The UK’s government’s pledge to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 is monumental. Achieving it would be the best possible legacy to leave for future generations. Yet it is going to require seismic shifts in policy and habits at every stage from production to consumption. When we take our periodic look at changing trends in the sector, it will be against the backdrop of the transition to net zero. That has to start right now, and it will be the overarching factor till 2050 – or however long it takes.
If 2050 is a little too long-term to conceptualise, the Prime Minister recently announced a major component of the transition, which is for the electricity grid to go zero carbon by 2035. That’s only 13 years away. If you think that still sounds distant, bear in mind that 13 years have passed since 2009, the year Barack Obama was inaugurated as US President and Captain Sully made his heroic landing on the Hudson. It seems like yesterday.
The challenge comes into full focus when you note that last year, we used about 330 TWh of electricity and 40 percent of that came from fossil fuels. Renewables produced 43 percent, with the rest coming from nuclear and imports. The fact that more electricity came from renewables than from fossil fuels is a laudible achievement that should be celebrated. However, it is a little like passing an early mile marker when running a marathon. There are far bigger challenges ahead.
Ramping up the renewables
Overall consumption is predicted to increase to 460 TWh per year by 2035. There is no single solution to meeting this increasing demand while eliminating one of the primary sources of supply. However, clearly it is going to be necessary to significantly ramp up the amount of electricity generated by renewables from the 142 TWh generated in 2021.
Energy advisory researchers have crunched the numbers and in short, we need to quadruple offshore wind capacity, double onshore and double solar. It’s a massive undertaking from a cost and infrastructure perspective and it has to start straight away.
Storage is key
One of the biggest problems is that power generation by wind and solar depends on the weather. At present, when conditions are favourable, there’s more than enough to go around, but when conditions are sub-optimal, fossil fuels (usually gas) pick up the slack.
Clearly, having an effective way to store up the energy that’s produced on sunny, windy days to use when the weather changes would make an enormous difference. A number of options are being explored right now, including hydrogen storage and even using electric vehicles as temporary storage batteries while they are not in use.
The nuclear question
Nuclear is never far from the agenda. Right now, it supplies a little over 20 percent of UK demand. However, more than half the country’s nuclear reactors will go offline by the end of 2024. New facilities take years, require massive investment and are politically controversial.
However, a clear path needs to be agreed and the difficult conversations must be had. New technology in the field of small modular reactors could make nuclear power a vital contributor in meeting our ambitious plans for net zero power generation.