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Engineering our way to net zero in the UK

Climate is a complex challenge that requires ambition, strategy and long-term thinking

By Chris Ball & David Cole  

Sizewell nuclear power station in Suffolk. The CCC recommends generating 10GW through nuclear power to ensure a balanced pathway to net zero. © Jack Hobhouse / Alamy Stock Photo

This article is sponsored by Atkins. Read Atkins’ full suite of reports around Engineering Net Zero at atkinsglobal.com

Tick tock to 29 years’ time

Net zero—the buzzword that’s become a legal requirement, when in 2019 the Climate Change Committee (CCC) advised the UK government to adopt the net zero target for 2050. Twenty-nine years may seem far away, but the task is huge and uncertain across all sectors, and time is already short. Hurdles such as the ongoing global pandemic and navigating Brexit also threaten to derail the importance of fighting climate change. 2020 certainly produced some climatic disasters: wildfires consuming record areas in Siberia, Australia, and California; Arctic ice reaching record lows; the highest reliable temperature recorded in Death Valley; and the most active hurricane season over the Atlantic.

The UK’s response should be heavily focused on kick starting the net zero programme—climate change threats are not going to fade away. “Build Back Better” stimulus packages, the government’s 10-point plan and the recent energy white paper show the desire and intention, but those alone won’t deliver at the pace required. If we don’t want our lives to be incapacitated, a nationwide programme must be carried out now, by a governing body or what could be termed an “Energy System Architect” (ESA).

Measuring progress against ever-shifting goal posts

Various authorities have modelled future scenarios, but the government responded to the 2019 CCC recommendation; one based on a theoretically achievable energy system that would rely on 75GW of offshore wind, 10GW of nuclear and 40 per cent of the nation’s energy dependent on carbon capture and storage (CCS)—a technology yet to be successfully deployed in the UK. In 2050 the UK’s electricity demand is projected to be double what it is today—from 300TWh to over 650TWh to meet the country’s energy and electrification demands. 

Put simply, the power sector must replace almost all the current, ageing generating capacity and build as much again. This is an estimated build rate of 9-12 GW every year, for 30 years, across firm power (natural gas, nuclear and biomass) and intermittent sources (offshore, onshore wind and solar). Again, put simply, this looks like 48 gas units, six nuclear power stations, 66 biomass, 6,250 wind turbines offshore, and four times the world’s current capacity for CCS. 

In the short time since these first recommendations, the CCC has proposed an increased dependence on offshore wind to 95GW. Ever-shifting goal posts will hinder our ability to track progress and define steady plans for permitting and construction, but it doesn’t have to be the case. By establishing an ESA, any recommendations can be orchestrated and programmed to ensure net zero is not only delivered on time, but in a way that ensures the system as a whole operates effectively, efficiently and reliably. At the moment, there are many ideas, ideas of plans and checklists, yet no guiding body to put these into action.

More on the grid

Last month, in the 72 hours from 5th to 7th December, average electricity demand was 36GW and average wind output was just 3.6GW. From 8am on Sunday for the next 24 hours, the wind output remained below 2GW, and at 5.30pm demand peaked at 43GW. Yet the lights stayed on because we had nuclear, gas and even resorted to coal as a fallback. As all coal and a number of nuclear power stations come offline this decade, there won’t be this easy option.

If the latest proposal of 95GW of offshore wind is to be followed, the extent of renewable energy penetration on the UK’s National Grid will be at far higher levels than seen today. Renewables are required, however there must be a sensible plan for the National Grid to be resilient for times when the wind isn’t blowing, or not blowing enough. Tapping into solar power isn’t as reliable, especially on winter days where demand for power often peaks after sunset, when solar generation has stopped. Other clean power technologies such as nuclear and CCS must play an important role; their importance in establishing a clean, secure grid must not be understated or undervalued.

“Whole system thinking is an absolute imperative to deliver the right balance of technology we need for net zero”

The CCC balanced pathway, used as a benchmark, recommends 10GW of new nuclear. Hinkley Point C will provide 3.2 of these, and in regard to Sizewell C, the Financial Investment Decision needs to be as quick as possible. This is not only to ensure future power supply but to sustain the UK nuclear industry to the minimum level required to be able to actually build nuclear power stations effectively and regularly—for example, a minimum of one new large power plant started every five years.

A reliance on offshore wind as the only large-scale zero carbon power generation option, supported by less than 10 per cent firm power, inadequate storage and transmission and distribution infrastructure, will severely limit the UK’s future power options. The CCC balanced pathway proposes our system to be: 95GW offshore wind, 85GW solar, 15GW gas and CCS, 10GW nuclear, 5GW bioenergy with CCS—totalling 210GW and an 85 per cent intermittent system. 

Excessive reliance on intermittent technology means at best we risk establishing a highly inefficient grid; at worst, incidents such as reduced renewables availability and power outages (such as the blackout in August 2019 that left a million homes and businesses in the dark) may well become commonplace. Whole system thinking is an absolute imperative to deliver the right balance of technology.

Who runs the show

The government’s 10-point plan and much-awaited energy white paper set out a checklist of aims across industry and mark a recognition that progress must be accelerated towards net zero. They show commitment to a wide-ranging review of regulation (technical and economic), suitability of current market arrangements, and the roles of the system operator and Ofgem.

One step further would be the separation of delivery from policy, including a review of the roles of the CCC and Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Implementing huge tasks has historically been separated from government policy departments, and as the largest complex programme challenge we’ve ever had to tackle, net zero is no exception. It should be separated out to become a body answerable to parliament.

Fundamentally a strategy is now required, not just to 2030, but for the next 29 years and beyond. The creation of an ESA would be taking responsibility for developing the UK’s energy system using risk-based systems engineering—and not shifting economic modelling of theoretically feasible systems. It would: evaluate all potential delivery models as cities and towns start setting their own net zero targets; publish annual status and projections; determine R&D schedules for new technologies; decide on new capacity and infrastructure, and what’s needed to get us there.

The 10-point plan and energy white paper provide a list of aims, statistics and funding allocations—all of which are welcomed, but now is the time for a comprehensive nationwide programme that not only reaches into almost every home, but also ensures the continuation of UK industries and employment opportunities. 

Achieving net zero by 2050 is an extremely ambitious goal and the risk of failure is high; without an ESA, the probability of achieving net zero by 2050 is greatly reduced. The UK’s energy supply will become increasingly dependent on electricity, especially in the digital age where the very fabric of our society will depend more and more on a stable, secure and reliable power supply. The decisions being taken now are impacting the UK’s ability to achieve its net zero commitment and the reliability of its energy supply as we run up to 29 years’ time. 

Atkins has published a suite of reports, whitepapers, articles and recommendations including:

This article features in Prospect’s new “Green Recovery” report, published in partnership with SNC Lavalin, Atkins, Ricardo and the Aerospace Technology Institute. Read the full report PDF here.

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