Tag: energy policy

What is net zero?

Skyscraper vertical forest in Milan

For age-old rivals Glasgow and Edinburgh, the race to the top has taken a sharp turn downwards. Instead, they’re in a race to the bottom to earn the title of the first ‘net zero’ carbon city in the UK.

While they might be battling to be the first in the UK to reach net zero, they are far from the only cities with net zero in their sights. In the wake of the growing climate emergency, cities, companies and countries around the world have all announced their own ambitions for hitting ‘net zero’.

It has become a global focus based on necessity – for the world to hit the Paris Agreement targets and limit global temperature rise to under two degrees Celsius, it’s predicted the world must become net zero by 2070.

Yet despite its ubiquity, net zero is a term that’s not always fully understood. So, what does net zero actually mean?

Glasgow, Scotland. Host of COP26.

What does net zero mean?

‘Going net zero’ most often refers specifically to reaching net zero carbon emissions. But this doesn’t just mean cutting all emissions down to zero.

Instead, net zero describes a state where the greenhouse gas (GHG) emitted [*] and removed by a company, geographic area or facility is in balance.

In practice, this means that as well as making efforts to reduce its emissions, an entity must capture, absorb or offset an equal amount of carbon from the atmosphere to the amount it releases. The result is that the carbon it emits is the same as the amount it removes, so it does not increase carbon levels in the atmosphere. Its carbon contributions are effectively zero – or more specifically, net zero.

The Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment likens the net zero target to running a bath – an ideal level of water can be achieved by either turning down the taps (the mechanism adding emissions) or draining some of the water from the bathtub (the thing removing of emissions from the atmosphere). If these two things are equally matched, the water level in the bath doesn’t change.

To reach net zero and drive a sustained effort to combat climate change, a similar overall balance between emissions produced and emissions removed from the atmosphere must be achieved.

But while the analogy of a bath might make it sound simple, actually reaching net zero at the scale necessary will take significant work across industries, countries and governments.

How to achieve net zero

The UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) recommends that to reach net zero all industries must be widely decarbonised, heavy good vehicles must switch to low-carbon fuel sources, and a fifth of agricultural land must change to alternative uses that bolster emission reductions, such as biomass production.

However, given the nature of many of these industries (and others considered ‘hard-to-treat’, such as aviation and manufacturing), completely eliminating emissions is often difficult or even impossible. Instead, residual emissions must be counterbalanced by natural or engineered solutions.

Natural solutions can include afforestation (planting new forests) and reforestation (replanting trees in areas that were previous forestland), which use trees’ natural ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere to offset emissions.

On the other hand, engineering solutions such as carbon capture usage and storage (CCUS) can capture and permanently store carbon from industry before it’s released into the atmosphere. It is estimated this technology can capture in excess of 90% of the carbon released by fossil fuels during power generation or industrial processes such as cement production.

Negative emissions essential to achieving net zero

Click to view/download graphic. Source: Zero Carbon Humber.

Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) could actually take this a step further and lead to a net removal of carbon emissions from the atmosphere, often referred to as negative emissions. BECCS combines the use of biomass as a fuel source with CCUS. When that biomass comes from trees grown in responsibly managed working forests that absorb carbon, it becomes a low carbon fuel. When this process is combined with CCUS and the carbon emissions are captured at point of the biomass’ use, the overall process removes more carbon than is released, creating ‘negative emissions’.

According to the Global CCS Institute, BECCS is quickly emerging as the best solution to decarbonise emission-heavy industries. A joint report by The Royal Academy of Engineering and Royal Society estimates that BECCS could help the UK to capture 50 million tonnes of carbon per year by 2050 – eliminating almost half of the emissions projected to remain in the economy.

The UK’s move to net zero

In June 2019, the UK became the first major global economy to pass a law to reduce all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. It is one of a small group of countries, including France and Sweden, that have enacted this ambition into law, forcing the government to take action towards meeting net zero.

Electrical radiator

Although this is an ambitious target, the UK is making steady progress towards it. In 2018 the UK’s emissions were 44% below 1990 levels, while some of the most intensive industries are fast decarbonising – June 2019 saw the carbon content of electricity hit an all-time low, falling below 100 g/kWh for the first time. This is especially important as the shift to net zero will create a much greater demand for electricity as fossil fuel use in transport and home heating must be switched with power from the grid.

Hitting net zero will take more than just this consistent reduction in emissions, however. An increase in capture and removal technologies will also be required. On the whole, the CCC predict an estimated 75 to 175 million tonnes of carbon and equivalent emissions will need to be removed by CCUS solutions annually in 2050 to fully meet the UK’s net zero target.

This will need substantial financial backing. The CCC forecasts that, at present, a net zero target can be reached at an annual resource cost of up to 1-2% of GDP between now and 2050. However, there is still much debate about the role the global carbon markets need to play to facilitate a more cost-effective and efficient way for countries to work together through market mechanisms.

