Renewable Energy in the UK

Renewable Energy in the UK

This week Hugh McNeal the new chief executive of trade body RenewableUK spoke with Business Green about the challenges the renewable energy industry in the UK currently faces. He also spoke of the day to day business of the trade body and how he thinks the future of renewable energy in the UK will unfold.

“You are meeting companies that are benefiting from the employment of offshore wind across all sectors of the economy. I don’t think people really get this, they treat each of the individual renewables [technologies] as a sector, but I don’t think that is true. I was meeting people who run winches or wrench systems or provide workers and staff to build offshore wind farms or they provide boats… I met lawyers and bankers and I met people who are spending time taking photographs of wind farms being constructed.”

“This is not just a sector it is something that has its tentacles into every part of economic activity in the country. When I started here I asked the team ‘how many people do the members of this organisation employ in Britain?’ which is a different question to the one normally asked about how many people work in renewables. The answer is over a quarter of a million. I get incredible energy from thinking about these companies, because they are innovators, they are disrupters, and if they are incumbents they are changing their business model. They are carving out a new way forward for Britain.”

“I think it is important – actually it’s crucial – to tell a relentlessly positive story about renewables, because it is a relentlessly positive story. This is no start-up. Renewables in general and I’m not just talking about wind and marine, are providing more of this country’s power than nuclear and coal. In terms of the infrastructure story – I can’t think of a bigger infrastructure story than the offshore wind infrastructure story under these last two Conservative-led governments.”

However McNeal does agree that renewable energy does not retain an entirely positive profile in the eyes of the country’s general populace. He therefore places a high amount of importance on the positive stories regarding renewable energy reaching the public as well as those in power.

“I think people can get lost in the numbers rather than the stories. You need to land the point that the industry is worth £20bn of investment, £6bn alone from DONG Energy between 2013 and 2019 in the Humber region, one of the areas of highest unemployment in the country… But then you need the stories to break through about the individual companies concerned. The other thing is I think we will see more [engagement and awareness] as people see the factories and the benefits. The investment in Hull is important, and we’ve seen the investment in the Isle of Wight and Campbeltown. This is the moment to show what the [offshore wind industry] looks like.”

With the offshore renewable energy sector potentially appealing to the new Conservative front bench offering long term employment solutions to areas with long term employment issues McNeal believes that they can overcome government concerns regarding cost and effectiveness of renewable energy and that we are not far away from a clear view on the role of renewable energy in the UK.

“Onshore wind is now the cheapest source of new energy generation that can be built in Britain. There are onshore wind plants that can be built here that are cheaper than gas. I’ve said that to people who are not used to hearing it, but there are plants that can be built at that cost point. We will have to see where the capacity market clears at the end of the year, but I am convinced of it. If you look at Bloomberg numbers or other analysts, we are in that sort of space for the best sites in Britain.”

“If you think about the size of turbines doubling, and the size of blades, and the percentages of cost reductions that have been delivered – you are almost in the realm of consumer electronics. It is like the TV that doubles in size as the cost comes down 30 or 40 per cent. You are in that sort of world; you are not in the world of multibillion pound infrastructure projects. It is phenomenal the UK is leading the world on this. I don’t think we should be shy about fighting on the grounds of cost or innovation. I think we have the most remarkable story to tell.”

However despite the optimism he did conclude with a reminder of the situation the industry currently finds itself in and the uncertainty it faces.

“There has been for the onshore wind sector in particular and for the marine sector now – two of the three main sectors we cover – no route to market and real pain in the last year. It is important that is understood. Thousands of people will probably lose their jobs in the onshore wind sector and we will probably lose the best part of £2bn of investment.”

We agree with Mr McNeal that there has been much to celebrate within our industry over the last few years and that it is not always been shown in a positive light. By the end of 2014 the industry was generating £46.2 billion in turnover per year and employed 238,500 people in full time positions.

Also, renewable energy generation records have been constantly broken on a yearly basis and we remain on track to achieve generation targets set in the previous decade. However, often the negative aspects have been targeted on a constant basis with subsidies in particular coming under particularly strong attacks from certain elements within the media.

Renewable energy is clearly here to stay though, the infrastructure developed over the past decade will remain for many more to come. With smart grid technology becoming more affordable and a potential energy storage revolution just round the corner the ability to manage the generated energy will become more straightforward leading to higher usage and less wastage.

Renewable energy is clean and safe and it’s sources limitless. The cost has already reduced dramatically over the past decade to the point that it is one of the cheapest sources of energy in the country. It reduces carbon emissions, helps the environment and due to cost reductions is now saving consumer’s money. The positive aspects outweigh the negatives dramatically and it position in our energy mix is here to stay.

Mr. McNeal was speaking to James Murray at Business Green and the full interview can be accessed at the following link:-


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