Connecting the dots
: A systemic approach to evaluating potential constraints to renewable electricity technology deployment to 2020 and beyond in the United Kingdom

  • Geoffrey Craig Wood

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    The UK government has committed to challenging climate change and renewable energy obligations to 2020 and beyond. The renewable electricity sector remains a key focus in meeting these targets, given the critical need to decarbonise the power sector in the longer term. This has led to an ambitious renewable electricity sectoral target of 30 percent of total electricity generation from renewable sources (RES-E) by 2020, corresponding to a deployment target of 35-40GW of installed capacity. In 2011, RES-E deployment stood at 12.3GW, resulting in the UK requiring 23-28GW of additional renewable electricity technology (RET) deployment in eight years. This requires a substantial amount of new RET capacity be adopted, the majority anticipated to come from a four large-scale (>5MW) technologies (onshore and offshore wind, biomass conversion and dedicated biomass).

    However, large-scale renewable deployment has consistently under-performed against previous targets and other policy objectives. There are a number of failures that historically and currently act as constraints to RET deployment. This thesis categories those constraints as either internal or external failures. Internal failures are due to the design of the subsidy mechanism used to promote renewable deployment (type of mechanism, how it operates, revenue risk, investment (lender) risk, subsidy support levels and mechanism complexity). External failures are those constraints out-with the direct control of the mechanism (planning, network, public participation and engagement and policy risk). These constraints need to be addressed.

    This thesis has carried out an evaluation of the current UK approach to large-scale RET deployment to 2020 and beyond by adopting a systemic framework approach to determine whether or not the UK will be successful in addressing the potential constraints – the internal and external failures – to deployment. The systemic approach is based on three key criteria regarding the potential constraints: a comprehensive set of constraints, analysed in-depth and taking into account the interaction of the constraints in a systemic fashion. In contrast, the government approach to dealing with these potential constraints has typically focused on failures in isolation; also government commissioned modelling and existing research does not take into account all of the internal and external failures and/or examine them in-depth. Critically, no research has analysed the systemic interactions. With this approach, this research aims to fill the gap in extant knowledge and analysis due to the absence of existing research meeting the key criteria. This thesis was carried out by a textual analysis of key policy documents and legislation that form the basis of the UK government’s current approach to addressing the barriers to RET deployment. The method of inquiry utilised here is that of the qualitative research approach.

    The results show that there are significant systemic interactions between the internal and external failures (internal>internal; external>external; and internal to external and vice versa). There are also a number of feedbacks, specifically between grid>planning and public participation and engagement>planning. This creates systemic imbalances and unresolved tensions between the constraints. Importantly, the systemic interactions impact disproportionately on the key RETs, with a particular emphasis on onshore and offshore wind. By not addressing potential constraints from a systemic perspective, the current UK approach discriminates in favour of a system highly dependent on large-scale developments, of a few select RETs by a limited number of developers of a particular type (typically ex-utility, large-scale). This limits the focus on social and behavioural issues, particularly in terms of participation and engagement in ownership, decision-making and reducing the role of small-scale, independent and community group participation. In conclusion, under the current approach, decisions will be made on a separate ad-hoc basis leading to continual reform and adjustment with less clarity of where the risks lie. Increasing deployment year-by-year will only accumulate and intensify the potential constraints with limited options to address this. Effectively, government can only buy or control its way out of the constraints. In contrast, a systemic approach offers policy makers a way out of this. By providing an overview of the system and identification of systemic interactions in an early and novel way, this approach offers the opportunity for pragmatic decision-making at the systemic level leading to more predictable routes to solving problems via focused reforms, thus mitigating risks to a greater extent and redefining the system in a more optimal and resilient way. In other words, it allows government to connect the dots in addressing potential constraints to deployment.

    Date of Award2013
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorStephen Dow (Supervisor), Peter Cameron (Supervisor), Andrea Ross (Supervisor) & David Rodley (Supervisor)


    • Renewable energy
    • Energy law, policy and regulation
    • Systems theory
    • Technology

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