Industries across the UK are starting to take affirmative action to work towards the net zero target. In the energy sector, projects such as Drax Power Station’s carbon capture pilots are turning BECCS increasingly into a reality ready to be deployed at scale.

Along with these individual projects, reaching net zero also requires greater cooperation across the industrial sectors. The Zero Carbon Humber partnership between energy companies, industrial emitters and local organisations, for example, aims to deliver the UK’s first zero carbon industrial cluster in the Humber region by the mid-2020s.

Nonetheless, efforts from all sectors must be made to ensure that the UK stays on course to meet all its immediate and long-term emissions targets. And regardless of whether or not Edinburgh or Glasgow realise their net zero goals first, the competition demonstrates how important the idea of net zero has become and society’s drive for real change across the UK.

Drax has announced an ambition to become carbon negative by 2030 – removing more carbon from the atmosphere than produced in our operations, creating a negative carbon footprint. Track our progress at Towards Carbon Negative.

[*] In this article we’ve simplified our explanation of net zero. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most abundant greenhouse gas (GHG). It is also a long-lived GHG that creates warming that persists in the long term. Although the land and ocean absorb it, a significant proportion stays in the atmosphere for centuries or even millennia causing climate change. It is, therefore, the most important GHG to abate. Other long-lived GHGs include include nitrous oxide (N2O, lifetime of circa 120 years) and some F-Gasses (e.g. SF6 with a lifetime of circa 3,200 years). GHGs are often aggregated as carbon dioxide equivalent (abbreviated as CO2e or CO2eq) and it is this that net zero targets measure. In this article, ‘carbon’ is used for simplicity and as a proxy for ‘carbon dioxide’, ‘CO2‘, ‘GHGs’ or ‘CO2e’.

Climate change is the biggest challenge of our time

Drax Group CEO Will Gardiner

Climate change is the biggest challenge of our time and Drax has a crucial role in tackling it.

All countries around the world need to reduce carbon emissions while at the same time growing their economies. Creating enough clean, secure energy for industry, transport and people’s daily lives has never been more important.

Drax is at the heart of the UK energy system. Recently the UK government committed to delivering a net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and Drax is equally committed to helping make that possible.

We’ve recently had some questions about what we’re doing and I’d like to set the record straight.

How is Drax helping the UK reach its climate goals?

At Drax we’re committed to a zero-carbon, lower-cost energy future.

And we’ve accelerated our efforts to help the UK get off coal by converting our power station to using sustainable biomass. And now we’re the largest decarbonisation project in Europe.

We’re exploring how Drax Power Station can become the anchor to enable revolutionary technologies to capture carbon in the North of England.

And we’re creating more energy stability, so that more wind and solar power can come onto the grid.

And finally, we’re helping our customers take control of their energy – so they can use it more efficiently and spend less.

Is Drax the largest carbon polluter in the UK?

No. Since 2012 we’ve reduced our CO2 emissions by 84%. In that time, we moved from being western Europe’s largest polluter to being the home of the largest decarbonisation project in Europe.

And we want to do more.

We’ve expanded our operations to include hydro power, storage and natural gas and we’ve continued to bring coal off the system.

By the mid 2020s, our ambition is to create a power station that both generates electricity and removes carbon from the atmosphere at the same time.

Does building gas power stations mean the UK will be tied into fossil fuels for decades to come?

Our energy system is changing rapidly as we move to use more wind and solar power.

At the same time, we need new technologies that can operate when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining.

A new, more efficient gas plant can fill that gap and help make it possible for the UK to come off coal before the government’s deadline of 2025.

Importantly, if we put new gas in place we need to make sure that there’s a route through for making that zero-carbon over time by being able to capture the CO2 or by converting those power plants into hydrogen.

Are forests destroyed when Drax uses biomass and is biomass power a major source of carbon emissions?

No.

Sustainable biomass from healthy managed forests is helping decarbonise the UK’s energy system as well as helping to promote healthy forest growth.

Biomass has been a critical element in the UK’s decarbonisation journey. Helping us get off coal much faster than anyone thought possible.

The biomass that we use comes from sustainably managed forests that supply industries like construction. We use residues, like sawdust and waste wood, that other parts of industry don’t use.

We support healthy forests and biodiversity. The biomass that we use is renewable because the forests are growing and continue to capture more carbon than we emit from the power station.

What’s exciting is that this technology enables us to do more. We are piloting carbon capture with bioenergy at the power station. Which could enable us to become the first carbon-negative power station in the world and also the anchor for new zero-carbon cluster across the Humber and the North.

How do you justify working at Drax?

I took this job because Drax has already done a tremendous amount to help fight climate change in the UK. But I also believe passionately that there is more that we can do.

I want to use all of our capabilities to continue fighting climate change.

I also want to make sure that we listen to what everyone else has to say to ensure that we continue to do the right thing.

‘3D’ to drive an energy revolution

Think of the phrase ‘3D’ and may people instantly think of video games, television or cinema, along with the special glasses you needed to watch it.

But another form of 3D is, I believe, going to be at the heart of the energy revolution which is rapidly gathering place.

