26th June 2017
Improving lives through renewables
Chris Roper, Writer
The gist in 5 sentences...
- Renewable energy improves your health and life expectancy by reducing air pollution (responsible for an estimated 40,000 early deaths every year).
- Renewable energy will stabilise and lower your energy costs by reducing the UK's dependence on imported fossil fuels.
- Renewable energy creates jobs and improves the economy – the renewable industry employs 3 times as many as the fossil fuel industry, and a limitless domestic energy supply frees us from volatile fuel markets.
- Renewable energy allows a distributed energy system, reducing the domino effect caused when a major power station or line has a problem – renewables are also far more resilient to extreme weather events.
- Renewable energy prevents land degradation and destruction associated with fossil fuels, and when properly sited, protects the UK's biosphere and local wildlife from harmful chemicals and habitat loss.
What’s the best kept secret about renewable energy?
It’s not all about climate change.
Renewables benefit you and your community in ways you’ve probably never heard of.
And while bleaching coral, rising sea levels, and the plight of the polar bear are important, let’s put aside global warming for a while and focus on what else renewables can do for you and the UK.
1. Renewables are kinder to your health
Around 40,000 people die early every year as a result of breathing in air pollution, with the elderly, children, and those with health problems most at risk. You can view the air pollution index (a measure of how polluted the air is) for your local area on the World Air Quality Project.
The bulk of pollutants come from fossil fuels, which are burned by the bucketload for energy and transport.
Medical evidence shows that many thousands of people still die prematurely every year because of the effects of air pollution. Air pollution from man-made particles is currently estimated to reduce average UK life expectancy (from birth) by six months. Moreover, it is now firmly established that air pollution (particulate matter, sulphur dioxide and ozone) contributes to thousands of hospital admissions per year.
Take coal, for instance. When burned, coal releases a deadly cocktail of nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, lead, and mercury. Breathing these nasty pollutants damages your lungs, induces allergic reactions, weakens your immune system, and increases your risk of respiratory illness.
Gas isn’t quite as bad, yet still releases nitrogen oxides when burned, and toxins emitted in the development of gas wells reduce local air quality and can cause cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Switching the UK to a low-carbon economy founded up on renewable energy and an electric transport system gives your lungs a fighting chance. Solar and wind produce no emissions, and anything emitted in the manufacturing process (of panels or turbine blades, for example) is more than compensated for once the technology is up and running. And electric vehicles are fast becoming a practical and superior alternative to conventional cars – without the poisonous exhaust fumes.
2. Renewables will stabilise and lower your energy costs
How does the saying go? When (insert large economy) sneezes, the world catches a cold.
This is an apt analogy for the UK energy market.
Wholesale energy prices (and your energy bills) vary because they’re dependent on the trade of fossil fuels. Coal, oil, and gas prices vary according to supply and demand, which are themselves driven by social, political, and economic factors. Nowadays, all European countries are net importers of energy (and thus fossil fuels) and this exposes us to volatile market forces that impact your energy bills.
To continue a fossil fuel economy, the UK would need to import more and more as our own reserves dwindle. In 2015, we imported 37.4% of our energy – mainly from Norway, with around 1% imported electricity from France and the Netherlands. The UK is 12th most dependent on imported energy in the EU – an unimpressive statistic for a country that values independence.
When an exporting country suffers, all those in its energy supply chain suffer, too. Wholesale prices soared when France reported problems with its nuclear plants in 2015. Almost two thirds of France’s energy comes from nuclear, so if they were taken offline they’d have to buy up all the fossil fuels they could to keep the lights on. Naturally, the market trembled.
Instead of relying on fossil fuel imports, let’s imagine generating most of our energy from renewables. With fewer wars over reserves, less money poured into exploration and excavation, and no need to import energy from overseas, energy prices will stabilise then fall.
According to this BEIS report, solar and wind are already cheaper to produce than coal and nuclear, and only a little more expensive than gas. All we need is the personal, commercial, and political will to exploit them.
