, the switch over to wind power could create chaos as it is coming just at a time when the UK retires coal and nuclear power plants making the country increasingly reliant on gas in the short term. Critics also point out that the funding and financing framework does not encourage investment in renewables.
But Heap said the UK government is mobilizing to meet its EU renewable energy targets. Eight GW of installed wind capacity will be operational by 2014. This would include the 1-GW London Array wind park. Array’s 341 turbines, located in the outer Thames Estuary, are due to go on line in 2010.
A huge expansion of wind turbines in the North Sea, the Irish Sea and off the coast of Scotland is planned. In fact, Britian’s entire continental shelf, including the English Channel, will be opened to the development of wind parks.
By 2020, the UK should have 33 GW of wind power and 20 GW of power from nuclear power and clean coal stations. However, peak demand reaches 60 GW and there are no firm plans as of yet for balancing out the electricity system.
One option could be for the UK to build electricity interconnectors with northern European countries to send abroad extra wind energy that can be tapped when it is needed. The UK already has a 2,000 MW electricity interconnector with France and another 1,000 MW interconnection with the Nertherlands is due to become operational in 2010.
Electricity could also come from a massive expansion of wind or tidal power or even solar power in sunny places like Bournmouth on the south coast.
The UK government is also looking at the possibility of importing concentrated solar power, but this would require a considerable investment and the technology would need to be commercially viable, something that is still a long way off, according to Heap.
“Concentrated solar power is an interesting technology and there are huge solar resources in countries with hotter climates than the UK, such as, Spain and North Africa,” Heap said.
To cut back on emissions, the UK government is also pressing ahead with the development of technology to capture carbon emissions that come from burning coal and gas. It is hoped that a demonstration plant for capturing emissions will be in operation by 2014.
The development of the UK test facility comes after EU legislation on climate change and energy in January dropped a barrier that had prohibited governments from putting money into the development of the pioneering technology that is not yet commercial.
Heap said that the carbon capture technology could be used by countries such as China and India that are expected to be heavily reliant on coal-fired power stations for years to come.
“We welcome the Commission’s recognition that Carbon Capture and Storage with the potential to contribute up to 28 percent of global CO2 mitigation by 2050, will be crucial in moving to low carbon economy, and that it will also be particularly relevant to tackling emissions from rapidly developing economies including China and India,” said Heap.
In addition, Heap said the government is committed to “second generation” biofuel projects and also to raising the proportion of biofuels in petrol and diesel. But the biofuels would have to be produced in a sustainable way and be shown to contribute to a proven reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, she said.
The government has also announced a major push to make all UK houses more energy efficient.
Jane Burgermeiser is a writer based in Austria.