The three Ds in this case are Data, Diversification and Decarbonisation. Together, they will transform the way businesses buy, use and sell their energy, help companies take control of their energy use and save money and also play a key part in our journey towards a zero carbon, lower cost energy future.

We’re already seeing some real innovations in the energy sector. Our trial of a storage battery with a customer of Opus Energy is an example, offering a farming business in Northampton the chance to sell stored energy generated by solar panels back to the grid at times of peak demand – a potential new revenue stream.

But other innovations and advances will maintain the pace of change and data will be at the core of this now the new generation of smart meters are being installed in businesses, revolutionising customer relationships with their energy suppliers.

The data from the new meters will finally give customers insight into where and when they use energy. Suppliers will have to work much more closely with customers to help them access new opportunities for cost savings, access to new markets and even new revenue streams.

An example would be a restaurant. With the data smart meters will provide, the restaurant’s supplier will be able to tell the owners how their energy use compares to the local competition and where improvements can be made.

The detail could go as far as identifying whether the restaurant’s equipment is older and less efficient, whether rivals have installed newer kit or whether other businesses are switching off their equipment earlier or using it at different, cheaper times.

Using energy during the peak weekday morning and early evening hours is often the most expensive time to do so. Data will give businesses the insight into how they can use energy more efficiently and when they use it, offering them the chance to avoid buying at peak times whenever possible and driving efficiencies.

This is why Haven Power’s trading team is now working closely with GridBeyond. The partnership allows our customers to trade the power they produce as well as optimise their operations to help balance the grid at times of peak demand. The really smart thing is that in doing so, customers are reducing their energy costs and making their operations more sustainable.

Trading desks at Haven Power’s Ipswich HQ

The way demand changes and is managed by businesses and consumers on a diversified power system will also be key. The business energy sector is already diversifying as many customers are able to generate and store their own power but the next step is for more customers to be paid to reduce their usage at peak times.

Think of a busy time for the National Grid – half time in the FA Cup Final or after the results in Strictly Come Dancing. Previously, the grid would have to pay a power station to ramp up generation to meet demand but these days, customers are paid to reduce demand for 30 minutes or so – in effect becoming a huge virtual power station.

This has happened for some time of course with larger, industrial customers but now, smaller companies can benefit from this too, thanks to the data and insight they will have from their smart meters. This empowers customers and puts them, not the energy companies, in control of the key decisions about their energy.

A close, advisory relationship between energy suppliers and their customers will become ever more important to make sure business can choose to avoid the high demand periods, and maximises use during the lower, cheaper times. In fact, I can see a time when customers will end up paying more for insight and advice than they do for the power they buy – and they’ll save money overall in doing so.

And if we get all this right, it will help drive one of the most important of the three Ds – decarbonisation.

Sustainability is increasingly becoming a primary focus for businesses and demand for renewable energy is growing because it is now cost-effective. That will help us in our drive towards a zero carbon future as more and more renewable energy comes onstream, though the UK will continue to need power generated from more flexible assets as well.

So there are huge opportunities out there to transform our energy landscape but they have to be viewed positively. The smart metering programme can be viewed as a regulatory burden or it can be seen as an opportunity. We take the positive view.

Likewise, batteries were once the preserve of massive companies only but now, as technology develops, they are becoming available for smaller firms too. The more we can innovative on a larger scale, the more the technology will work its way into smaller markets too, adding momentum to the energy revolution.

The opportunities are huge. If we get it right, so too will be the benefits to one of the biggest priorities of all – the work to decarbonise the UK and create the lower carbon future we all want.

Energy Revolution: A Global Outlook

Read the full report [PDF]

The global energy revolution

As a contribution to COP24, this report informs the debate on decarbonising the global energy system, evaluating how rapidly nations are transforming their energy systems, and what lessons can be learned from the leading countries across five energy sectors.

It was commissioned by power utility Drax Group, and delivered independently by researchers from Imperial College London and E4tech.

Clean power

  • Several countries have lowered the carbon content of their electricity by 100 g/kWh over the last decade. The UK is alone in achieving more than
    double this pace, prompted by strong carbon pricing.
  • China is cleaning up its power sector faster than most of Europe, however several Asian countries are moving towards higher-carbon electricity.
  • Germany has added nearly 1 kW of renewable capacity per person over the last decade. Northern Europe leads the way, followed by Japan, the US and China. In absolute terms, China has 2.5 times more renewable capacity than the US.

Fossil fuels

  • Two-fifths of the world’s electricity comes from coal. The share of coal generation is a key driver for the best and worst performing countries in clean power.
  • Coal’s share of electricity generation has fallen by one-fifth in the US and one-sixth in China over the last decade. Denmark and the UK are leading the way. Some major Asian nations are back-sliding.
  • Many European citizens pay out $100 per person per year in fossil fuel subsidies, substantially more than in the US or China. These subsidies are growing in more countries than they are falling.

