Where does Britain’s energy infrastructure rank internationally?
The UK government’s recent decision to reshuffle its energy renewables subsidy – away from onshore wind and solar, and towards offshore wind – predictably pleased some people and irked others. What everyone should agree on, though, is the need for a clear vision for the coming energy transition.
Like all countries, the UK needs to make difficult decisions as the energy landscape is evolving fast. These decisions often arouse strong emotions: some protest wind farms in the countryside, others demonstrate against fracking. Some argue for ploughing more resources into a push for cleaner energy, others argue getting the bills down should be the overriding priority.
The issues are complex, and we can all benefit from a clear framework for thought. How vigorously should we push to develop technologies that are currently more expensive than fossil fuels, but can cut greenhouse gas emissions? How long should we give those technologies to become competitive without needing subsidies? What value should we place on having varied sources of supply, to protect against unexpected price hikes or interruptions in supply chains?
We can think of the trade-offs as three sides of a triangle on which an energy system should deliver: sustainability, affordability and security. A recently published index ranks 124 countries on 18 metrics assessing the components of that triangle – energy security and access, economic growth and development, and environmental sustainability.
The overall list is topped by Norway and New Zealand, but the presence of Costa Rica and Colombia in the top ten shows that a successful energy policy isn’t a luxury only for the higher-income world. These countries indicate the many paths to a high score: Colombia because it is making best use of its gas resources, Costa Rica because 52% of its energy – and 99% of its electricity – comes from renewables, mostly hydropower.
The UK comes in at 11th on the overall ranking – not bad, but a performance that hides sharp disparities on the metrics that comprise it. Security is a strong point: while the UK is more dependent on imports than many (ranking 74th globally), it at least imports from diverse sources (ranking 10th globally). That puts it in a more resilient position than, for example, eastern European countries which depend heavily on Russian imports.
Now the less encouraging news. The UK ranks only 68th out of 124 countries for CO2 per kWh of energy generated. Indeed, the UK’s energy emissions actually increased last year – by 2.6%, significantly more than its GDP growth. The UK is not alone in succumbing to the temptation of cheap coal, this being a trend through much of Europe and beyond. But it does have a significantly low ranking in renewables. The UK gets only 14% of its total energy from renewable sources, lagging far behind the average of 41% for the ten countries which rank above it overall, and also behind an average of 24% for the EU15.
While part of Norway’s top overall ranking comes from having oil and gas reserves, it has also spent years researching and developing renewables: almost all its electricity comes from hydropower. Norway’s strict building codes and incentives for electric vehicles point the way in improving energy efficiency, a double-win in that it reduces both emissions and long-term costs.
Elsewhere, Germany’s radical Energiewende (energy transition) strategy has seen it lead Europe in wind power generation and install over 20 nuclear power stations-worth of solar capacity in the last three years. This aggressive plan is not without risk, however – some experts worry that premature emphasis on the sustainability side of the triangle may endanger both affordability and security, as wind and solar need heavy subsidies and depend on fluctuating weather.
Given the high upfront costs of emerging energy technologies, making a choice is arguably more important than what choice is made. Without a long-term plan, energy companies can’t make the economics of investing in renewables work. Government plans need to be concrete yet flexible, and envisage how subsidies will eventually be withdrawn. Above all, they need to be stable and credible – investors will not commit if they foresee any possible repeat of Spain’s decision earlier this year to renege retroactively on its generous subsidies for wind and solar.
There is no universal roadmap to the energy future, as each country starts with its own resources and constraints. The purpose of the Global Energy Architecture Performance Index Report 2014, released today by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with Accenture, is to allow countries to benchmark their performance and position themselves for the transition ahead.
Roberto Bocca is Senior Director and Head of Energy Industries at the World Economic Forum
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