UK set to miss renewable energy targets, biogas recommended as solution

In the UK, the Energy and Climate Change Committee (ECCC) has warned the government that on its current course the UK will fail to achieve its 2020 renewable energy targets.

Despite progress in some areas of its renewables commitments, there is simply not enough being done, ECCC says in its new report titled 2020 renewable heat and transport targets.

The island country has set plans to provide for 15% of its energy needs from renewable sources, with 30% in electricity, 12% in heat and 10% in transport.

The UK is three-quarters of the way towards its 30% electricity sub-target and is expected to exceed it by 2020, but it is not yet halfway towards 12% in heat and the proportion of renewable energy used in transport actually fell last year.

ECCC chair and Member of Parliament Angus MacNeil said that the experts the committee spoke were clear in that UK will miss the targets without “major policy improvements”.

"Failing to meet these [targets] would damage the UK’s reputation for climate change leadership. The government must take urgent action on heat and transport to renew its efforts on decarbonisation," MacNeil said.

‘Turn our gas green’

The report identifies a number of ways in which the key policies to meet the heat and transport targets—the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) and Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO)—could be improved. 

The government's proposed reforms to the RHI, the report says, are not optimal as many heat pumps have proven unsatisfactory in actual use, yet are being prioritised over biomass, which has been successful.

The government should revise its RHI reforms to reflect these priorities, especially in protecting biomethane support, which is listed as “crucial” to meeting the 2020 target.

Responding to report, Charlotte Morton, CEO of the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association, said “turning our gas green” is one of the best ways to deliver on UK obligations.

“Biomethane can deliver at scale now, directly replacing natural gas without the need for disruptive changes to heating systems in homes and businesses. There is a huge opportunity to develop a world-leading green gas sector, which can export its technology and expertise to global markets.

“The biomethane industry is ready to deliver, but needs policy certainty on the RHI and the RTFO for developers and investors to move forward with new projects,” Morton said.

The UK's journey towards its 10% transport target reversed between 2014 and 2015, when the proportion of renewable energy fell from 4.93% to 4.23%.

The RTFO has been capped at 4.75% since 2013, well below the level needed to meet the 2020 target, and the ECCC recommends that the level be raised without delay. 

‘Call to action’

Past the 2020 deadline, the report says heat and transport will likely depend on some combination of bioenergy and electrification.

Bioenergy has “an important role” in the UK's future energy mix, ECCC concludes, but there are concerns about its carbon footprint, and therefore electrification is suggested as an alternative.

Central to the government's plans for transport electrification is an aim for all new cars to be ultra-low emission by 2040, whereas currently only 1.1% are.

To achieve this ambition, it should consider re-introducing a tiered system of Vehicle Excise Duty to restore incentives for electric cars and other ultra-low emission vehicles, the report recommends. 

The Brexit vote on leaving the EU also renders the status of the UK’s 2020 renewable energy targets uncertain.

"We agreed our 2020 renewable energy targets as part of the EU but they still have many merits, even as the UK government prepares for Brexit,” MacNeil said.

“If the UK reneges on these targets, it will undermine confidence in the government’s commitment to clean energy and the climate targets agreed in Paris. Progress has been slow, but this must be taken as a call to action, not an excuse for backtrack," he concluded.

This article was written by Ilari Kauppila, deputy editor at Bioenergy Insight

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