Burning fuel for energy is hugely costly, whether it is fossil fuel for electricity generation or wood for household fires. It not only creates huge financial costs, but also leads to air pollution that is costing people’s lives, and is driving climate change that is costing the earth. However, that could all be so different! Integrating renewable energy at scale would help us build a better future for everyone, wherever they are in the world.
The Oxford Martin Programme on Integrating Renewable Energy has been working since 2015 to understand the multiple challenges and benefits of decarbonising the energy system– from legal and policy barriers to engineering solutions.
The researchers can see a future for the energy system that is not just about reaching net zero, but that is about delivering a high quality of life for everyone: a future with clean and efficient transport, affordable domestic energy, and life-enhancing benefits.
A Clean Energy Future for Mali and Manchester
What a 100% renewable energy future looks like is very different depending on where you are and what your needs are. However, the people that would benefit most from the transition are always the energy poor and the most disadvantaged. Looking at how people’s lives would change in rural Mali and inner city Manchester, we can see how different paths and different outcomes can lead to one goal – a healthy, sustainable, higher quality of life for everyone.
Whereas countries in the Global North are bound by long-term fossil fuel contracts and old, embedded energy systems, those in the Global South frequently have a different challenge. They have abundant renewable energy resources to harness but their populations lack universal access to centralised energy systems. This means that their future energy system planning is less dependent on decommissioning or repurposing dated infrastructure and they are able to build from the ground up. In places like rural Mali, that often means bringing access to electricity into communities for the first time.
Renewable energy, particularly solar photovoltaics, is particularly well suited to enabling this sort of transformation. Once solar panels are installed they can act as a local microgrid, as they don’t need to be supplied by miles of energy pipelines (as for gas) or wired into a national energy supply (as necessary for centralised fossil fuel generation). The energy can be generated where it will be used, making it easier to install and cheaper than fossil fuels. There are also efficiency benefits because the size and scale of investment may be designed to match the needs of the consumers.
That energy can then transform the lives of local communities. It eliminates the need for time-consuming cooking over smoky fires, and it makes food refrigeration possible, meaning food is fresh and safe to eat for longer. This in turn reduces the time needed for daily firewood gathering and procuring fresh food.
This could have a huge impact on gender equality. Today, domestic chores like fetching water and firewood, lighting fires and cooking fall almost entirely on women and girls. Each year 3.2 million people die prematurely from illness attributable to household air pollution from cooking stoves, and this risk is borne disproportionately by women and girls, as they spend the most time in smoke-filled homes and near cooking fires. In addition, freeing up the time taken by domestic chores means more time for education or leisure. The addition of electric lights to homes also gives all young people more opportunity to study and do homework in the evenings.
People can improve their quality of life through entertainment in the form of TV and radio, access to the internet, and cooling technology when the days are too hot. The team also found that minimum access to electricity should match the needs and wants of communities. Clothes irons were in particular demand in places like rural Namibia both for their health benefits (the heat from the iron kills bacteria and parasites on clothes) and so families could look their best for church.
Beyond the home, street lighting would make it safer to walk the streets, and electricity would also enable improvements to public services like healthcare facilities, access to electric bikes and electrified public transport, in turn reducing air pollution.
In short, access to clean renewable energy gives people the ability to live healthier and more comfortable lives with increased opportunities for education, employment and entertainment.
Industrialised countries like the UK have long-established centralised national energy grids, based on fossil fuels both generating electricity and being delivered directly to homes in the form of natural gas. In a city like Manchester, a transition to a zero-carbon energy system would be a total transformation inside and outside the home.
As in Mali, the greatest benefit would be for people on the lowest incomes – almost every home in the UK has access to electricity or gas, but for many it is becoming unaffordable to use.
The current energy cost crisis exposes the vulnerabilities of relying on a global supply chain and variable commodity prices.
With renewables, the major system cost is the installation and maintenance of the technology. Energy generation comes from harnessing power in free natural systems like the wind, the sun, or the ebb and flow of the tides. Not from burning a highly commodified and politicised single-use product that needs to be extracted from deep in the earth and transported around the world in huge ships and trucks, themselves burning the very thing they are carrying.
In a world with low-cost renewable energy and storage systems widely available, people would no longer need to choose between heating and eating. The use of highly efficient heat pumps instead of gas central heating could reduce household bills even further. Warm houses and regular hot meals would improve people’s quality of life, their mental and physical health, and help stamp out potentially damaging living conditions, like mouldy or damp-ridden houses.
LED bulbs would provide low-cost lighting throughout and people would have Smart meters so they were aware of how much electricity they were using and would never be surprised by their electricity bill. These smart meters will also enable consumers to time their electricity use to coincide with the lowest energy prices. With lower bills, people would have more disposable income bringing benefits to the local economy.
