Clean energy myths: is it really too expensive and not reliable?

From cost to London-centrism, there are a lot of myths surrounding clean energy. Read on to find out why they're wrong.

In the years ahead, more and more of our energy will come from renewable sources, as we aim to transition to a cleaner, greener era. And it’s a matter of when, not if: the International Energy Agency says that the world is now on an “unstoppable” shift towards clean energy.

In the UK, to transport this clean energy from where it will be generated to the homes and businesses that need it, the electricity grid needs to be overhauled and the plan for this is called The Great Grid Upgrade.

But there are plenty of myths swirling around about clean energy and upgrading the grid. So, which are the most common – and are they really anything more than myths?

 

Woman running along a beach with wind turbines in the background

Myth 1: Clean energy is too expensive

Especially amid a cost of living crisis, there’s a perception that ‘green’ energy is more expensive. But a recent study found that solar and wind energy are now the most affordable sources of new electricity in 82% of the world.

Last summer, the government boosted the claim that solar and wind are becoming ever more cheaper than gas, which rose in price substantially following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero’s most recent projections for Britain state that solar output cost now averages £41 per megawatt hour (MWh) from new projects. For new gas power stations, the equivalent lifetime costs will be close to £114 per MWh.

“The Great Grid Upgrade will help address the issue of rising energy costs,” said Tom McGarry, Deputy External Affairs Director. “The main cause of the recent hikes in energy bills is the volatility of the commodity cost of gas, caused by the conflict in Ukraine. Having more renewables connected to the UK energy system will help overcome the price spikes we have seen recently, ensuring bills are more affordable in the long-term.”
 

Myth 2: Clean energy sources are unreliable

Some people think that clean energy generation will stop on a cloudy day, or when there isn’t much wind. While it is true that there are indeed some days when we don’t have any wind power, Tom highlights the crucial role of undersea cables, known as ‘interconnectors’, in the UK’s energy generation mix. These high-voltage cables connect the electricity systems of neighbouring countries and allow them to share surplus power. This ensures that renewable energy isn’t wasted and makes for a greener, more efficient power system.

In the future there will also be a greater opportunity for solar and wind power to be stored in batteries or storage plants, and nuclear has an important part in the clean energy mix too. 

There's also a symbiosis that it tends to be windiest in winter, so wind turbines are producing more power right at the time of the year when we’re using the most electricity.
 

Myth 3: Clean energy can’t meet demand

As we decrease our reliance on fossil fuels and increase clean energy generation, it’s likely that we’ll all soon be using more electricity than ever.

Clean energy is a bountiful source for this. Just one rotation of the first turbine’s blades at Dogger Bank – the world's largest offshore windfarm – can produce enough clean energy to power an average UK home for two days. 

And, due to improvements in energy efficiency, the UK’s peak demand has actually fallen by 16% since 2002.
 

Myth 4: Electricity infrastructure has a negative effect on biodiversity

Although a transition focused on wind and solar energy can result in significantly reduced environmental impact compared to other energy types, it's natural that there will be concerns about any new infrastructure and its effect on biodiversity. 
 

Woman wearing orange high-vis jacket testing pond water near an electricity pylon

But a report by Chris Baines, leading environmentalist and independent chair of the Visual Impact Provision Stakeholder Advisory Group, found that we are “uniquely placed to play a key role in strengthening the ecological network through changes to the land management along the corridors that its power transmission routes occupy”. 

The contractual relationship between National Grid and the great variety of different land managers is "of particular value in future biodiversity partnerships,” reports Chris, adding that "the current programme of new electricity transmission infrastructure" offers a "positive opportunity for National Grid to contribute to landscape restoration and biodiversity net-gain on a huge scale". 

It's hoped that the steady transition to renewable energy will offer a chance to reset the relationship between energy production and nature, and we have set ourselves a target of delivering a net gain of at least 10% in environmental value, including biodiversity. This means the areas where we undertake work will have a better-quality natural habitat than before development started.
 

Myth 5: Clean energy infrastructure takes up too much space

While it’s inevitable that energy infrastructure of any sort does take up some space, clean energy does not need to use up disproportionately vast swathes of it. For instance, the footprint of a wind turbine is small and leaves the surrounding land available for other uses, such as agriculture.

In both cases, their total land footprint is often smaller still when you consider the extraction, transportation, and processing activities that are needed for fossil fuels.

We don’t operate the infrastructure for generating renewable energy, but there are concerns about the scale of the transmission infrastructure, which we do operate, and how much of it is required for The Great Grid Upgrade. “We absolutely understand this", said Tom, adding: “We do consider technology options when developing our projects, including the use of undergrounding of cables where appropriate.”

“There are areas where undergrounding is appropriate and necessary, particularly designated landscapes like areas of outstanding natural beauty," he said. Therefore, mitigation is "at the heart of our relationship with affected locations".
 

Myth 6: When it comes to transporting electricity, cables under the ground and in the sea are cheaper than overhead lines

Electricity transmission owners, such as National Grid, have licence and regulatory obligations to be economical and efficient. The government’s planning policy advises that overhead lines should be the strong starting presumption for electricity network developments in general, except where a proposed development will cross part of a nationally designated landscape. 

The costs of alternative technologies to overhead lines can be significantly higher, with the undergrounding of cables around five to ten times more expensive. 

The cost of offshore solutions – cables under the sea – is also significant. Tom said: “There is no fully offshore solution to connect offshore wind to the grid in any country. You must bring the network infrastructure on land somewhere. We have looked at this in the East Anglia region and the cost to consumers of delivering an equivalent offshore cabling solution would be around four times the cost of an onshore overhead line option. 

“In delivering The Great Grid Upgrade, we always carefully and transparently compare infrastructure options as a key part of developing our project proposals.”
 

Myth 7: The Great Grid Upgrade is about getting power to London

Some assume that projects like The Great Grid Upgrade are especially focused on the capital. But that’s simply not the case.

This plan for overhauling the UK’s electricity grid includes proposals for infrastructure all over the country; for instance, building a new high voltage transmission line between East Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, a high voltage electricity link between Suffolk and Kent, and an overhead line in Lincolnshire.

Tom said: “The Grid is a network – the electricity generated is distributed all over the country and it is important to note that over 80% of UK electricity demand is outside of London – this is vital new infrastructure for the whole country.”
 

Myth 8: Things are fine as they are

We need to build five times more electricity transmission infrastructure over the next six years than we've constructed over the past three decades to help the UK transition to a clean energy future.

“The UK’s electricity grid was originally built to connect the coal- and gas-fired power stations that were built on the coal seams that ran down the centre of the country through the industrial heartlands of the north of England and the Midlands”, said Tom. “That now needs to change, because we're getting power from renewable sources, principally offshore. So significant new infrastructure is needed to connect that renewable energy from where it’s generated to where it’s needed by UK homes and businesses.”

The Great Grid Upgrade will allow the electricity grid to carry more clean energy to communities in every part of England and Wales, helping the UK reach its net zero target faster, as well as increasing the supply of homegrown energy.

Tom said: “One reason we’re doing the upgrade is to provide energy security; so that we know, when we flick the light switch, the light will come on. But by no means is it the only reason. Ultimately, in addition to supporting long-term energy security, infrastructure underpins the route to decarbonisation and affordability – we can’t get there without it.”

 

Find out more about The Great Grid Upgrade

 

Originally published in The Guardian on 11 April 2024. Byline: Chas Newkey-Burden

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