Ahead of COP26 in November, various countries around the world are now competing to demonstrate their determination to reduce carbon emissions. Britain, which recently suffered surging electricity prices, likewise announced that all of its electricity will be generated from renewable energy sources by 2036. While the country believes that it can slash its reliance on imported natural gas via domestically generated clean energy, some experts consider the total reliance on clean energy to be a mere pipe dream – on that will further exacerbate Britain’s electricity shortage in the future.
About 40% of Britain’s supply of electricity comes from natural gas. Hence, the surge of natural gas prices led to a corresponding surge in Britain’s energy prices. Ever since August, natural gas prices have skyrocketed by at least 70%, prompting environmentalists and trade organizations to call for the implementation of a plan that cuts down Britain’s reliance on natural gas. It would thus appear that Britain’s only alternative is renewable energy. As much as 41.3% of Britain’s electricity was generated from renewable energy sources in 2020, with offshore wind energy being the representative pillar among all these sources.
However, achieving the aforementioned 2035 goal is far from easy. First of all, Britain’s targeted 40GW of offshore wind power by 2030 is insufficient, as the ESO believes that about 60GW of offshore wind power, approximately six times the current amount, by 2035 is needed to relieve the country of its carbon emissions. Installing enough equipment to reach the 60GW threshold on schedule is a tall task. According to BBC, transitioning towards clean energy requires enormous capital. Given the tight financial situation of Britain right now, significant investments appear unlikely. Moreover, Britain needs more energy storage systems, be they batteries or liquid air.
It is widely known among certain circles that wind and solar power’s intermittency, unpredictability, and low efficiency are proven, not to mention the fact that the technology is yet to mature, and energy storage remains costly. In order for Britain to meets its ambitious target, the country needs to be backed by a stable energy source that can serve as a safeguard against wind and solar energy insufficiencies.
A certain article indicates that the so-called renewable energy may not be entirely clean. Renewable energies include not only wind and solar power, but also biomass, which generates energy by burning wood and plant matters. About 22% of renewable energies consumed by Britain last year came from biomass. Also falling under the renewable energy umbrella is marsh gas, which is produced by landfills and wastewaters. Marsh gas accounted for about 9% of Britain’s renewable energy consumption last year.
Almost a third of what classifies as renewable energy in Britain derives from carbon-based fuel, rather than wind or solar power. These carbon-based energy sources generate a not insignificant amount of carbon dioxide during the electricity generation process. In addition, even if these energy sources are renewable, they require the planting and cutting down of more trees, while also sending more trash to the landfill.
Without coal-fired power and natural gas, the other option to sustain a stable source of electricity is nuclear power. Assuming political factors are a nonissue, Britain may require about 6GW in nuclear power capacity, but the country’s existing nuclear power generators may be out of commission by 2030. Even if the British government expresses an interest in developing nuclear fusion technology going forward, an article suggests that a more practical way to deal with the ongoing energy demand is to construct new small-scale, modular nuclear power generators. In so doing, Britain will be able to install nuclear power in a shorter time with a lower cost. Furthermore, this allows compatibility with molten salt storage equipment, thereby providing a flexible way of electricity generation.
Because of political factors, Britain’s path to nuclear power has been full of obstacles. Commentators believe that clean energy by itself cannot keep Britain’s lights on. Without a baseline level of electricity by way of nuclear power, natural gas, and other fossil fuels, the British government’s green energy target will only destabilize the country’s supply of electricity.
Within the coming decades, the demand for not only natural gas, but also coal-fired power, will be on the rise. Bloomberg clearly indicates that “[a]cross the world, fossil fuels are making a remarkable comeback as a super-charged recovery from the pandemic boosts demand. For all the green energy promises and plans, that transition is in its infancy, and the world still leans heavily on fossils. It’s an addiction built up over two and a half centuries, and it runs deep.”
(Image: Flickr/Jason CC BY 2.0)