Electric vehicles

  • In ten countries, more than 1 in 50 new vehicles sold are now electric. China is pushing ahead with nearly 1 in 25 new vehicles being electric and Norway is in a league of its own with 1 in 2 new vehicles now electric, thanks to strong subsidies and wealthy consumers.
  • There are now over 4.5 million electric vehicles worldwide. Two thirds of these are battery electric, one third are plug-in hybrids. China and the US together have two-thirds of the world’s electric vehicles and half of the 300,000 charging points.

Carbon capture and storage

  • Sufficient storage capacity has been identified for global CCS roll-out to meet climate targets, but large-scale CO2 capture only exists in 6 countries.
  • Worldwide, 5 kg of CO2 can be captured per person per year. The planned pipeline of CCS facilities will double this, but much greater scale-up is needed as this represents only one-thousandth of the global average person’s carbon footprint of 5 tonnes per year.

Efficiency

  • Global progress on energy intensity is mixed, as some countries improve efficiency, while others increase consumption as their population become wealthier.
  • Residential and transport changes over the last decade are mostly linked to the global recession and technological improvements, rather than behavioural shift.
  • BRICS countries consume the most energy per $ of output from industry. This is linked to the composition of their industry sectors (i.e. greater manufacturing and mining activity compared to construction and agriculture).

continued … [View PDF]

I. Staffell, M. Jansen, A. Chase, E. Cotton and C. Lewis (2018). Energy Revolution: A Global Outlook. Drax: Selby.

View press release:

UK among world leaders in global energy revolution

What will happen to the carbon price after 2020?

Great Britain’s electricity is cleaner than ever. As wind, solar, biomass and hydro continue to make up more and more of our energy mix, the power system edges ever closer to being entirely decarbonised. The GB power system has leapt up the big economies’ low carbon league table from 20th in 2012 to seventh in 2016.

But this shift to lower-carbon power isn’t owed only to growing renewable electricity capacity. A fall in gas prices has helped and importantly, government policy has ensured coal power generation has become increasingly uneconomical vs electricity produced with gas (gas and coal compete for contracts to supply power to the National Grid).

Introduced in 2013, Great Britain’s Carbon Price Floor sets the minimum price on carbon emissions. A stricter policy than the EU’s volatile EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) which puts a much lower price on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, the Carbon Price Support as the British policy is also known tops up the EU ETS. Together, they have had a significant impact. According to Aurora Energy Research, the Carbon Price Floor is a major factor in coal generation emissions falling.

In Great Britain, the Carbon Price Floor (CPF) is currently capped at £18 per tonne of CO2 and the EU ETS sits at around £5 t/CO2 – meaning power generators and heavy industry pay around £23 t/CO2 altogether. When initially formulated by the coalition government in 2010, it was intended the CPF would reach £30 per tonne by 2020 and £70 per tonne by 2030. However, the EU ETS has since fallen therefore the UK government chose to cap the carbon price support at £18 per tonne until 2020.

Now, as we reach the end of the decade, questions remain as to what will happen to this crucial mechanism post-2020. Will the government price coal off the system once and for all or will the fossil fuel make an unlikely comeback?

Four visions of carbon pricing’s future

In its research, Aurora has identified four potential future scenarios for the UK’s carbon pricing strategy.

Status Quo: If the UK chooses to continue supporting the phase-out of coal and promotes low-carbon investment, the Carbon Price Floor will steadily increase post-2020, reaching an estimated £52 per tonne by 2040. In this scenario the UK’s carbon pricing structure remains about £18 per tonne higher than the EU ETS which is currently around £5 per tonne.

Catch-up: In the post-Brexit landscape (whatever it may look like) the UK may choose to seek parity with the EU over decarbonisation. In this scenario, the total UK carbon price remains flat with EU ETS, which rises until convergence. In this scenario the UK and EU’s price per tonne of carbon reaches £35 by 2040.

Low Priced Carbon: In the event that the UK government removes the carbon price from 2021 and the EU ETS never recovers beyond its 2017 level, the short-term effects could be a drop in the price of coal power and cheaper energy bills. CO2 emissions increase in the UK as demand for power rises in the late 2020s and beyond (as recently witnessed in the Netherlands where coal generation has increased, in part, due to a low EU ETS). The expected price per tonne of carbon could be as low as £6 by 2040 and investment in lower carbon and renewable forms of power generation stalls.

High Priced Carbon: In order to meet the UK’s fourth and fifth carbon budgets set by the Committee on Climate Change, this scenario sees the electricity system decarbonise more quickly, with coal removed as an energy source. The carbon price rises dramatically over the next two decades to hit £153 per tonne by 2040.

Stopping the coal comeback

Of these four scenarios, the steadily increasing prices of the Status Quo scenario could see the UK meet its power sector target within the fourth carbon budget of 100 g CO2-eq/kWh  – achieving a 51% reduction from 1990 emission levels by 2030. But Aurora found that keeping things as they are could see a radical swing the other way, some years earlier in its scenario: coal could make a comeback in the early 2020s.

