22 August 2022

Powering the UK: Renewables, Peaks and Troughs, and the Retrofit Revolution – Victoria Du Croz, Polly Montoneri (née Reeve) and Laura Haworth write for EG

Head of Planning, Victoria Du Croz, along with Commercial Real Estate Senior Associate, Laura Haworth, and Private Client Counsel, Polly Montoneri (née Reeve), recently collaborated on a piece for EG about the complexities of maintaining (and eventual upgrading) of the UK’s energy supply.

The UK’s energy supply is headline news on a daily basis. The climate crisis, coupled with a cost-of-living crisis and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has put energy cost and energy creation under ever closer scrutiny. While the UK has moved away from coal-generated power over the past 40 years, it continues to rely on oil and gas for a considerable amount of energy creation. Our households are largely run on gas boilers. According to EDF, around 78% of the energy used to heat our buildings comes from gas and, while the government has brought in legislation to ban gas boilers by 2025, this will only apply to new homes. Even our national grid relies on burning gas to generate power and this is likely to continue in the short-to-medium term.

The UK has historically imported a portion of its gas needs from across the sea through several interconnectors that run from the British coast to France, the Netherlands and Ireland. In eight of the past 10 years, the UK has been a net importer of gas, but so far in 2022 the UK has been a net exporter to Europe as our European neighbours look to replace Russian supply.

The challenge is how the UK weans itself off its reliance on gas, meets its net-zero targets and becomes more self-sufficient in the long term, while remaining environmentally sustainable and improving biodiversity.

Renew the call for renewables

Over the past 30 years the percentage of energy generated via renewable sources – wind, solar and tidal – has increased, accounting for 43% of electricity generation in 2020 and making it the main source of the UK’s electricity over the year. While the statistics in 2020 were promising, the UK generated 14% less electricity from wind in 2021. This is a core issue with wind power generation – the amount that will be generated at any time is hard to predict, and our fallback is gas and nuclear. Prime minister Boris Johnson has asserted that all of the UK’s energy will be from “clean sources” by 2035. To meet this goal, offshore and onshore wind capacity would need to quadruple and double respectively.

A similar story stands for solar; the unpredictability of UK weather means energy supply from solar fluctuates year to year. It is, however, growing, with a combination of commercial and residential rooftop and ground mounts accounting for 4-5% of UK energy supply.

The reality is that 2035 isn’t that many years away and, while the government talks a lot about its green agenda, securing a grid connection and planning consent is hard. Even for the successful minority, moving from proposal to working wind farm takes years, not months.

The big question is: how do we go from renewable sources supporting a small percentage of the UK’s energy creation to 100%? There are several significant challenges to overcome to meet net-zero targets and deliver clean energy. The obvious answer is to build more solar farms and more wind farms, but this is no easy feat and, over a series of three articles, we will be exploring tensions within the planning system, conflicts between local and national policymaking, environmental sustainability and the challenging decisions for landowners.

Peaks and troughs

One of the fundamental challenges with increasing our reliance on renewable energy sources is peaks and troughs in supply. How do we capture surplus energy and store it for the future when the sun isn’t shining and the wind has stopped blowing?

In order to ensure sufficient year-round supply, the UK needs to massively increase its ability to store energy. Battery storage is essential to enabling increased reliance on renewable energy and will be pivotal in facilitating a transition to green energy. Whereas currently fossil fuels are used as back-up to provide a reliable, steady supply of energy, this will no longer be possible due to net-zero targets.

While it has been anticipated that battery storage systems could save the UK energy system £40bn by 2050, ultimately reducing energy bills, battery storage facilities can be contentious. During the planning process, resident groups and the local community object to battery facilities for myriad reasons, including wildlife concerns, visual impact and the requirement for supporting infrastructure.

Permission for battery storage used to be granted through the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project process, but now permission can be granted under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. While this makes it slightly easier (and quicker) to navigate, it increases the potential to come up against local opposition.

Another common concern associated with battery storage is safety. As the number of battery storage facilities increase, driven by demand for solutions to deal with intermittent energy creation from renewables, fires have broken out across the world. In addition, these batteries have a limited lifespan and the production of them (and processing of them once they have come to the end of their useful lives) will have its own environmental impact. The lithium used in these batteries is, after all, a finite resource and the technology involved in producing batteries for different purposes is still developing.

The other safety concern is disposal, due to the potential for leaks and contamination – if the chemical contents escape from battery casements this can cause damage to the local environment. While there may be concerns about potential liability for contamination under the Environmental Protection Act 1990, action taken by local authorities under this legislation is relatively rare. By far a greater risk is a claim for private and/or public nuisance by neighbouring landowners due to migrating contamination. The damage can be widespread (especially if nearby waterways are affected), expensive to remedy and can also be a criminal offence. Contamination could also affect the landowner’s use of their own remaining land.

Building storage facilities raises the issue of competing pressure on finite land. Locally, communities want new (normally affordable) homes, while nationally there is a drive for renewable energy creation. This tension is something we will explore in more detail over the coming weeks.

Upgrade the grid

The other challenge is the capacity of the national grid. The grid requires significant upgrades and improved infrastructure to cater to the additional demand that will be placed on it due to our move to increased electricity use – especially in rural areas. It also needs to be adapted to cater for the peaks and troughs associated with renewable energy, the required storage and the new ways that electricity will move though the grid.

Electric vehicles are a clear example of increasing our reliance on electricity. As we transition to EVs, the supporting infrastructure is vital; it is anticipated that, unless the national grid is strengthened, the charging needs from millions of new EVs could result in blackouts across the country.

Retrofit revolution

Moving towards a reality where all of the UK’s energy is provided by renewable sources is laudable, and necessary to meet net-zero targets. However, generating clean energy can only take us so far if the commercial and residential buildings using this energy are wasting it through buildings that are not energy efficient.

Eighty percent of the buildings that exist now will be in place in 2050 when the UK has committed to be net zero. To ensure our commercial buildings and housing stock are operating efficiently it requires a retrofit revolution, but the onus has been placed on consumers and landlords. In many cases, the cost to the private sector is not proportionate to the energy efficiency improvements that are achievable. Some incentives have been offered to encourage upgrades, including zero rating certain energy saving materials in domestic buildings, but this incentive is time bound and will only go so far given it isn’t applicable to commercial buildings.

Currently, legislation prohibits the new letting of buildings with an F or G energy performance certificate rating (including renewals of existing tenancies) unless an exemption applies. The continued letting of residential property is also prohibited if such property has an EPC rating below an E. From 1 April 2023, landlords will also no longer be able to continue to let commercial properties with an EPC rating below an E. Proposed legislation was put forward in a 2020 white paper to change the minimum standard for commercial property to a C rating in 2027 and a B rating in 2030. The suitability of the EPC rating system is a topic for another day, but the proposed legislation highlights the impression that a lot of work needs to be done to get the UK’s current building stock up to scratch.

Around 500,000 buildings in England are protected by statutory listing, while hundreds of thousands more are in conservation areas. Without changing the policy guidance to enable energy efficient upgrades to be made more easily to these buildings, it is an incredibly costly and drawn-out process.

This is the issue; policy is inconsistent and inconsistently applied. This means that, while net-zero ambitions are to be commended, we have a long way to go before they are a reality.

This article was originally published in EG (21 June 2022) and is also available to read here behind their paywall.

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