The trend is global, too. Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported in its New Energy Outlook 2017 that:
Bloomberg New Energy Finance
Solar is already at least as cheap as coal in Germany, Australia, the U.S., Spain and Italy. The levelized cost of electricity from solar is set to drop another 66% by 2040. By 2021, it will be cheaper than coal in China, India, Mexico, the U.K. and Brazil as well.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance
Onshore wind levelized costs will fall 47% by 2040, thanks to cheaper, more efficient turbines and advanced OPEX regimes. In the same period, offshore wind costs will slide a whopping 71%, helped by experience, competition, and economies of scale.
3. Renewables create jobs and improve your country’s economy
The manufacture and installation of renewables involves long supply chains of highly-skilled people, and designing next generation tech needs big minds. We need to capture, store, and manage energy in even better ways if we’re to realise renewables’ full potential. This will need people.
And no longer a slave to fuel markets, our economy will flourish. Money spent on coal, oil, and gas can be used for other things. Billions of pounds in fossil fuel subsidies can be put to better use. Renewables need initial investment but as there’s no fuel to purchase, the running costs are much lower.
4. Renewables will make your energy more secure
At the moment, our energy network is “centralised” – that is, the bulk of generation comes from a handful of large power stations, which distribute their energy through the National Grid.
When something goes wrong at one of these sites, it can affect huge areas of the country. Coal and gas power stations aren’t very resilient to bad weather. Floods and storms in one part of the country can cut power to adjacent regions, even if they’re enjoying fair weather. Likewise, droughts pose a risk to coal, oil, and gas power plants as they need a lot of water to operate.
Renewables, on the other hand, allow for “distributed” generation – lots of sites spread out across the country – so if one fails there is plenty of supply left to plug the gap.
They’re also far more resilient to our changeable British weather. A flooded solar farm works just as well as a dry one as the panels are metres above the ground. Likewise, wind turbines cope admirably in a storm – at wind speeds of above 60 mph the blades are "feathered", angled slightly to stop rotation.
In Japan, where typhoons are common, a scientist has created the world's first "typhoon" turbine that can convert the massive wind speeds of Japan's typhoon season into energy.
A Stamford-led study has even suggested that offshore wind could reduce the strength of hurricanes.
In the unlikely event of damage, one solar panel or wind turbine failing doesn’t affect the entire group, so generation can continue (albeit at reduced capacity).
5. Renewables help preserve the UK’s biosphere
Digging, drilling, mining, blasting, and fracking for fossil fuels cause huge amounts of damage; excavation sites and pipelines carry the risk of leaks, unplanned explosions, and ground collapse.
From pollution to oil spills, their effects are felt far and wide, with animals and local wildlife the first to suffer.
But with renewable energy it’s a different story.
Solar farms actually promote a diverse biosphere. They’re a safe haven for bees and insects, can coexist easily with sheep and other grazing cattle, and provide farmers an income from poor quality farmland.
Wind farms also cause minimal disruption to the land (aesthetics aside) but have come under fire for their effect on bird and bat populations. The RSPB is heavily involved in assessing the environmental impact of wind farms and ensures migratory routes and foraging sites are not disrupted.
A recent study by DEFRA (the first of its kind globally) on the risk posed by wind farms on bat populations reported that fatalities were a rare event (an average of 3 bat carcasses were retrieved per commercial wind farm at peak collision times during 2011-2013, some had no fatalities at all), and would be mitigated by post-construction surveys and turning off or reducing rotation (called "feathering" the blades) based on wind speed.
Contrasted with the devastation wrought by power plants, oil tanker spills, rig explosions, and burst pipes, renewables are a much kinder alternative and preserve the UK’s biosphere.
The UK's transition to a low carbon economy will take time. Everyone with a stake in energy – from customers like you to suppliers and generators like us – need to combine efforts to realise all the incredible advantages renewables can bring.
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