A decarbonised power system is the central requirement for achieving Net Zero in the UK and the prize for all modern economies. 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.
A comprehensive new report by the Climate Change Committee (CCC) demonstrates the scale of the task in achieving the Government’s 2035 goal, with 25 new recommendations to improve the prospects of delivery.
The report contains fresh insights on the importance of developing a climate-resilient power system – and 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.
Alongside Government’s Energy Security Strategy commitments to renewables and nuclear, we need:
- New low-carbon back-up generation, with hydrogen-based power stations and some continued use of fossil gas, made low-carbon through 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 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 Climate Change Committee, said: “For 15 years, the Climate Change Committee’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 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.”
Baroness Brown, Chair of the Adaptation Committee, said: “The climate risks to the electricity system are currently underplayed. Climate-related impacts will multiply as the UK relies increasingly on electricity for heat and transport needs. The CCC’s analysis shows that a well-designed decarbonised power system, with a higher degree of weather-dependent generation, can be reliable and resilient. This is not an issue for the future, we need to build in that resilience now, as we scale the electricity system to meet our Net Zero targets.”
It is necessary
Since 2010, emissions from electricity generation have fallen 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 electric vehicles and heat pumps. Achievement of the UK’s emissions targets rests on this key goal.
It is cost-effective
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.
It is reliable and secure
The 2035 electricity system envisaged in this report 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 our exposure to volatile international fossil fuel markets, with greater reliance on homegrown low-cost renewables. These conclusions have new significance following the recent period of heightened energy insecurity.
But it will not happen at current rates of deployment
Delivery and deployment of infrastructure must be achieved at a much greater pace than the present regulatory, planning and consenting regimes can achieve. 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.
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 significantly expand the system.
The Climate Change Committee has outlined a comprehensive set of new recommendations to deliver the goal.
Notes to editors
- Through extensive modelling the Climate Change Committee has brought together what a decarbonised electricity system in the UK in 2035 could look like. It is based on an hourly representation of demand and generation, and historical annual weather patterns to simulate future years, including a broad selection for sensitivity testing. Across the year, renewables and other relatively inflexible generation (nuclear and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage) contribute around 70% and 20% respectively of generation needed. The remaining 10% will be covered by low-carbon flexible options.
- The Climate Change Committee has factored in a 50% increase in demand on electricity, to reflect the expected increase in electricity use in transport, industry, and buildings as these sectors decarbonise by replacing fossil fuels with electric solutions.
- The Climate Change Committee has also tested a scenario of an extended 30-day period of wind drought. This scenario builds on the low-wind year and looked over the period 2009-2019 to combine the 30-day period of highest residual demand with the 30-day period of lowest wind load factors. This is designed to test a more extreme scenario and does not have a historical precedent, but effective resilience planning requires considering potential impacts outside the historical record.
- Hydrogen has an important role to play in decarbonisation. The Climate Change Committee recommends that the Government must commit to a long-term cross-sectoral infrastructure strategy. This must narrow the space for future decisions on hydrogen use and identify low-regrets hydrogen and electricity infrastructure development. This should include identification of areas that are unlikely to be suitable for hydrogen, such that electrification and other alternatives can be progressed, alongside the identification of potential candidate areas for hydrogen. It should include consideration of hydrogen infrastructure developments, such as on storage and transmission, that are low-regret regardless of subsequent decisions on use of hydrogen for buildings heat. This should be used to inform a set of low-regret hydrogen and electricity infrastructure investments that can proceed immediately.