The UK government must pull out all the stops and take every opportunity to invest in the nation’s renewables infrastructure. To keep pace with the rest of the world and meet UK net-zero targets, we must implement a systematic, technology-agnostic approach to accelerate the energy transition and create a level playing field for all renewable energy technologies.
This is especially needed to address the biggest roadblock on our journey to net zero, which is the energy consumption needed to heat and cool buildings and required for industrial processes. These activities account for roughly half of global energy demand. Of that, only 10% is met through renewables.
Bold, consistent targets
Given the size of the issue, a detailed strategy and clear targets for sector-by-sector decarbonization are needed.
The UK’s historic lack of consistent policy or deployment targets have led to sluggish adoption of renewable energy. At Naked Energy, we design and manufacture solar thermal collectors to decarbonize heat.
Deployment of solar thermal is much lower in the UK than in our European neighbors. Germany has 10 times more – and Austria 25 times more – solar thermal capacity per citizen than the UK. In Italy, solar thermal adoption grew 83% in 2021, owing to the government’s 110% “superbonus” tax deduction. The dramatic increase in Italy’s solar thermal adoption is proof businesses and consumers are eager to drive the energy transition forward – all that’s needed are the right conditions to enable a bottom-up approach.
A national target of 11 GW of solar thermal this decade would put the UK on par with today’s EU average and would mean annual growth of 26%. This is a tall order, of course, but possible through grant schemes such as the Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme, which has done so much to reduce emissions at UK public bodies; and the revival of the Green Homes Grant, which was axed after just six months and which offered households up to £5,000 ($6,030) to fund insulation, and £10,000 for low-carbon heating.
Scheme, believe, achieve
Reliable and long-term funding for renewables infrastructure will dramatically increase investor and business confidence, encourage the development of innovative green technology, and eventually help those struggling to pay energy bills as well as protecting the country from future shocks.
In the residential sector, simple regulatory measures would go a long way.
Stringent building regulations to ensure new-builds meet the highest energy efficiency standards and have renewable energy technology – including photovoltaics, solar thermal, and heat pumps – installed, will benefit tenants and landlords alike.
The 2025 Future Homes Standard, which will come into effect that year, must be adhered to by including solar energy as a key means to meet decarbonization targets; and building energy performance certificates should be updated to include details on how well-installed, low carbon technology is performing.
Last but not least, green consumer finance and mortgage products that reward investment in properties with solar technology will also drive much needed change.
The impact of solar heat goes beyond individual buildings. Solar district heating is a powerful demonstration of how entire communities can decarbonize through large scale infrastructure. These networks can provide 90% to 100% of the energy needed for hot water and space heating when paired with seasonal storage technology such as pit thermal energy storage systems. That technology involves a large, insulated body of water which can be heated and, in Denmark, solar district heating is so successful it meets 60% of the country’s thermal demand. Systems have also been installed in Austria and Germany.
Solar district heating networks not only provide cost-efficient heat generation, they significantly reduce stress on local power grids, enabling green electricity to be efficiently used for other applications.
Of course, solar technology will not deliver the energy transition alone. The International Energy Agency (IEA) forecasts renewables for heat generation will grow around 15% globally to 2027. To meet net zero targets, however, they should grow by around 27%. There is a lot to do.
Invest for growth
The level of investment needed is significant. However it’s no coincidence the United States implemented the Inflation Reduction Act last year and the European Union is now formulating a Green Deal Industrial Plan to strategically support local industry.
The energy transition provides a huge opportunity to build domestic supply chains, revitalize national industries, and mitigate the worst effects of climate change.
Solar thermal should be an integral part of this journey for the United Kingdom. The IEA expects the number of solar thermal systems will grow from 250 million today to 1.2 billion in 2050, and says they will directly contribute to the roughly 250,000 green jobs anticipated in Europe this decade.
The cost of delay
The bill for not reaching net zero could be as much as $178 trillion over the next 50 years, according to a study from the Deloitte Centre for Sustainable Progress published last year.
Getting the UK back on track with its peers won’t come cheap, especially when we’re playing catch-up. We are already seeing the cost of inaction in previous decades and we can’t let that happen again.
About the author: Christophe Williams is CEO and co-founder of British solar design and engineering business Naked Energy and has familial ties to green energy after his grandfather Peter was involved in development of the “oscillating duck” wave technology in the 1970s. Christophe founded Naked Energy after a 15-year career in the advertising industry which included working with UK government bodies the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and the Central Office of Information, on sustainability campaigns.
*This copy was amended on 20/02/23 to indicate solar district heating can provide 90% to 100% of the energy, rather than the electricity, needed for hot water and space heating; and that solar district heating networks, rather than specifically pit thermal energy storage systems, meet 60% of Denmark's thermal demand.
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