In July this year, coal accounted for just 2% of electricity generation in Great Britain and in 2016 as a whole it accounted for 9%, producing the lowest amount of electricity since the start of World War II. Without solid growth of the Carbon Price Floor it could become a much more competitive fuel. This potential is further increased by a predicted rise in natural gas prices post-2020, when the current surplus of liquefied natural gas (LNG) is set to end.

If the government chooses not to set tough prices on carbon emissions, Aurora predicts that on average coal will account for 9% of electricity generation between 2021 and 2025 – a change in the declining coal power trend seen in recent years. A Low Carbon Price future would see coal grow to almost 12% of the total electricity generation mix during the same period.

By contrast, in the High Carbon Price scenario, coal is almost completely driven out of the energy system, accounting for an estimated 2% of electricity generation between 2021 and 2025.

Signalling to the future

What is crucial for British power generators at this stage is clarity beyond 2020, when the £18 per tonne cap ends. This can allow the industry to react to future carbon pricing and prepare for whatever future scenario the government is most likely to adopt.

If the government chooses to continue decarbonising the energy system in a significant way – as it should do – coal facilities can be converted to renewable or lower-carbon units, such as biomass or gas. New interconnectors, renewable sources, storage facilities and demand-side response will also need to be installed at a greater capacity to meet the energy system’s demands.

As the amount of low carbon generation continues to grow, it will increasingly be the marginal generator. This means that power stations such as Drax’s biomass units, which run with an 87% lower carbon footprint compared to coal across their entire supply chain, could be used to meet the last megawatt hour (MWh) of demand – and this would see the carbon price having a diminishing impact on the wholesale price of power.

As has already been shown, the Carbon Price Floor is one of the most effective ways to reduce Great Britain’s electricity emissions. But to continue this impressive progress, the government needs to use it appropriately to set a path towards a decarbonised future.

In October, Drax joined British energy company SSE, climate NGO Sandbag and others to write to Chancellor Philip Hammond, calling on him to back the Carbon Price Floor beyond 2020 and in doing so, provide certainty for businesses investing in lower carbon and renewable capacity. Read the letter here

What’s next for bioenergy?

Morehouse BioEnergy in Louisiana

Discussions about our future are closely entwined with those of our power. Today, when we talk about electricity, we talk about climate change, about new fuels and about the sustainability of new technologies. They’re all inexplicably linked, and all hold uncertainties for the future.

But in preparing for what’s to come, it helps to have an idea of what may be waiting for us. Researchers at universities across the UK, including the University of Manchester and Imperial College London, have put their heads together to think about this question, and together with the Supergen Bioenergy programme they’ve created a unique graphic novel on bioenergy that outlines three potential future scenarios.

Based on their imagined views of the future there’s plenty to be optimistic about, but it could just as easily go south.

Future one: Failure to act on climate change

Dams on river

In the first scenario, our energy use and reliance on non-renewable fuels like oil, coal and gas continues to grow until we miss our window of opportunity to invest in renewable technology and infrastructure while it’s affordable.

Neither the beginning nor the end of the supply chain divert from their current trends – energy providers produce electricity and end users consume it as they always have. Governments continue to pursue growth at all costs and industrial users make no efforts to reverse their own rates of power consumption. In response, electricity generation with fossil fuels ramps up, which leads to several problems.

Attempts to secure a dwindling stock of non-renewable fuels lead to clashes over remaining sources as nations vie for energy security. As resources run out, attempts to put in place renewable alternatives are hampered by a lack of development and investment in the intervening years. The damages caused by climate change accelerate and at the same time, mobility for most people drops as fuel becomes more expensive.

Future two: Growing a stable, centralised bioenergy

Rows of saplings ready for planting

A future of dwindling resources and increasing tension isn’t the only way forward. Bioenergy is likely to play a prominent role in the energy mix of the future. In fact, nearly all scenarios where global temperature rise remains within the two degrees Celsius margin (recommended by the Paris Agreement) rely on widespread bioenergy use with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). But how far could the implementation of bioenergy go?

A second scenario sees governments around the world invest significantly in biomass energy systems which then become major, centralised features in global energy networks. This limits the effects of a warming climate, particularly as CCS technology matures and more carbon can be sequestered safely underground.

This has knock-on effects for the rest of the world. Large tracts of land are turned over to forestry to support the need for biomass, creating new jobs for those involved in managing the working forests. In industry, large-scale CCS systems are installed at sizeable factories and manufacturing plants to limit emissions even further.

Future 3: The right mix bioenergy

Modern house with wind turbine

A third scenario takes a combined approach – one in which technology jumps ahead and consumption is controlled. Instead of relying on a few concentrated hubs of BECCS energy, renewables and bioenergy are woven more intimately around our everyday lives. This relies on the advance of a few key technologies.

Widespread adoption of advanced battery technology sees wind and solar implemented at scale, providing the main source of electricity for cities and other large communities. These communities are also responsible for generating biomass fuel from domestic waste products, which includes wood offcuts from timber that makes up a larger proportion of building materials as wooden buildings grow more common.

