Can the energy industry make it to Net Zero on time?

All industries must work together to create the right resilient and secure sustainable power generation system to keep the lights on, says David Cole from Atkins. 

The UK’s net zero target is well documented, with 2050 engrained in the minds of many across the public and private sector. What’s also well documented is the need for the UK to diversify its energy system mix as it weans itself off fossil fuels while ensuring that future supply is reliable and resilient. 

As proposed by the Committee for Climate Change, in 2050 11% of our power should be generated by nuclear, 58% by intermittent renewables (wind and solar), 22% by combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), 6% by bioenergy with CCS, and 3% by others. 

Capturing carbon across all industries 

While the UK is certainly making progress, there needs to be much more focus on carbon capture to offset the impact of land, sea and air travel, as well as heavy industry and our reliance on the internet and data streaming (if you’re reading this article on your phone, you’ve produced around 50g of carbon).  

The UK needs the capacity to capture 176 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, which will take between 60 and 70 CCS facilities. Currently the UK captures 0 million tonnes of carbon. Large-scale carbon capture projects are in planning and funding stages, but a fully-fledged CCS industry doesn’t exist yet – even though 40% of a 2050 energy system will depend on it. 

Another element that requires a CCS industry is the production of hydrogen, which has been proposed for future heating and transport systems - namely rail, freight and long-distance vehicles. Hydrogen is produced by steam methane reforming (not low carbon and requires CCS) and electrolysis (currently twice as expensive). To meet these proposed demands, the UK must increase hydrogen generation by tenfold and repurpose existing natural gas infrastructure to carry the gas safely and efficiently. Projects such as HyNet are one step of many to producing and using hydrogen on a large scale. 

Extensive conversations about energy storage  

How we store our energy is important to keep our electricity grid balanced, to ensure we have enough energy on days when it’s not very windy or sunny and to manage occasional blips. We must acknowledge there is currently no battery technology capable of grid-scale balancing storage, and none on the horizon. 

The only battery technology currently available is used to manage frequency or very short periods of generation shortfall, i.e. managing the grid when we have a short blip. You’d need the equivalent of 130,000 fully charged Nissan Leaf car batteries to power Bristol for 24 hours and the world’s largest battery can power 30,000 homes for merely one hour. In other words, there is no current battery technology ready that would run a city, town or even village for a day. 

We need enough firm and consistent generating capacity to power our demands today and in 30 years’ time. If we don’t want our lifestyles to change or be incapacitated, all industries must work together to create the right resilient and secure system to keep our lights on.

Dr David Cole is market director for power generation assets, nuclear and power at Atkins.