25th April 2017

Britain ‘unprepared for rise of small-scale green energy’

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It argues that without change, just six electric cars charging in close proximity at peak time could overload the grid and disrupt local power supplies. The think tank also warns that one in five of the UK’s local grids are unable to accept distributed energy such as rooftop solar.

It urges the government to design a smarter power system that would enable electric car batteries to store enough power to keep the UK’s lights on for seven hours at a time by 2025, virtually eliminating blackouts. It claims that distributed energy could save customers more than £1.6bn a year.

At present, technology is moving faster than the government, according to the report. Recently, Tesla surpassed General Motors to become the US automaker with the highest market value, by 2020 IKEA will be a net exporter of its own solar and wind energy, and the falling price of battery storage could soon allow UK households to operate off the grid for months at a time.

The report predicts that the UK will reach a tipping point as soon as 2020, when government will lose the ability to control the speed of small-scale energy deployment.

Similar tipping points outside the UK have had mixed responses. In Nevada, attempts to clampdown on rooftop solar’s effect on the local power system were met with ferocious consumer backlash, ultimately leading to a reversal of new less favourable tariffs and the grid administration being sacked. But in California, smart EV charging infrastructure has been used to keep the lights on at peak times. Given that 40 per cent of drivers would consider buying an EV, the UK should follow California’s lead, the Green Alliance argues.

The report says that four main government interventions are necessary to get the benefits of small scale energy:

– A new, independent system designer should be employed to ensure small scale energy is well integrated;

– Distribution network operators should be transformed into distribution system operators to actively integrate EVs and solar in a smart network;

– Small scale technologies should be enabled to provide system flexibility, for instance through smart charging of EVs;

– Automation and aggregators should be adopted to make more flexible ‘time of use’ tariffs attractive to consumers.

Matthew Knight, director of energy strategy and government affairs at Siemens, said: “The energy transition is unstoppable and will in part be driven by customer choice, ie. democratisation as well as decarbonisation of energy. The challenge for government and industry is to help customers to make good choices. And adapt markets so that the system can benefit from the flexibility new technologies can bring.”

Brian Tilley, head of policy development at E.ON said: “A new energy world is emerging; more decentralised, more flexible. We’ve adapted our business and now we believe the way the system is governed needs to adapt too. That’s why we welcome this report from the Green Alliance and applaud them in not only asking the right question but also in coming up with answers that point us in the right direction.

Dustin Benton, acting policy director at Green Alliance, said: “Small scale energy is growing rapidly because consumers are choosing it, regardless of government subsidy. It has already led to blackouts and billion pound losses for unprepared governments, and it won’t be any different for the UK. But it doesn’t have to be this way. With the right policy, EVs and solar could help keep the lights on and cut consumer bills. Political parties need to outline how the large scale energy the UK needs and the small scale energy people want can work better together.”