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Solar and wind energy could fulfill energy demand 10-fold, Oxford study finds

Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment has unveiled research that indicates that wind and solar power could not only meet but vastly surpass the nation’s energy demands, providing a compelling pathway towards a greener, more sustainable future. 

The primary finding of the study asserts that wind and solar energy have the potential to generate a staggering 2,896 terawatt-hours (TWh) of energy annually. Putting this into perspective, this amount is nearly ten times the current electricity demand, which stands at 299 TWh per year. Furthermore, these estimates have been made intentionally conservative whilst addressing concerns such as land use and the visual impact of renewable energy installations.

The lead author, Dr Brian O’Callaghan, stated in a press release that “this isn’t merely a technical question but a matter of ambition”. He argues that the UK should embrace renewables with the vigour seen in the United States, which offers generous incentives for renewable energy adoption, while simultaneously preparing the nation’s grid for the impending surge in renewable energy production.

Battcock Professor of Environmental Economics, Cameron Hepburn, finds a silver lining in what he has described as “an unfortunately poor set of policy announcements from the government this week”. Professor Hepburn identifies a glimmer of hope in the form of initiatives designed to accelerate renewable projects and with the policy brief asserting that renewable energy can play a leading role in Britain’s journey towards achieving net-zero emissions. It suggests that while nuclear power and other renewables may also have their role, it is entirely conceivable to power the entire nation using wind and solar energy alone.

Professor Hepburn, however, cautioned against relying solely on wind and solar to reduce emissions, pointing out that other measures, such as transitioning to electric vehicles (EVs), can deliver substantial carbon savings.

The analysis in the report anticipates that offshore wind energy could serve as the backbone, contributing a substantial 73% (2,121 TWh/year) of the energy generated. Onshore wind, occupying a mere 0.07% of the country’s land, is projected to provide around 7% (206 TWh/year) of the energy. Utility-scale solar power is expected to make up about 19% (544 TWh/year) of the energy, with rooftop solar covering 8% of Great Britain’s roof area and contributing 25 TWh/year. This diversified approach ensures a well-balanced and more secure energy mix, which may aid both in environmental causes and reducing vulnerability to external economic shocks.

One significant challenge highlighted in the policy brief is the need for substantial grid upgrades to accommodate the surge in renewable energy. Scaling up energy storage is also a pressing task on the road to a sustainable energy future. However, the authors expressed confidence that these challenges can be overcome, particularly with the ongoing reduction in renewable energy costs.

The recent commitment by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to eliminate bureaucratic delays in renewable energy and storage projects could be seen as a promising sign of government support for this transformative transition. However, the Government was equally criticized for U-turning on other environmental policies and pushing back net-zero targets. Sunak was also criticized last week for claiming to have “scrapped” government measures that appear to have never existed.

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