Beleaguered renewables industry could do without fear mongering officials

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Cover image: Getty.

Of the UK’s national newspapers, The Telegraph is not exactly famed for its progressive environmental views, so its picking up of ill-advised comments made by a senior partner at Ofgem was not exactly surprising.

Yesterday it reported that Andrew Wright, aforementioned senior partner, made some disparaging comments about the alleged effects of renewables on the UK’s energy market, warning that they were creating inequalities that could lead in the not-so-distant future to one family with all the lights on, charging their electric vehicle, while their neighbours “sat in the dark”.

The phase out of coal by 2025, Wright argued, would result in energy suppliers having “much less flexibility” with their supply. What Wright has conveniently forgotten, or wilfully neglected to mention, is that nobody has purported to replace coal-fired power stations with renewable generators. Far from it. The government’s plan – which remains in consultation – to phase out coal by 2025 has always hinged on the availability of new build gas generators to make up the shortfall.

And the question of inflexibility from wind and solar also seemingly ignores the existence of the Capacity Market, a mechanism designed for the exact purpose of ensuring there is enough generation capacity on the grid to ensure security of supply. Wright’s comments were made in September, so crucially before 52GW of capacity was last week secured for the 2020/21 winter period, but it’s not as if the Capacity Market is a new or secret concept.

Wright went on to scrutinise the impact widespread decentralised generation is having on local grids. “At the moment everyone has the same network - with some difference between rural and urban - but this is changing and these changes will produce some choices for society,” he said, alluding to the creation of a two-tier network in which only those who could afford to pay for it will be guaranteed supply.

"At the moment everyone has the same network - with some difference between rural and urban - but this is changing and these changes will produce some choices for society.”

Those sentiments again wilfully ignore innovations and new system designs coming to the fore. Centrica’s £19 million study of a renewables and storage-based smart grid is not the first and certainly won’t be the last such project to get off the ground and onto the distribution network.

But what stands to do more damage is how these comments have been reported. They’re almost three months old and, constrained to within a confined audience, are at most a little misleading but when regurgitated and spun by national newspapers they are capable of widespread damage. The Financial Times’ headline – that the regulator has warned guaranteed electricity may come at a cost – lends considerable credence to Wright’s fears.

That Ofgem was quick to comment that Wright was speaking in a strictly personal capacity of situations which may or may not occur in 15 years’ time is probably a greater indication of its take on the matter as the UK’s actual, bonafide energy regulator.

Intentional or not, Wright’s comments have only served to heap yet more unjust scrutiny onto an industry beleaguered by abrupt government cuts. More than anything they seem to have been borne from a lack of awareness of measures designed to appease the ills Wright suggests renewables are guilty of causing. In fact, there’s more than enough evidence to suggest widespread renewable deployment actually stands to drive prices down by the time Wright’s event horizon looms. There are even countless trials launched by local authorities, pairing solar and storage technologies to assist the very people Wright seems most concerned about.

In a statement issued yesterday Jonathan Marshall, energy analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, said that Wright’s comments had been used to “mount an attack” on renewables, and rubbished the notion of a two-tiered energy network.

“The UK’s electricity system has never been more flexible, and as technologies such as storage and demand-side measures begin to appear on grid-scale, this ability to respond to changes in renewable output will become cheaper and easier to control. Last week’s capacity market is clear evidence of this, with batteries, demand-side measures and peaking gas plants the big winners,” he said.

But the damage has been done. Wright may not have meant for his comments to be used in such a way, especially if speaking to a closed audience in a university lecture hall, but the way they have been used is evidence of the desire to disparage and discredit whenever and wherever possible. And all at a time when the UK’s domestic renewables industry is still recovering from last year’s kicking.

The comments, and more crucially their reporting, are not surprising. But it doesn’t make them any less destructive.