What would Brexit mean for efforts to tackle climate change?

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If, as according to superstition, wood provides reassurance when touched, then the Climate Change Act 2008 performs the same consoling function when it comes to Brexit and UK climate policy. “Leaving the EU would rob us of the chance to over come the challenge” of climate change, Ed Milliband said last week. Yet if he contemplates the solid legal fact of the Act he may, temporarily at least, find his fears subsiding. This is because the Act, regardless of EU membership status, commits the country to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. But however ambitious this seems, if he contemplates long enough, Ed’s pessimism will seem to him once more well-placed.

For a start, although the 2050 goal seems to lock Britain in long-term, in the global context of achieving net zero emissions some time before 2100, it leaves fifty years unaccounted for. As Charlotte Burns of the University of York points out, one justification for the stringent carbon budgets in the Act was that the UK would be required to meet them anyway under EU law. Out of the EU, and outside its obligations, it follows that carbon legislation for post-2050 may not be so tough. Then there’s the possibility we don’t adhere to the Act in the period to 2050. Even within the EU there are concerns about whether we will meet our carbon budgets. Out of the EU this lack of commitment could transform into something much worse: a watering down of the Act or even, as UKIP and some Tories advocate, repeal.

renewables graphIt’s worth remembering too that the UK’s climate change mitigation efforts aren’t just determined by our own Act: renewables targets are set by European directive. Under the Renewables Directive, 15% of all energy consumed in the UK must come from renewable sources by 2020 – and another policy commits the the EU as a whole to meeting 27% of final energy consumption through renewables by 2030. Although support for renewables is implicit in the Climate Change Act, EU legislation makes it explicit and clearly signposts the direction of travel for the industry. Without it, Britain’s green industry would have only the mixed messages of the UK government, investor confidence would be further undermined and a question mark placed and over its future.

The position of renewables could also suffer because of Brexit’s implications for energy security. Decreased interconnectivity of supply, reduced harmonisation of energy markets and less investment in the UK by multinational companies could all be consequences of leaving according to a House of Commons briefing paper. The resulting increase in energy insecurity would “increase focus on all aspects of UK generation” it is thought. In other words it may become more important to generate enough electricity by whatever means – including via gas and coal – than to meet renewables goals.

Brexit also means participation in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme would no longer be compulsory. The 1,000 or so UK installations which currently take part could in theory continue to do so under a new voluntary agreement, but it is equally possible they will simply exploit a new freedom to emit once outside the cap and trade scheme.

Beyond all this, of course, is the fact that global warming is (no surprises here) a global problem. It’s important for the UK, as the 15th largest emitter, to cut emissions, but we also need other countries to do the same. In the past Britain has challenged the EU to up the emission-cuts ante, pushing back the horizon of ambition. Outside the EU there is little chance of this or indeed of exerting any influence on the rest of the continent’s mitigation policy. Yes the UNFCCC offers a framework for the UK to influence global climate goals, but given the number of competing voices and the power of some of the players, it is unlikely a lone actor would wield much, if any, influence.

Step aside from mitigation and you run into yet more problems. EU funding to tackle natural disasters caused by climate change? Not if you’re outside the union. Funding for climate research? Not as much according to Julia Sligo of the Met Office, who said Brexit would diminish the quality of their climate models and their climate advice.

Taking the above together, it’s difficult not to conclude that leaving reduces the likelihood of the UK making its rightful contribution to the cuts needed to avoid dangerous warming. It also lessens our ability to study and adapt to climate change – and if, as seems unlikely at the moment, the UK wants to push others to cut deeper, leaving the EU diminishes our ability to do so.

Still, forget all that if you like and look on the bright side. Leave or stay, there’s always the Climate Change Act to fall back on. That’s not going anywhere. (Touch wood.)

Can we now say that electricity storage has “broken through”?

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The question of whether electricity storage technology can overcome the problems of expense, efficiency and scalability and finally “breakthrough” is one that’s been asked again and again and again. In April last year though, this pattern was disrupted when a 44-year-old business magnate, engineer and inventor didn’t ask a question. Instead he stood up and told the world that he had the answer.

Unveiling his new electric battery – which has both home and utility scale versions – Telsa Motors boss Elon Musk said the technology represented “a fundamental transformation about how the world works”, adding that it was nothing short of a “solution” to the problem of climate change.

In terms of the overall potential of storage to tackle global warming, he undoubtedly has a point. Effective electricity storage solves the intermittency problem of wind, solar and tidal energy allowing power to be supplied at times of demand rather than only when the wind blows, sun shines or sea rises and falls. This, in theory, means renewables can be scaled up to meet all power demand, obviating the need for fossil fuel power and even other kinds of low-carbon energy like nuclear.

But if electricity storage does indeed represent an important part of the solution, has Musk, as he claims, delivered it? Or looking beyond Tesla to electricity storage in general, has it improved to a point where we’re seeing an exponential growth in take-up?

In one simple sense Musk’s own products, the Powerwall and the Powerpack, don’t represent a significant step-change because they use a technology that has been around since the 1970s: the lithium-ion battery. If a breakthrough has occurred it is one achieved through increments rather than leaps and one that is economic rather than technological.

As Forbes has pointed out, the Powerwall battery intended for home use still delivers electricity at too high a cost (30 cents per KWh) to be attractive beyond a few markets where electricity is very expensive. The Powerpack, on the other hand, is a different story. Here the costs of stored electricity are $250/kWh, a price well below the point at which they become a cheaper way to meet peak demand than building new power plants – a point one study put at $350/kWh.

As might be expected, it’s not just Tesla who are cracking the economics of electric batteries. A study published last year found that the cost of electric vehicle batteries have dropped faster than anyone projected and are now below most forecasts for the year 2020. Likewise a report in January on utility-scale storage predicts costs will decline 41% over the next five years.

But affordability on paper is one thing, real evidence of a breakthrough rests in what is happening with installed capacity. Yes Tesla has received 100,000 reservations (worth $1bn) for its batteries but these are non-binding and the firm’s Gigafactory which will make them is yet to go into production. If you look at what’s on the ground now, you find the vast majority of electricity storage – a whopping 96% globally – is pumped hydro. There’s definitely no breakthrough here as it’s an old technology inherently limited by a need for both water and a steep incline. At the other end of the scale are technologies which are genuinely breaking-ground, but barely out of the lab (supercapacitors) or limited to a small number of projects (compressed air, flywheels, flow batteries).

Elsewhere though, the word breakthrough may not be so misplaced. Thermal storage occupies second place in terms of amount installed capacity and has increased from 0.1GW in 2005 to 1.7GW in 2015 – a rise of 1700%. Forecasters expect this to double again by 2020.

There is good news too for Musk’s friend the electric battery. Its global capacity has trebled since 2010, but it is the growth in installations rather than the growth in wattage which points to its future potential. There are already more battery storage projects than storage projects for any other technology. This is due in part to battery tech’s high energy to weight ratio which means it can be used at a variety of scales. It is also very adaptable as it can be allied with a host of generation technologies. More than anything else, it’s this versatility – coupled with economic viability – which now makes electric batteries such a thrilling and open-ended prospect.

Musk was no doubt mindful of this when, in his presentation last year, he envisaged a world in which the energy needs of the entire planet – electricity, heating and transport – were met with a combination of his batteries and renewable generation. Are we there yet? Of course not. Has electricity storage broken through? Maybe (just maybe) it has.

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Global energy storage projects over time (does not include pumped hydro storage). Source: energystorageexchange.org (click for higher resolution).