Whether future three – or any of the above scenarios – will unfold like this is uncertain. These are just three possible futures from an infinite range of scenarios, but they demonstrate just how wide the range of futures is. It’s up to us all – not just governments but businesses, individuals and academics such as those behind this research project too – to to make the best choices to ensure the future we want.

How quickly will these countries reach their climate targets?

It was no surprise when President Donald Trump echoed his election campaign stance and announced his intention to renegotiate – or failing that withdraw the US – from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. It raised the question, would other countries back away from their own climate change targets?

In fact, many reaffirmed their commitment to the pact and continue their progress towards becoming low carbon economies. For those in the European Union, this means meeting the 2030 climate and energy framework, which sets three key targets for member states: cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 40% from 1990 levels, produce at least 27% of their energy through renewable sources, and improve energy efficiency by at least 27%.

Many countries across Europe, however, have set climate objectives that go beyond these. Whether they can meet those goals is another matter.

Portugal

What are its climate targets?

The Portuguese government has pressed the EU to go further than its 2030 targets and is aiming for 40% of total energy consumption to come from renewables by 2030. This target is part of its Green Growth Commitment 2030, which also sets out to create more green – or low carbon economy – jobs and improve overall energy efficiency across the country.

How is it achieving this?

Portugal has rapidly increased its renewable energy production by investing in wind (mainly onshore) and hydro power, although it is rapidly developing its solar capabilities. It is also looking at small scale renewable energy generation through wave, thermal and biomass power.

Portugal has two operational coal plants that together are responsible for 16% of the country’s carbon emissions. However, the government is seeking to phase these out prior to 2025.

How is it doing so far?

The growth in renewable energy within the power industry specifically has been a big success story for Portugal. In 2005, renewables accounted for only 16% of total electricity production – by 2015 they produced an average of 52%.

The country made headlines in May 2016 for running on 100% renewable electricity for four days in a row. Unsurprisingly, this means the government is confident of achieving a target of 31% renewables in gross final energy consumption by 2020, which would mean 57.4% renewable electricity generation.

Germany

What are its climate targets?

Germany set its current climate targets as far back as 2007. It subsequently agreed to the Paris Agreement and the EU’s 2014 climate and energy framework.

Added to this, the country has its own ambitious aims for 2050: cut GHG emissions by up to 95% compared to 1990 levels (with an interim target of 40% by 2020), increase the share of renewables in gross final energy consumption to 60%, and increase all electricity generated from renewables to 80%.

How does it plan to achieve this?

Germany’s Climate Action Programme 2020 and Climate Action Plan 2050, set out its plans for reducing GHG emissions. Much of this is based around the Energiewende (energy transition), a strategy that will see the country phase-out nuclear power and decarbonise the economy through renewable energy initiatives.

According to these plans, Germany’s energy supply must be almost completely decarbonised by 2050, with coal power slowly phased out and replaced with renewables, especially wind power. The utilisation of biomass will be limited and sourced mostly from waste. It also stresses the role of the European Union Emission Trading System to meet targets.

How is it doing so far?

Between 1990 and 2015, emissions reduced by 27%. In 2015, the share of renewable sources in German domestic power consumption amounted to 31.6%.

However, German energy-related CO₂ emissions rose almost 1% in 2016, despite a fall in coal use and the ongoing expansion of renewable energy sources. This rise is due in part to an overall increase in energy consumption and an increase in natural gas use and diesel for electricity, heat and transport.

Projections from the environment ministry in September 2016 indicated that Germany will likely miss its 2020 climate target.

UK

What are its climate targets?

Alongside its EU and Paris commitments, the UK Houses of Parliament approved the Climate Change Act in 2008, which commits to reducing GHG emissions by at least 80% of 1990 levels by 2050.

The Act requires the government to set legally-binding carbon budgets, a cap on the amount of GHG emitted in the UK over a five-year period. The first five carbon budgets have been put into legislation and will run up to 2032. These include reducing emissions 37% below 1990 levels by 2020 and 57% by 2030.

A key milestone in the UK’s decarbonisation is to entirely phase out coal by 2025, which will mean either closing or converting (as in the case of Drax Power Station) existing coal power stations.

How does it plan to achieve this?

Under its legally binding carbon budget system, every tonne of GHG emitted between now and 2050 will count. Where emissions rise in one sector of the economy (be it agriculture, heavy industry, power, transport, etc.), the UK must achieve corresponding falls in another.

The UK’s initial focus has been to transition to renewable electricity production. Wind, biomass and solar power have all grown significantly, aided by government support, and by initiatives like the carbon price floor.

How is it doing so far?

The UK’s progress towards its targets is positive, but leaves room for improvement. Renewables generated 14.9% of the UK’s electricity in 2013. In 2015 they accounted for nearly a quarter of electricity generation and by 2016, low carbon power sources contributed an average of 40% of the UK’s power, with wind generating more power than coal for the first time ever.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy estimates that as of 2016 GHG emissions fell 42% since 1990. Despite this, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has said that the government is not on track to meet its pledge of cutting emissions 80% by 2050.

