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How do we build the infrastructure to deliver net zero?

The need for a coherent green energy plan has never been greater (This article features in Prospect's new policy supplement)

By Nick Butler  

The energy transition, now formally written into UK law through the commitment to deliver net zero carbon emissions by 2050, relies for its success on many different elements—including effective regulation, fiscal penalties and incentives, voluntary behavioural change and technical progress through advances in science and engineering. All are possible and the subject of active debate. None of these elements can succeed, however, unless we have the infrastructure in place to allow their potential to be utilised.

Three different examples illustrate what is necessary. The first is the electrification of most of the transport system, starting with light vehicles such as cars and vans. The government is committed to ending the licensing of cars with internal combustion engines by 2035 or earlier. New models are being offered and prices are falling. The technology of batteries is advancing each year and the driving range offered by them is growing. An electric vehicle is now a viable option for many motorists. But the infrastructure is not in place. Over 100 local authority areas still have less than 10 public charging devices per 100,000 people and even in the major cities charging points are limited and sporadically located.

Despite much debate and growing public interest in using electric vehicles, and despite good progress in some areas, interoperability between the different charging devices has not been made mandatory and the challenge of matching the growth of new charging systems, particularly rapid chargers, with the necessary reinforcement of the grid has not been agreed, let alone delivered.

The strength and resilience of the power grid is crucial not just in relation to the increased use that will come as the number of electric vehicles grows but also because of the changing pattern of power supply. The costs of producing power from electricity has fallen dramatically—according to one study of large-scale sources, down by over 88 per cent for solar and by 69 per cent for wind over the last decade. The use of renewables has grown steadily. In the third quarter of last year wind and solar provided 40 per cent of the UK electricity supply. But the potential is constrained by the intermittency of the sources on which they rely. The wind does not always blow. That creates a requirement for back-up supplies that usually means using natural gas. The cost of having gas power available (if not always in use) adds to the costs of using renewables and limits their potential contribution.

The infrastructure gap is for grid-level storage that can cover the intermittency and thereby multiply the productivity of every investment in wind and solar. The technology is within reach and being applied at a small scale, but the overall requirement of matching the technology and resilience of the grid to a changing energy mix has not yet been given the priority it deserves.

The third opportunity is different, and focused on technology that still needs to be developed and tested at scale. The energy transition cannot rely on electricity alone. Some elements of energy consumption need a new generation of renewable supplies beyond wind and solar. The best bets are heat pumps and hydrogen. Both are alternatives to the natural gas that currently meets 69 per cent of the UK’s heating requirements. The two sources of hydrogen—either using capture and storage technology to remove the carbon from natural gas or through electrolysis— need to be tested at scale in particular communities to confirm the viability of the technology and its safety.

Hydrogen could also be used in industry and as the basis for fuels for trucks and other vehicles. Over time these could provide the alternative for existing maritime fuels. There is a strong case for creating the necessary infrastructure around coastal hubs—for instance on the North Sea coast, where offshore wind supplies could be harnessed in the production process.

All these steps will require a major transformation of existing infrastructure. Although the latest UK budget demonstrated some renewed interest in carbon capture technology, the level of investment and coordination required to match the challenge is far greater than anything we have yet seen.

There are many other possible examples of the requirement for changes and improvements in infrastructure to meet the needs of a decarbonising economy. None are without costs, and the allocation of those costs remains the subject of an unresolved and contested debate. Many of the steps are interlinked and co-ordination is essential. The critical step now is to develop an agreed strategy for delivering the target of net-zero, which provides a basis for decision-making at all levels and encourages the necessary investment by individuals, businesses and the various parts of government. Infrastructure must be at the heart of such a strategy. The need for a coherent and credible infrastructure plan has never been greater.

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