2009 vs 2019: what a difference a decade makes ...

As we celebrate our 40th anniversary, Toby Bridgeman, our number-cruncher in chief, looks at how three elements of the energy sector - solar PV, electric vehicles and battery storage - have taken a great leap forward

30 May 2019

At the start of 2019, the #10YearChallenge swept the internet. People posted pictures with a decade’s difference, emphasising their latest personal achievements and improved hairstyles.

While I didn’t jump on this particular bandwagon - my hairstyle hasn't changed in 10 years - the comparison of snapshots is nevertheless powerful, highlighting not only how far we’ve come, but where progress has stalled and lessons to be learned.

So here’s my collection of before and after snaps of three technologies that are transforming our energy landscape: 2009 vs 2019. It's full of numbers, but then that's my job ...

1. Solar PV - Fits starts ... and stops

2009: Solar capacity in the UK stood at 14.6 MW, but all this was about to change ...

The feed in tariff - announced in October 2008 and taking effect from April 2010 - was, in the words of DECC's Renewable Energy Strategy, a “clean energy cashback” scheme that would trigger a small scale electricity revolution, "bringing renewable electricity generation into communities around the country."

Individuals, households and communities were encouraged to invest in small scale low carbon electricity, getting paid for what they generate. Solar PV picked up the lions share of the FiTs

2019: When the FiT ended in March of this year, the UK had 13,217 MW of solar capacity across 1,000,473 installations. That's just short of a thousand-fold increase. 

While much of this capacity is derived from large scale commercial installations, FiT was one of the key drivers of solar’s success in the UK. Thousands more people now have a direct stake in the transition to a low-carbon economy through participation in, and shared ownership of, school and community energy projects. And in some weeks, over 10% of the country's electricity is generated by solar.

And at the end of it all, solar is now an established and viable energy source, with costs for a typical domestic roof-top array plummeting from around £12,000 in 2009 to £5,000 today. The landscape for solar energy in the UK has been transformed, and with it our future energy systems.

Due to the fast growing pace of solar energy technology, the fear is that UK’s distribution network will be unable to cope. The pressure’s now on to develop the energy storage capacity to continue the pace of success in the industry.

2. Electric Vehicles (EV)

2009: In April of that year, the government announced that 200 electric cars of various models would be available for members of the public to test drive in town centres across the country; an exciting chance to try out a very novel technology. The number of electric cars on the road was in the low hundreds and the launch of the Nissan LEAF was still a year away.

Over the next few years, despite promising signs, EV sales were very much in the slow lane, held back by high prices, limited battery life and range, and lack of  infrastructure and charging stations. Generous grant funding helped a bit, but EVs weren't going to bother the national grid any time soon. Gordon Brown hoped to accelerate demand by offering grants of up to £5,000 drew a quip from George Osborne that it was like "giving people a grant to buy an internal combustion engine, without bothering to set up any petrol stations".

2019: Within just 10 years, the sector has well and truely revved up. There are currently over 210,000 EVs on UK roads, most of them plug-in hybrids.

And it looks like Gordon got the last laugh: as of May this year, the number of EV charging sites in the UK outnumbered petrol stations 8,546 to 8,400.

And EVs now certainly are an issue for the national grid which predicts there could be 36m of them by 2040 - at which point petrol and diesel vehicles still on the road will be relics from a different age. How we manage the electrification of transport serves to further highlight the significance of my third snapshot ...

3. Battery Storage 

2009: Ten years ago, UK and EU on regulations on battery storage were an acknowlegement that at some point in the near future, innovation in storage would be key to balancing cleaner energy networks.

At the time, battery storage was all about small stuff - mobile phones, laptops and similar. Much R&D was going on behind the scenes to make large-scale lithium-ion batteries a reality, but technical challenges and high costs were both barriers to mainstream use. Even by 2013, there was just 20 to 50 MW of battery storage for grid balancing installed worldwide, and dround 99% of energy storage capacity was provided by pumped hydro.

Fast forward to 2019 - and what a difference a decade makes. The sector has been transformed. Lithium-Ion batteries are transforming energy storage in residential and commercial settings, as well as distribution and transmission grids. The UK’s battery sector is booming in parallel with the shift towards a low carbon grid.

Battery storage has the potential to unlock the full potential of EVs, wind and solar energy. In 2018, a 10 MW battery storage site in Derbyshire became the first in the country to supply electricity from renewables sources to the UK National Grid Balancing Mechanism. In the same year, Renewable UK reckoned 4.8GW of battery storage was in the pipeline, enough capacity to fully charge 480,000 EVs.

The bigger picture

These snapshots serve as reminder that the optimism instilled in me during my 13 years at CSE, isn’t misplaced.

Yes, there’s still so far to go, so much to be ironed out, too much to be done to reach our net-zero targets. But the story when comparing 2009 to 2019 is that progress comes from hundreds of small changes, which start off slowly, then come all at once.

And that’s the sentiment of our work at CSE, we know the incremental effect of each project, research report, or advice offered, adds up to something monumental.

That’s what I’ll be thinking of when we celebrate 40 years of CSE, that everyone I meet and work with in this field is constantly shaping what that future snapshot looks like.

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