A renewable review: Five cool things that happened in 2017

New milestones, falling costs and growth for the UK – 2017 has been another great year for renewable energy, building on some of the successes of 2016 and seeing further innovations, improvements and exciting developments.

Read on for some of the best news to come out of the renewable energy sector over the past 12 months.

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The UK has decarbonised – faster than many thought it could

Over the summer months of 2017, coal contributed around 2% to the electrical grid. In fact, the UK grid is at its lowest level of carbon intensity ever, with carbon dioxide emissions below 200g/kWh of electricity, and the growing popularity of electric cars is helping to reduce the carbon intensity of the transport sector, too.

Alongside this, the UK has the 7th cleanest power system across a sample of 33 countries, outranking countries like Spain, Italy, Germany and Argentina.

How do we know this? Thanks to Electric Insights, a collaborative report produced by Drax and researchers from Imperial College London. Using this, you can track the UK’s electricity generation and see how much electricity is being generated at any given time, and from which sources.

Throughout 2017, the trend has been positive, with lots of exciting developments across the UK’s energy system. In the summer, carbon intensity reached its lowest level at 71g/kWh and the spread of renewables is helping to decentralise generation, while daytime demand is starting to dip, too.

The decarbonisation of electricity is also helping to make electric cars cleaner than ever before.

The UK’s progress on decarbonisation has been achieved thanks to the combination of a robust Carbon Price and the continued growth of renewable energy sources, particularly wind.

 

Fall in costs for offshore wind

The growth of renewable energy sources has been consistent, and one of the biggest developments in renewable energy, especially from the UK’s perspective, has been the sharp (and continuous) drop in costs.

Thanks to years of government support in the form of subsidies, wind energy is now one of the cheapest forms of electricity generation.

The biggest development on this front was the UK’s second Cost for Difference auction for offshore wind, which saw the cost of electricity generated by wind turbines cut to £57.50 per MWh. This represents a 50% decrease in costs in just two years.

Cost for Difference (CfD) auctions are used to help protect electricity generators and consumers from price fluctuations in the electricity wholesale market. 2017 saw the UK’s second round of auctions – and the subsequent drop in costs for offshore wind generation. There are two pricing mechanisms – the strike price, which reflects the cost of investing in low-carbon technologies, and the reference price, which reflects the average market price of electricity.

Over the last ten years or so, prices have fallen dramatically, helping to make renewable energy more competitive with traditional energy sources, in turn helping to speed up the decarbonisation process. The CfD auction in mid-2017 marked a watershed moment for renewable energy.

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Falling costs for solar

Just like wind, the costs of solar power have decreased significantly, and in 2016 it became the fastest-growing source of new energy across the world.

Indeed, the costs for solar have dropped so sharply – and continue to fall – that within a decade, it is projected that photovoltaic solar could become the lowest-cost option for electricity generation across the world.

There have been various factors at play, including efficiency improvements and favourable market conditions which have made production of solar panels cheaper and easier. Between 2008 and 2015, the cost of PV solar fell by almost 80% and while this has slowed down, the costs are still on a downward trend.

This has enabled countries to make serious inroads to meeting emissions reductions targets; in India, solar is heavily undercutting fossil fuels, and the UK is looking to develop its first subsidy-free solar farm.

As costs continue to fall, and battery technology continues to mature, solar could have a huge part to play over the coming years thanks to the foundations which have been laid over the last decade.

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Costa Rica hits new renewable streak

Costa Rica has set a new renewable record, running on electricity produced by renewable sources for 300 days since the start of January. Since 1st May, there have been 201 consecutive days.

This streak means that the country has already broken its 2015 record of 299 days, and in 2016, there was a 250-day stretch. Costa Rica has, over the last few years, established itself as a nation punching above its weight in terms of renewable energy.

Thanks to a progressive and consistent approach to renewable energy which has been in place since the 1950s, Costa Rica has an extensive portfolio of renewable energy sources. Hydropower makes up the lion’s share, but wind, solar, biomass and geothermal all play a part, too.

These figures are great, and they demonstrate the strong potential of renewable energy technologies in small nations which benefit from geographical and topographical features. However, these figures only refer to electricity production; in the transport sector, thanks to the reliance on petroleum-based fuels, Costa Rica still has a significant carbon footprint.

The next challenge for Costa Rica is to aim for the decarbonisation of its transport network, but this is a broader and more complex challenge.

 

The world’s biggest battery installed in Australia

Throughout September, Australia was rocked by storms which took down the electricity grid, leaving thousands without power.

Elon Musk, charismatic CEO of Tesla Motors, promised that his company could deliver a 100 MW battery storage installation within 100 days.

It was an ambitious bet (and not one without caveats), but Tesla managed to pull it off. South Australia is now home to the world’s largest battery storage system.

Only a few years ago, this would have been inconceivable – the cost and inefficiency of the technology would have made this sort of venture unviable. Thanks to technological advances, however, batteries are now cheaper and more efficient.

Storage – or rather, the lack of it – has been one of the factors which has historically held back renewable energy, as intermittency has been a caveat. Storage now offers the solution to that problem, with consequent benefits for renewable energy.

It’s not the first battery storage system that Tesla has installed – they’ve had similar projects on island communities – but it could be the one which really pushes the envelope on the potential of energy storage.

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