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Decarbonised power system by 2035 ‘not possible’ at current pace of delivery

The UK government is ‘asleep at the wheel’ on its path towards a decarbonised power system and although recent commitments to new nuclear and renewables are welcome, these alone are insufficient, according to a new report from the Climate Change Committee (CCC).
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A decarbonised power system is the ‘central requirement’ for achieving net zero in the UK and the prize for all modern economies, according to the latest report from the CCC. Access to reliable, resilient and plentiful decarbonised electricity – at an affordable price to consumers – is key to a thriving, energy secure economy, less dependent on imported oil and gas.

 

The report used detailed modelling to illustrate the requirements of the 2035 power system, using actual historical weather data, stress-tested with an extreme scenario of a prolonged period of low wind. It found that needed alongside the UK government’s Energy Security Strategy commitments to renewables and nuclear are:

  • New low-carbon back-up generation, with hydrogen-based power stations and some continued use of fossil gas made low-carbon through the use of carbon capture and storage. 
  • Smart shifting of consumer demand, to help to smooth peaks in demand and absorb excess supply, especially through controlled timing of electric vehicle (EV) charging and use of heat pumps. 
  • New storage solutions, beyond simply the use of batteries. Most critical is the use of surplus generation to produce hydrogen through electrolysis (green hydrogen), providing long-term storage so it can later be used to generate electricity.

 

Lord Deben, Chairman of the CCC, says: ‘For 15 years, the CCC’s main recommendation has been to decarbonise British electricity. The offer of cheap, decarbonised electricity for every consumer and business is now within reach, thanks to pioneering efforts to develop renewables. Now there is more at stake. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought home the fundamental importance of energy security. A reliable energy system based mainly on the UK’s plentiful renewable resources now has new significance.’

 

‘We know how to do this, but government is asleep at the wheel. Recent commitments for new nuclear and renewables are welcome, but these alone are insufficient. A rapid overhaul of the planning system and regulations is needed. It is not clear where the responsibility lies for the design and operations of our modern energy system rests among key organisations. Countries around the world are now racing for this goal. The UK is further ahead than most, but we risk losing our early lead at the worst possible time.’

 

Since 2010, emissions from electricity generation have fallen by 69%. Decarbonised electricity by 2035 will fully open the path to the full decarbonisation of other sectors, like transport, industry and heat, through the adoption of key technologies like EVs and heat pumps. Achievement of the UK’s emissions targets rests on this key goal, the report says.

 

Renewables continue to be the cheapest form of electricity generation and they can be harnessed cost-effectively. Managing their variability imposes some extra costs on the wider system, but these are manageable with the combination of low-carbon flexibility options, given that these only make up a relatively small proportion of generation and capacity, notes the report.

 

The 2035 electricity system envisaged in the study would maintain energy security, while coping with the expected increase in electricity demands and potentially long periods of low wind and other climate impacts including flooding and extreme temperatures. The consequent reduction in gas consumption would also cut exposure to volatile international fossil fuel markets in the UK, with greater reliance on homegrown low-cost renewables. These conclusions have new significance following the recent period of heightened energy insecurity, the report notes.

 

Delivery and deployment of infrastructure must be achieved at a much greater pace than the present regulatory, planning and consenting regimes can achieve, says the CCC. It requires that barriers to swift deployment of critical infrastructure are removed, and policy gaps remedied. This will open the path to major new investment in renewable generation and infrastructure, it adds.

 

The network and storage infrastructure needed to support a decarbonised system will also be very significant, with build required for the transport and storage of electricity, hydrogen and CO2.

 

It is imperative that resilience to the effects of climate change is built into this asset investment programme from the start. Much of the UK’s net zero electricity system is yet to be built and requires significant additional investment to replace many existing generation assets as well as to significantly expand the system, the report concludes.

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