This In Focus article looks at the National Infrastructure Commission’s recently revised target for the share of electricity generation to be delivered by renewables by 2030. It presents figures on renewables’ current share of generation and provides brief background information on the forthcoming national infrastructure strategy, expected in the autumn.

Lord Ravensdale (Crossbench) is scheduled to ask the Government an oral question about the updated recommendations on 15 September 2020.

National Infrastructure Commission

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) is an executive agency, sponsored by HM Treasury, that provides impartial advice to the Government on major long-term infrastructure challenges. Established in 2015, the NIC published its first formal assessment of how the UK’s infrastructure needs should be addressed over the next 10–30 years in 2018.

Revised renewables target

In August 2020, in the light of new modelling research, the NIC updated its recommendation on how much of the UK’s electricity should be generated from renewable sources by 2030. It called for the Government to lead on ensuring renewables meet 65% of the UK’s electricity needs within the next ten years. This would represent a more ambitious goal than the previous target of 50%, set in 2018.

The NIC said meeting the new target would require deploying greater levels of offshore wind, onshore wind and solar than previously planned over the next decade. However, it said that sharp falls in the cost of renewable generation, which now made renewables the cheapest way of generating electricity, meant there would be “no material cost impact, either over the short or long term” from doing so. The commission also believed raising these ambitions could both support the economic recovery and help the UK make significant progress towards its 2050 net zero emissions target.

Renewables’ current share of electricity generation

According to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, renewables accounted for around 37% of all electricity generated in 2019. This rose to a record 47% of generation in the first quarter of 2020, with the jump linked to increased capacity becoming available and “high load factors for wind technologies” at the beginning of the year. This represented a 30% increase on the figure recorded for the first quarter of 2019.

The following table shows how different types of renewables have contributed to electricity generation since the beginning of 2019:

Table 1: Renewables’ share of electricity generation, 2019–20 (%)

2019, Q1 2019, Q2 2019, Q3 2019, Q4 2020, Q1
Onshore wind 11.3 8.1 9.3 10.6 14.8
Offshore wind 9.9 7.9 9.7 11.8 15.2
Shoreline wave/tidal 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0 0.0
Solar photovoltaics 2.5 6.4 6.2 1.5 2.2
Hydro 2.1 1.2 1.9 2.0 2.8
Bioenergy and waste 10.2 12.0 12.2 11.8 12.0
All renewables 35.9 35.6 39.3 37.8 47.0

What else did the report say?

The NIC welcomed recent government commitments on renewables deployment. These included a pledge to deliver 40GW of offshore wind power by 2030 and contracts for difference auctions to encourage more onshore wind and solar power projects by guaranteeing a fixed revenue stream for power generators. The commission called for more auctions to “accelerate” additional offshore wind, onshore wind and solar power projects.

However, the NIC also stated that “renewables alone cannot create a resilient energy system for future decades, and that further work on new storage technologies, efficient interconnectors and other innovations are needed to support renewables and ensure the security of the electricity system”. It added that this could include an increased role for low carbon hydrogen generation, as set out in its Net Zero: Opportunities for the Power Sector report published in March 2020.

Commenting on the revised recommendation, Sir John Armitt, chair of the NIC, commended the Government for “recent steps to encourage quicker deployment of renewables” and for “setting up successful mechanisms for encouraging private sector investments”. He concluded by calling for the forthcoming national infrastructure strategy to take account of the commission’s latest modelling.

National infrastructure strategy

The Government’s programme for the current parliamentary session stated that a national infrastructure strategy would be published alongside the first budget. However, publication was later postponed. The strategy is now expected this autumn.

The Government said the strategy would set out details of its plans for £100 billion of investment in economic infrastructure over the long term, including in areas such as transport, decarbonisation and digital connectivity. The strategy’s two key aims would be:

  • To “unleash Britain’s potential” by “levelling up and connecting every part of the country”.
  • To “address the critical challenges posed by climate change and build on the UK’s world-leading commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2050”.

The strategy would also serve as a formal response to the NIC’s most recent National Infrastructure Assessment, published in 2018. This made a series of recommendations across a range of economic infrastructure sectors (such as transport, energy, digital, waste, water and flood management).

When the Government did not publish the strategy alongside the March 2020 budget as expected, the BBC reported that the postponement would allow the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, to “refocus the strategy”. Sir John Armitt said he was “disappointed” by the delay, but that if a “short delay leads to a better strategy that more comprehensively addresses our recommendations, it will be worth the wait”.

The strategy is now expected in the autumn, with Mr Sunak indicating it may be published alongside the autumn budget and spending review.

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Image by Nicholas Doherty on Unsplash.