Ecobuild London: pro-nuclear, anti-residential PV panel debate causes stir

The Ecobuild panel misjudged the mood of the audience, and appeared to have a poor grasp on the potential of decentralized energy.

Ecobuild 2017 kicked off in London on Tuesday and will conclude on Thursday, showcasing a series of energy technologies, including solar and storage systems.

The event also includes a series of seminars inviting members of the industry, government and academia to participate. Such was a panel debate about the U.K.’s energy future mix that took place on Tuesday and which promoted fantastically outdated and misinformed views regarding renewable energies, and battery storage specifically.

Controversial studies
Dr Matthew Ives, senior researcher at the Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, presented a pathway for meeting the U.K.’s 2050 energy needs. Ives said that his team has taken a whole systems approach modeling not only energy, but other elements of infrastructure (e.g. water) to provide a vision for 2050.

Ives’ main proposition is that his modelling shows that for the U.K. “the numbers don’t add up in terms of what you have to do to transition to a decarbonized energy system. You can’t do it quickly enough without nuclear or carbon capture storage (CCS) along with gas turbines.”

However, Ives did not explain in detail the underlying assumptions of his research, nor the data he used. It remained unclear, for example, what his assumptions are for energy technology in 2050. There is innovation going on in all forms of energy systems and forecasting the specifics of the future energy technology is rather science fiction.

For example, who would have thought even a few years ago that solar PV technology would become so cheap and so quickly that the U.K. would have 12 GW of solar PV installed in 2017? Does his modelling for UK energy in 2050 takes into account technologies we haven’t even thought of, or do not yet exist?

Another weakness in Ives’ analysis was that he didn’t address the decentralization process of the energy system that has been taking place in the U.K. and elsewhere. In fact, he provided incorrect evidence regarding it.

Incorrect evidence
Members of the audience challenged the centralized, pro-nuclear vision for the U.K.’s energy future and referred to their solar PV home installations. In attendance was an individual who specifically referred to Germany’s example of incorporating customers and energy users into the new energy market design.

Dan Lewis, a senior advisor on infrastructure policy, who comprised part of the panel, replied: “In terms of consumers engaging in energy, I want to remind myself I have an interest in energy but I don’t want to impose this to everyone else and there are a lot of people out there who want to pay their bills, keep them as low as possible… and that’s all they want to know.”

Interestingly enough, Joanne Reynolds, a Briton who lives in Essex, told the panel that she is one of those Britons having installed solar on her home along with other energy saving devices. “This helped us to reduce our energy bills and didn’t require us to change our lifestyle,” she added. “We struggle to use 25% of what our solar panels generate and we export about 75% of our solar energy generation to the grid,” she told the panel.

Ives replied that “if you see this at a national scale”, it doesn’t work. “Distribution networks cannot take more solar, they have to retrofit the network,” Ives told Ecobuild.

“In terms of your battery storage,” he added, “if you see what you put in and what you take back, the investment case is not there at the moment, although [battery] plants like the Tesla gigafactory will reduce the costs later.”

When Reynolds replied that she was able to pay her investment back in four years, Ives argued “this is not only about costs. It is about the energy you put in the system. If you put this on a global scale, it becomes what they call an ‘energy vampire’, it is pulling more energy out of the system than it takes to create it in the first place. Solar panels used to be like that but they are not anymore. So, it’s not about costs, it’s about energy and at the moment batteries don’t have that positive effect on the global energy systems.”

What followed was a fine example of current U.K. energy politics. The panel was insisting that only a centralized energy system with baseload nuclear energy can decarbonize the U.K.’s energy system, while the audience presented opposite examples.

Ives added that the U.K. cannot rely on rooftop solar energy “because the distribution network is not set up to use the extra energy. You cannot use it, you need energy storage for that.” But then, he had made clear that battery storage is a ‘vampire’.

Dan Lewis remarked:  “It does trouble me with Hinkley C that it is so expensive and it is going to take so long, and I think there are lessons to be learned around how to do it cheaper for the next generation.” So, yes, more nuclear plants should be built, according to Lewis.

Funnily enough, the panel that preceded this debate consisted of U.K. distribution network operators, who carefully explained how they are working to transition from a distribution network operator (DNO) to a distribution system operator (DSO), meaning their role in managing the power loads and its fluctuations is increasing, collaborating more with flexible power sources, e.g. solar and storage.