Integrating Renewables into the UK’s Energy System: Not As Easy As We Want

KF - Writer

Recently, young Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg was announced as Time magazine’s ‘Person of the Year 2019’. Those familiar with her will know that she began the school strike for climate movement, which sees people skip school and work on Fridays to protest government inaction on climate change. With such a monumental recognition of her efforts, it seems strange that such grand rewards are given to those supporting causes making such limited progress. This seems equivalent to celebrating the doctors who discovered cancer… and then doing nothing to cure or prevent the disease. So why is the solution- to decarbonise our lives and switch to a clean, green future- not as easy as it seems? What are the roadblocks facing our electric vehicles?

First and foremost is the term every year 9 geography student must eagerly cram into their exam papers: NIMBYism. This refers to the phrase Not In My Back Yard, which is very self-explanatory and a hugely eye-opening part of this strangely paradoxical issue. Support for renewables is high, especially in the UK, where 79% of respondents to the government’s Energy and Climate Change Public Attitude Tracker expressed support for the use of renewable energy. NIMBYism highlights the inherent selfishness that stands in the way of a renewable powered society. Generally speaking, people have no issue with renewable energy and understand the advantages it has over fossil fuels as well as the need to switch to green sources but not if they can see the wind turbine from their kitchen window. They’re all for renewable energy, they love renewables… just not in their village. This opens up a whole world of problems for locating potential sources of renewable energy. By the very nature of the energy, it is only available at certain times or in certain locations. There are a finite number of locations where wind speeds are high and consistent enough to make wind farms viable, they cannot simply be placed where people don’t find them too inconvenient. Renewable energy generators such as wind turbines or solar panels have a much lower energy density than traditional fossil fuels, meaning they require a large amount of space for the same energy production as fossil fuels. This adds fuel to the fire when it comes to NIMBY fanatics, who may resist the change even before they realise the large scale of the project.

We could imagine that people changed their minds and we managed to locate some great places where the sun shines or the wind blows fairly consistently. Should the infrastructure be built straight away- who will fund it? And what to do with the existing coal, gas and oil infrastructure we currently have, not to mention the 32.5 million passenger cars currently on the roads in the UK? What happens to the multibillion-pound fossil fuel industry- does it collapse, or does it immediately convert to renewables? Well currently the answer is a slow conversion to renewables, increasing investment on a scale that avoids the total collapse of the fossil fuel industry but rather allows it to transition into the renewable energy industry. This snail’s pace is perhaps exemplified best through the UK government’s announcement to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040, the transition is visible but it’s painfully slow and leaves plenty of room to chop and change the terms and conditions. When this announcement was made there was outcry that the date was not ambitious enough, that 2025 or even 2020 should be our goal. This may be the greenest option, but it’s not actually the most realistic. The electric car market still isn’t fully developed to serve the average family budget, with the average cost of an electric car still significantly higher than a low budget family car. Currently the UK is waiting on a domino effect, where interest in electric cars soars and kicks off mass production which dramatically lowers the price of purchase. This higher ownership would force more businesses to install charging ports and eventually they would become as widespread as petrol stations. We are currently waiting for someone to knock the first domino; the interest is almost there but people are put off from buying by the high prices and range anxiety.

This fear of the newest technology, an uncertainty surrounding its teething problems seems to be the biggest obstacle facing renewable energy. The variability and intermittency of renewable energy still fails to convince most that they could step up to replace fossil fuels. Energy storage technology still has far to go before we could rely solely on a power source that does not generate power when the wind is not blowing, or the sun is not shining. Developing ways to transport energy from tidal barrages and wave energy converters (arguably more consistent or at least predictable renewables) long distances to where the energy is required without losing too much along the way is still an issue. Being able to capture and store energy when demand is low, or production is in excess is essential in order to meet times of high demand when production can’t measure up. The renewable answer to the battery is the final gleaming piece of the puzzle that would propel the renewable sector forward, and we still have a long way to go before this technology is rolled out in the mainstream.

Until all these problems are solved, a completely renewable based energy system will have to remain a dreamy future. 

References (2019). Industrial Grid Energy & Battery Energy Storage Solutions | GE Power. [online] Available at:
Geels, F. et al (2017) Sociotechnical transitions for deep decarbonization, Science, 22

Paton, G. (2019). Ban on petrol and diesel cars could be accelerated. The Times.
Rohracher, H. and Spath P. (2014) The Interplay of Urban Energy Policy and Sociotechnical Transitions: The Eco-cities of Graz and Freiburg in Retrospect, Urban Studies 51:7, 1415 – 1431.

Statista. (2019). Number of cars in the UK 2000-2016 | Statista. [online] Available at:

Photo by Karsten Würth (@karsten.wuerth) on Unsplash

Photo by Andrew Roberts on Unsplash


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