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Don’t let COVID-19 slow vital investment in renewable energy

On World Environment Day, Don’t let COVID-19 slow vital investment in renewable energy, says Mike Reid.

Britain is just starting to emerge from a health crisis that’s all but paralysed the economy and is doing little for our politics or social cohesion either.

The Westminster Government is only now showing early signs of easing a national “lockdown” aimed at curbing the worst effects of the COVID19 virus while limiting any damage to the NHS.

The huge expected demand for healthcare has not materialised and only in recent weeks has the country fully grasped the full effects of isolation on the elderly and those with health conditions unrelated to coronavirus.

Official data has revealed record borrowing, a collapse in retail sales and the biggest single monthly figure in history for Treasury borrowing after tax revenues collapsed and Government spending surged.

Meanwhile, demand for energy has plummeted, devastating oil prices and pushing wholesale electricity prices to their lowest level for many years threatening the finances of utility companies.

With all this happening it’s easy to forget other important matters that  may seem less urgent. However, as it’s World Environment Day today, let’s remember that neither the need for renewable energy nor its benefits has diminished and it’s vital this is recognised by Government, businesses and investors.

According to the International Energy Agency, renewables investment is down 10% and is only about half what is needed to combat climate change. The IEA warns that fossil fuel use could rebound soon, leading to a spike in CO2.

Last year Theresa May committed the UK to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to “net zero” by 2050, under the terms of a new government plan to tackle climate change. In February Boris Johnson, her successor as PM, brought forward a ban on the sale of new petrol, diesel or hybrid cars from 2040 to 2035 at the latest.

This positive approach is reflected in a generally benign approach by [local] planning authorities to new schemes and upgrades to established projects in the UK.

While actual building and construction activity has slowed to a trickle under lockdown, office-based planning for renewable-energy and storage projects totalling 40GW has proceeded as far as it can within the restrictions.

This year renewables overtook fossil fuels as the main source of electricity for the first time. Wind, solar, biomass and hydropower produced 44.6% of electricity supply between January and March, beating UK fossil fuels, which produced 30.6%.

And it’s a trend British people are getting behind. More than 70% of consumers think the Government should act faster to develop clean energy. Many utility companies now offer their customers the choice of all-renewable electricity.

Public concern over climate change and species destruction is illustrated by the popularity of programmes such as those made by David Attenborough. Despite economic worries over the lockdown, and being stuck inside for days on end, many have welcomed the end of traffic congestion, clearer skies and waters and return of birdsong.

 But progress towards a greener economy could rebound if commuters ditch public transport, with its limitations on social distancing, for the car, with all the implications for congestion, pollution and carbon emissions. That helps explains growing calls for greater cycle use.

Now, a group of MPs is calling for a £30bn green fund to help extricate the UK from the pandemic.

Another reason for the unceasing march of renewables is the fall from grace of fossil fuels such as oil, whose price on world markets has crashed since COVID19, and coal, which is fast losing popularity among financial institutions focused on ESG (environmental, social and governance) investing. Paradoxically perhaps, "big oil" is leading the charge in renewables.

Increasingly, big energy users such as technology companies are choosing renewables as a way of demonstrating their commitment to high social and governance standards.

 

New energy technologies are emerging regularly and improvements made to established processes, not least in storage, as reported in a recent issue of our Energy Matters, making the case for renewables every stronger.