However, it points out the UK is likely to meet the target of making electricity almost entirely low-carbon by early 2030s, but only if further steps are taken such as including increasing investment in more low-carbon generation (such as biomass), and developing carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. The UK government is due to publish an emissions reduction plan in the autumn of 2017. 

Norway

What are its climate targets?

Norway’s climate policy is based on agreements reached in the Storting (the Norwegian Parliament) in 2008 and 2012. They stipulate a commitment to reduce global GHG emissions by at least 30% by 2020 from 1990 levels. The government also approved the goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

As well as signing the Paris Agreement, Norway has aligned itself with the European Union’s climate target and intends to fulfil its commitment collectively with the EU (of which it is not a member state). This means using the EU emissions trading market, international cooperation on emissions reductions, and project-based cooperation.

How does it plan to achieve this?

Around 98% of Norway’s electricity production already comes from renewable energy sources, mostly through its more than 900 hydropower plants. The remainder is through wind and thermal power.

Norway exports hydropower to the Netherlands and exchanges renewable energy with Denmark, Sweden and Finland. There are plans for similar green exchanges with Germany and the United Kingdom via interconnectors within the next five years.

Norway is also aided by a substantial carbon sink in its forests which cover 30% of its land surface. They sequester (absorb and store) carbon from the atmosphere to such an extent that it equals approximately half of the Scandinavian country’s annual emissions.

How is it doing so far?

While Norway already has one of the world’s most carbon neutral electricity sectors, its significant domestic oil and gas sector means it still struggles to reduce its overall emissions. As such, the government is expected to rely on carbon trading with the EU or international offsets to meet its ambitious goals.

Nonetheless, earlier this year the government said that GHG emissions will fall to around 1990 levels by 2020, although it did not stipulate whether this included buying carbon credits from abroad or not.

Sustainability, certified

Drax Morehouse woodchip truck

Of all the changes to Drax Power Station over the last decade, perhaps the biggest is one you can’t see. Since converting three of its six generating units from coal to run primarily on compressed wood pellets, Drax has reduced those units’ greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by over 80%.

And while this is a huge improvement, it would mean nothing if the biomass with which those reductions are achieved isn’t sustainably sourced.

For this reason, Drax works with internationally-recognised certification programmes that ensure suppliers manage their forests according to environmental, social and economic criteria.

Thanks to these certification programmes, Drax can be confident it is not only reducing GHG emissions, but supporting responsible forestry from wherever wood fibre is sourced.

Sustainability certifications

The compressed wood pellets used at Drax Power Station come from various locations around the world, so Drax relies on a number of different forest certification programmes, the three main ones being the Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI), Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC®)1 and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).

The programmes share a common goal of demonstrating responsible forest management, but adoption rates vary by region. European landowners and regulators are most familiar with the FSC and national PEFC standards, while North American landowners generally prefer SFI and American Tree Farm System (also members of the PEFC family). In instances in which Drax sources wood pellets carrying these certifications, or in instances in which Drax purchase pellets sourced from certified forests, these certifications offer an additional degree of assurance that the pellets are sustainable.

Over 50% of the pellets used at Drax Power Station come from the southern USA, where SFI and American Tree Farm System are the most widely implemented certification programmes. Overall adoption levels in this region are relatively modest. However, the SFI offers an additional level of certification that can be implemented by wood-procuring entities, such as sawmills, pulp mills and pellet mills.

This programme is referred to as SFI Fiber Sourcing, and to obtain it, participants must demonstrate that the raw material in their supply chains come from legal and responsible sources. These sources may or may not include certified forests. The programme also includes requirements related to biodiversity, water quality, landowner outreach and use of forest management and harvesting professionals. Together, these certification systems have long contributed to the improvement of forest management practices in a region that provides Drax with a significant proportion of its pellets.

And since the SFI and ATFS programmes are endorsed by PEFC, North American suppliers have a pathway for their region’s sustainable forest management practices to be recognised by European stakeholders.

These certification programmes have been in use for many years. But with recent growth in the market for wood pellets, a new certification system has emerged to deal specifically with woody biomass.

Trees locked up in a bundle

New kid on the block

The Sustainable Biomass Program (SBP) was set up in 2013 as a certification system to provide assurance that woody biomass is sourced from legal and sustainable sources. But rather than replacing any previous forest certification programmes, it builds on them.

For example, SBP recognises the evidence of sustainable forest management practices gathered under these other programmes. However, the PEFC, SFI and FSC programmes do not include requirements for reporting GHG emissions, a critical gap for biomass generators as they are obligated to report these emissions to European regulators. SBP fills this gap by creating a framework for suppliers to report their emissions to the generators that purchase their pellets.

When a new entity, such as a wood pellet manufacturer, first seeks certification under SBP, that entity is required to assess its supply base.

Feedstock which has already been certified by another established certification programme (SFI, FSC®, PEFC or PEFC approved schemes) is considered SBP-compliant.

