Everything’s Gone Green?

New Order’s song title suggests Everything’s Gone Green. Or has it? 

There are positive indications about a gradual step away from fossil fuel consumption.

Figures published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy suggest that renewable energy accounted for a quarter of the UK’s power supply, outstripping coal power for the first time, whilst low-carbon power sources supplied 46% of the UK’s electricity in 2015 – a record. Renewable sources including onshore and offshore wind, solar farms, hydroelectric dams and biomass accounted for 25% of the UK’s electricity generation.

A fascinating talk by Professor Tim Green, Director of the Energy Future Lab at Imperial College London, at Repower Balcombe’s AGM on 22nd April 2017 confirmed the growing trend away from fossil fuels and even China is stepping up to the plate. The 21st April 2017 was the first working day that the UK’s electricity output was not sourced from coal at all. The work of Repower Balcombe and the other co-operatives up and down the country help contribute to these figures.

West Sussex County Council has recently announced an investment of up to £3 million in solar for its schools in a scheme intended to create new revenue for the council and save money for the schools.

However, there remain inconsistencies in the approach towards renewable energy, for instance the latest company car tax rules seem to penalise electric and hybrid vehicles. However,business rate changes mean that many businesses and including some state schools, could face significant rate increases for the solar energy they generate and use on their premises; private schools are exempt from these changes.

Meanwhile, High Court judge Mr Justice Garnham held on the 27th April 2017 that the secretary of state, Andrea Leadsom, was in breach of a court order to publish draft plans to cut air pollution in the shortest possible time and that any further delays would constitute a further breach. Garnham has ordered ministers to publish their draft plan by the 9th May 2017.

The judge rejected the minister’s court application to keep their plans secret until after the general election as it was necessary to “comply with pre-election propriety rules”. The court decided that the threat to public health constituted “exceptional circumstances”, so the Government “purdah” guidelines in the run up to a General Election could be waived. “Immediate publication [of the policy] is essential,” stated Mr Justice Garnham. The proposed plan is a consequence of the Government being taken to court last year by the environmental group ClientEarth over their failure to take measures to reduce air pollution in breach of EU law and domestic regulations.

Mr Justice Garnham said it was essential to immediately safeguard public health. The judge rejected a government application to appeal, saying that ministers would have to go to the Court of Appeal if they wanted to seek permission to challenge his ruling.

An ill wind can blow some good. VW’s Dieselgate has acted as a catalyst towards encouraging the move towards electric and hybrid vehicles as well as public perception about diesel vehicles. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan has confirmed that a new Ultra Low Emission Zone will come into force in London on the 8th April 2019. London and Paris will later this year introduce real world fuel testing to help score new cars rather than rely purely on laboratory testing. Both cities will work with the International Council on Clean Transportation; other cities committed to a global scoring system include Seoul, Madrid, Mexico City, Milan, Moscow and Tokyo.

The EU enquiry into Dieselgate has been very scathing of VW and other manufacturers, particularly in their methods of recording emissions and failing to prevent noxious nitrous oxide outputs. However, the EU and governments are arguably open to criticism for encouraging manufacturers to pursue diesel car development such as company car tax incentives.

Prime Minister May has suggested that money may be made available to compensate owners of older diesels and encourage them towards alternative types of vehicles, including hybrids, all electric, low emission petrol engines with engine sizes of about one litre, and hydrogen vehicles.

Ian Robertson head of BMW’s sales and marketing has been critical of some of the press coverage and comments of politicians for not taking sufficient effort to differentiate between older diesel vehicles and the current state of the art Euro 6 diesel vehicles. He said “All of us – the car companies, the media and the legislators and the rule makers – have to get on the front foot and deal with the facts. … what we need more than anything is consistency in (emission) testing.” Robertson also said that “Ultimately electric power is the way ahead .. but the crossover from the combustion engine to electric power remains some way off.”

These sentiments were echoed by comments made at the recent Shanghai Motor Show by VW’s Chief Executive Mathias Muller and also Dr Ralf Speth CEO of Jaguar Land Rover, commenting that manufacturers need government to support the right infrastructure for the move to electric vehicles.

A significant step regarding hydrogen occurred at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January when 13 energy, transport and industrial companies agreed to form the Hydrogen Council to consult with policy makers and highlight its benefits. The plan is to demonstrate that batteries are not the only way to reduce pollution from cars, homes and utilities.

As part of the  agreement Toyota Motor Corp. and four of its biggest car-making peers are joining oil and gas giants including Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Total SA with plans to invest a combined 10 billion euros ($10.7 billion) in hydrogen-related products within five years.

“The world of energy is transforming very, very fast,” Shell CEO Ben Van Beurden said at Davos, “Hydrogen has massive potential.”

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are a cornerstone of Toyota’s plan to rid 90% of carbon dioxide emissions from its vehicles by 2050. Toyota has long contended it is more likely to convince consumers to use petrol-electric hybrids and fuel cell vehicles rather than battery-electric cars.

BMW AG, Daimler AG and Hyundai Motor Co. will each join Toyota on the Council. The other members are gas companies Air Liquide SA and Linde AG, miner Anglo American Plc, electric utility Engie SA, rail company Alstom SA and motorcycle and heavy equipment manufacturer Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd.

It will be fascinating to see the technological race between electricity and hydrogen.

However, whilst there is optimism there are some dark clouds.

The mercurial President Donald Trump has announced that US will not honour the Paris   Treaty and intends to abolish a number of regulations including protection of water supplies to encourage the reintroduction of coal mining, albeit as he describes it “clean coal”. Whether these plans go the same way as his immigration policy and scrapping of Obama health care remains to be seen.

Finally, Brexit-sorry! Environmental agencies and farming representative bodies have raised concern about what EU environmental laws will remain post Brexit.  The Great Repeal Bill, once it receives Royal Assent, will see significant parts of EU law passed into UK law but then subject to possible repeal or modification. What will be the ultimate approach to environmental protection, renewable energy and conservation remains to be seen. Also, how much prominence will these issues have during the General Election campaign? Whatever the constituency of the House of Commons post 8th June, let’s hope its approach to renewable energy and the environment does not make us feel like it’s a blue Monday.

Julian Wilkins