Countries need to synchronise policies to ensure that their energy supply is sustainable

Energy policies within one country can have significant unforeseen consequences, two UK researchers warn. For example, ambitious renewables targets in western countries could have serious repercussions in developing nations. Their analysis points to a ‘pressing need’ for synchronising policies across the economy as a whole, including assessing consequences overseas.

Oliver Inderwildi of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford, and David Ward of the Culham Science Centre, used the UK target for renewable energy as an example of how one policy can have dramatic potential impacts, both locally and globally. The UK has been set a target of generating up to 15% of final energy demand by 2020 by the EU.

‘We find that wind, for electricity, and imported biomass, for heat, transport fuel and electricity, almost has to be the way forward for the UK, at least on the short timescale of the 2020 targets,’ says Ward. But the amounts of biomass necessary to meet the target far exceed what the UK can supply itself, so imports will have to increase significantly, leading to local and global impacts.

Infrastructure hole

Because the imports required will be far greater than current imports of coal, the present infrastructure won’t be enough, warns Ward. ‘This will necessitate joined-up thinking on where consumption will occur and how to transport the biomass. Rail freight will not be sufficient, unless substantially increased, so either road transport or relocation of consumers, for example locating biomass fuelled electricity plants near ports, will be necessary. The grid capacity may not be sufficient for this, however.’

Globally, a substantial increase in demand for biomass will drive deforestation and compete with food production in countries supplying these imports. What’s more, if other countries follow a similar track, the pressure on production and trade of biomass and food will be even greater. ‘Embarking on the massive increase in global biomass-for-energy markets without addressing issues [such as sustainable management and food supply] is fraught with risks,’ Ward says.

The authors are right to highlight the scale of the challenge of moving to renewables and, in particular, the rates of change that may be required, says Raphael Slade of Imperial College, and co-author of the UK Energy Research Centre’s report on biomass released last year. ‘That said, the analysis in the paper is very one-sided, combining simple estimates with no apparent awareness of the existing efforts to ensure and regulate the sustainability of biomass supply. Drax and Tilbury [power stations], for example, are only burning biomass that is certified as sustainable.’ Overall, he believes the paper’s tone is ‘alarmist’ and puts at risk the chance to learn what works.

Think local, act global

On a global scale, lots of studies indicate fully integrated planning of resources should be synchronised across sectors and countries, says Antony Froggatt, senior research fellow at Chatham House, but it is hard to put into practice. ‘For example, even within the EU, Germany, the leader in solar energy, puts its solar panels on German roofs rather than on roofs in southern Europe where efficiency would be much greater.’

Meanwhile, the UK government has published its long-awaited energy bill. It has delayed a ‘decarbonisation target’ – a cap on carbon emissions from power stations from 2030 – until after the next election, in 2016.

Support for low-carbon electricity investment up until 2020 has been set at £7.6 billion, corresponding to £9.8 billion in 2020 prices. This is the total amount energy suppliers can add to bills over this period. The government says this will increase from 11% to 30% the amount of electricity coming from renewables by 2020. However, the government plans to exempt energy-intensive industries, such as steel and cement producers, from additional costs arising from investment in new low-carbon production.