By Paul Davies and Michael Green

The first solar farm has successfully launched in the UK without government subsidisation. Clayhill Solar Farm, a 10 megawatt (MW) site near Flitwick in Bedfordshire, is capable of generating enough power for 2500 homes. Clayhill’s developer, Anesco, is a private company specialising in the design and development of solar and battery storage sites.

Renewable energy projects like Clayhill have become increasingly viable in recent years due to the falling cost of solar panels and batteries. In particular, cheaper manufacturing costs have enabled solar generation to become cost-competitive with electricity from fossil fuels. However, despite these favorable conditions, the Renewables Obligation subsidy scheme — one of the UK government’s main mechanisms for encouraging renewable electricity projects — closed to new applicants in March 2017.

By Paul Davies and Andrew Westgate

Addressing a car forum in Tianjin, Xin Guobin, Vice Minister of Industry and Information Technology, announced that the Chinese government is developing plans to follow in the footsteps of some European countries to phase out fossil fuel-powered vehicles. “Some countries have worked out a timetable to stop production and sales of traditional fuel vehicles. Now the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has launched a study as well, and will work with related departments on a timetable for our country,” Xin said. A phase out of fossil fuel vehicles could have a significant impact on air quality in China, where reports suggest that as many as 1.6 million people die each year from health issues related to air pollution.

With nearly 200 million registered vehicles at the end of 2016, China has the world’s largest car market. New energy vehicles and electric vehicle (EV) batteries are playing an increasingly important role in Beijing’s plans to turn China into a high tech powerhouse. China also has the largest cumulative total of new energy vehicles, ahead of Europe and the United States, which have the second and third largest totals respectively. In 2016, 53% of the 774,000 electric cars sold worldwide were sold in China. In order to meet next year’s demand, forecasters say that China alone needs to make 750,000 new energy vehicles — exceeding the combined worldwide demand in 2016.

By Paul Davies and Andrew Westgate

Market research has long recognized China as the largest investor in its own domestic renewable energy industry. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, China invested US$102 billion in 2015 alone. However, a report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) found that China’s dominance in renewables is rapidly growing overseas as well.

The report details China’s robust international investment activity. In 2016, for example, China made 11 outbound clean energy investments exceeding US$1 billion for a total of US$32 billion — a 60% increase from 2015. China also ranked as the fifth-largest investor in renewable energy projects in other emerging markets in 2016, totalling US$19.7 billion since 2005. However, according to the report, China still directs a majority of its investments in renewables towards the United States, Germany, and other developed countries.

The report also found that China currently accounts for one quarter of global renewable energy capacity and one third of all global investment in renewables. Chinese manufacturing has altered the economics of renewable power worldwide, making solar generation cost-competitive with electricity from fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. As a result, official figures indicate that coal consumption, the main component of China’s carbon emissions, fell in 2016 for the third year running.

By Paul Davies, Fiona Maclean and Stuart Davis

Blockchain is more widely recognised as the underlying software technology usedVirtual Currency B - Single for the cryptocurrency Bitcoin. This technology is also being increasingly applied to alternative opportunities, including in the energy sector. In its simplest form, a blockchain is a shared, and continually reconciled, database. No central repository of the database exists and, instead it is hosted simultaneously across a network of computers or nodes. This means that each participant in the network has real-time access to a “golden source” of the data stored on the database without the need for trusted intermediaries and costly data reconciliation. Automated code-based processes called “smart contracts” can run off, interact with and update the database in a way that would not be possible without a golden source of data and real-time reconciliation. In the energy sector, this technology can be used to provide an automated transaction model with no or limited third-party intermediaries (as compared to the traditional transaction model which is multi-tiered, involving a provider, a central authority such as the National Grid and the consumer). Blockchain’s ability to track the flow of electrons on a distributed grid, for example, enables their secure and transparent trade between consumers directly. The advent of blockchain could fundamentally change the way consumers use and generate electricity.

An early adoption of blockchain in this context is TransActive Grid, a peer-to-peer distributed energy offering based in Brooklyn. TransActive Grid, amongst other things, enables consumers to buy and sell renewable energy directly to each other by utilising blockchain technology. Homes producing their own energy through solar power, can sell excess energy to neighbours. Smart meters are used to record the level of energy produced, with transactions being effected and recorded through smart contracts. There are also plans to develop an application for consumers so that any excess electricity can be traded efficiently, with consumers specifying the price they are willing to pay. This has opened up a peer-to-peer market which facilitates direct interaction between consumers and it is hoped that this will develop into a local community market for renewable energy. Grid Singularity, based in Austria, is planning to bring a similar, decentralised electricity market to developing countries, to distribute solar power.

By Paul Davies and Rosa Espin

Last year, 86 % of the 24.5 GW of new generating capacity installed in the EU came from renewable energy sources, specifically from wind, solar, biomass and hydro, breaking the previous record of 79% in 2014. This new water mark makes clear that the EU is seeking to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions by replacing fossil fuel plants with new forms of renewable energy in line with the Paris Agreement on climate change.

For the first time, wind overtake coal in terms of capacity as wind energy was the most installed power generation source in 2016, representing a 51 % of all the new installed power capacity of the EU. Of the new 12.5 GW of wind power, 10.9 GW was installed onshore while 1.6 GW added offshore.

According to figures published by the WindEurope trade group, wind energy grew 8 percent in 2016 reaching 153.7 GW and now accounts for 17% of Europe’s total installed power generation capacity. Only natural gas generation, with 186 GW of capacity, remains above wind.

By Paul Davies & Andrew Westgate

China’s National Development and Reform Commissions (NDRC) – the country’s chief economic planning body – announced that a “green certificates” program for solar and wind power will be launched beginning on July 1, 2017. The certificates issued by the program will be similar to the Renewable Energy Credits issued in the United States, and will each represent 1MW of electricity output from solar or wind generation.  The program will be initiated on a voluntary basis at first, and is expected to become mandatory in 2018. 

By Cesare Milani

On December 7, 2016 the Italian Constitutional Court (the “Constitutional Court”) rejected the appeal filed by four solar energy operators against Art. 26, paragraphs 2 and 3 of Italian Law Decree no. 91, dated June 24, 2014, (the “Decree”, so-called “Spalma-Incentivi” Decree), (introduced in 2014 by the Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s government). The Decree changed the state incentives scheme applicable to the renewable energy sector, with retrospective effect. As a result, the number of years over which the state incentives to solar plants with a capacity of more than 200Kw are spread out, increased.

The Constitutional Court declared the question of constitutional legitimacy concerning the Decree groundless.