Electric buses would sit alongside the electric tram systems Manchester already has providing clean, low-cost public transport. Even the cars on the streets would be electric, meaning no exhaust fumes and particulate matter in the air, reducing cases of childhood asthma and other respiratory diseases. Potentially saving some of the £42.88 million in NHS and social care costs associated with air pollution in England alone.
All of this would be possible because of wind- and solar-powered local energy systems, traded with neighbouring localities according to the usual principles of supply and demand. This decentralised energy system would mean greater energy security and end both the UK’s reliance on fossil fuels controlled by other countries and its exposure to fluctuating global oil and gas prices, while meeting our emission reduction targets.
Can we get to this future?
Different communities need different solutions, as Mali and Manchester demonstrate. The type of power generation, storage and distribution that works well in one place might be very different in another location with a different climate, social demographics, or energy demands.
In the Global South the best possible solution, and in some places the only plausible route, is jumping straight from a situation of low energy availability straight to 100% renewables. In places with dispersed populations over large geographical areas and with no established infrastructure, generating energy near to populations, this may be the most useful and efficient approach.
Renewable energy resources are not only the most affordable and accessible way to do this, they also avoid recreating the position that developed countries now find themselves in with outdated and damaging fossil fuel infrastructure.
In developed countries, although it would be theoretically possible to shift to a 100% renewable energy system immediately, in reality it is not something we can do without a transition. Electricity network capacities need to be increased to accommodate more demand as cars, heating, cooking and other energy uses switch from gas to electricity. Technologies like batteries and energy storage also need to be improved to ensure energy supplies during low-supply times like windless winter nights.
We have all the technology we need to shift to a 100% renewable energy system and the companies that supply the world with energy are some of the most profitable – all we need is the deployment of these funds and technologies at scale.
What is stopping it from happening?
Integrating renewable energy to the power grid at a large scale is a ‘systems challenge’ – meaning technological advancement alone is not enough to get us there.
To achieve this future, we also need the right local and national legal framework and policies to encourage or mandate it. We need to understand the economics to deliver financing and investment, and we need the social and political will to make it happen. It is a puzzle with complex and interconnected pieces. That means to solve it and create a prosperous, high-quality, low-cost, zero-carbon energy future experts from multiple specialisms need to come together.
The Oxford Martin Programme on Integrating Renewable Energy has, since 2015, brought together just such an interdisciplinary team of researchers to unpick and address the challenges of the energy system.
When the team was established one of the first things to determine was how much renewable energy could and should be integrated into the global energy system. As the team carries forward their findings to the newly established ZERO Institute they know that a 100% renewable energy system is not only possible, it is absolutely essential if the world is going to meet its goal of staying well below 2°C of global warming.
The team’s outputs have progressed the world’s understanding of how that will be achieved and it has created partnerships between academia, policy, finance and energy companies that will help shape the future of renewables in the UK and around the world.
Rapid change at scale is necessary and possible
As the world saw during the COVID-19 pandemic, where there is urgency and investment the technological and political landscapes can change incredibly rapidly. Companies were able to shift to 100% remote working almost overnight and here at Oxford University researchers delivered a 10-year vaccine development and testing process within a year. That was not because of the virus itself, but because the perceived urgency of the situation meant politicians totally changed business requirements, social interactions, scientific investment, and health systems.
Politics is key to making renewable energy systems affordable, scalable and deliverable. Governments have a variety of levers they can use to incentivise and accelerate change from science and R&D investment, to top-down controls (like the UK banning the sale of fossil fuel cars by 2030) or subsidies (like the Boiler Upgrade Scheme in England and Wales, which provides a £5,000 grant to help homeowners install a heat pump).
Similarly, policy is a significant reason the status quo of fossil fuel energy production is maintained. In the UK, lengthy processes and tight restrictions around planning permission for onshore wind development and solar farms can put barriers in the way of expanding renewable energy generation. Tax and other financial incentives can also get in the way of progress. For example, in June 2022 The Guardian reported that for every £100 an oil and gas company invests in the North Sea, the company receives £91.50 from the taxpayer. In contrast, for every £100 invested in renewable energy, the renewables company receives £25, falling to £4.50 from April 2023.
However, individual action will also play a huge part in the change. They can send market signals to companies by switching their house to a green energy tariff, or buying an electric car, they can influence friends and family, and they can force policymakers to finally treat this issue with the urgency it deserves.
The Oxford Martin Programme on Integrating Renewable Energy has shown that a 100% renewable energy future is not just a necessity but a real practical possibility – it is no longer a question of if we can do this, but of when will we get there.
More about the team's research
What did the Oxford Martin Programme on Integrating Renewable Energy do and achieve over its tenure?
Co-Directors Nick Eyre, Sarah Darby and Malcolm McCulloch share reflections on their journey and what’s next as its work transitions over to the ZERO Institute.