All other feedstock must be evaluated against SBP criteria, and the wood pellet manufacturer must carry out a risk assessment to identify the risk of compliance against each of the 38 SBP indicators.

If during the process a specific risk is identified, for example to the forest ecosystem, the wood pellet manufacturer must put in place mitigation measures to manage the risk, such that it can be considered to be effectively controlled or excluded.

These assessments are audited by independent, third party certification bodies and scrutinised by an independent technical committee.

In conducting the risk assessment, the wood pellet manufacturer must consult with a range of stakeholders and provide a public summary of the assessment for transparency purposes.

Sustainable energy for the UK

Counting major energy companies including DONG Energy, E.ON and Drax as members, the SBP has quickly become an authoritative voice in the industry. At the end of 2016, the SBP had 74 certificate holders across 14 countries – including Drax’s pellet manufacturing arm, Drax Biomass, in Mississippi and Louisiana.

It’s a positive step towards providing the right level of certification for woody biomass, and together with the existing forestry certifications it provides Drax with the assurance that it is powering the UK using biomass from legal and sustainable sources.

Like the fast-reducing carbon dioxide emissions of Britain’s power generation sector, it’s a change you can’t see, but one that is making a big difference.

Read the Drax principles for sustainable sourcing.

1 Drax Power Ltd FSC License Code: FSC® – C119787

Power and the rise of electric cars

Power supply for electric car charging. Electric car charging station. Close up of the power supply plugged into an electric car being charged.

All great technological innovations need infrastructure to match. The world didn’t change from candles to lightbulbs overnight – power stations had to be built, electricity cables rolled out, and buildings fitted with wiring. The same is true of electric vehicles (EV).

Think of the number of petrol stations lining the UK roads. If EVs continue their rise in popularity, the country will need electric car-charging facilities to augment and then replace these petrol stations.

This could mean big extensions of electricity grid infrastructure, both in the building of new power generation capacity to meet demand, and in the extension of the networks themselves.

In short, it could mean a significant change in how electricity is used and supplied.

The need for better electricity infrastructure

In 2013, only 3,500 of newly registered cars in the UK were plug-in electric or hybrid EVs. In 2016, that number jumped to 63,000. Their use is rising rapidly, but the lack of infrastructure has kept a cap on the number of EVs on UK roads. That is starting to change.

As of 2019, all new and refurbished houses in the EU will have to be fitted with an electric car charging point, according to a draft directive announced by Brussels. The UK will probably no longer be an EU member by the time the directive comes into effect, but nevertheless, the UK government is pursuing its own ways to account for the rise of EVs. It has pledged more than £600 million between 2015 and 2020 to support ultra-low-emission vehicles – £38 million of this has already been earmarked for public charging points.

There are more innovative responses to EV rise, too. Nissan, in partnership with Italian energy provider Enel, has announced it will install around one hundred ‘car-to-grid’ charging points across the UK. With their innovative V2G technology, cars plugged into these sites will be able to both charge their batteries and feed stored energy back to the National Grid when necessary. So when there is a peak in demand, the Grid could access the cars’ stored energy to help meet it.

The total capacity of the 18,000 Nissan electric vehicles currently operational on UK roads comes to around 180 MW. So even today – before electric vehicles have really taken off – this could give the National Grid an additional supply roughly the size of a small power station.

Peaks in electricity demand, however, tend to occur in the late afternoon or evening as it gets dark and more lighting and heating gets switched on. This also happens to be rush hour, so under this scheme the time of day the cars are most likely to be on the roads is also when it’d be most helpful to have them plugged in. This could lead to financial incentives for people to give up the flexibility of driving their cars only when they need to.

Power supply for electric car charging. Electric car charging station.

More electric cars, more demand for electricity, more pollution?

More EVs on the road makes sound environmental sense – they enable a 40% reduction in CO2 emissions – but ultimately the energy still has to come from somewhere. That means more power stations.

The scale of this new demand shouldn’t be underestimated: if European drivers were to go 80% electric, some studies have suggested it would require 150 GW of additional on-demand capacity – the equivalent of 40 Drax-sized power stations.

But if EVs are to live up to their green potential, that additional power needs to come from innovations in storage (such as in the Nissan example) and from renewable sources like wind, solar and biomass. Fossil fuels would ideally be used only to plug any gaps that intermittency creates – for example by briefly firing up the small gas power stations Drax plans to build in England and Wales.

What does this mean for generators?

Drax, as operator of the UK’s largest biomass power station and with plans for new, rapid response open cycle gas turbines (OCGTs), is well placed to be at the forefront of providing reliable, affordable power in the event of a widespread rollout of electric vehicles. The OCGTs in particular, are designed for use in peak times which, in the future, could be when the nation’s electric vehicles are plugged in overnight – today this is when electricity demand is at its lowest.

A future of more electric cars is a positive one. They’re cleaner, more efficient, and they are well suited to our increasingly urban lives. But now that we have the technology, we need to ensure we can deliver the lower-carbon infrastructure they need.