The U.K.’s power sector will be operating on a negative-emissions basis by 2033 at the latest if the country sticks to its plan to reach net-zero emissions across the economy by 2050, according to system operator National Grid ESO.
National Grid's Future Energy Scenarios report lays out some of the real-world implications of the country's history-making commitment to net zero. A year ago the U.K. became the first major economy to establish such a target; others have followed, including the EU bloc (minus Poland), Japan and New Zealand.
If the U.K. stays on track, there will be 11 million electric vehicles on U.K. roads by 2030, more than there are globally today. Residential gas boilers will be a thing of the past, with 8 million heat pumps installed to replace them.
The U.K. will need to connect at least 40 gigawatts of new wind and solar in the 2020s, and an average of 3 gigawatts of wind and 1.4 gigawatts of solar every year from now till 2050, far above its current pace. Unabated natural-gas use will be halved by 2038.
National Grid ESO lays out four pathways of varying ambition to reaching net-zero, three of which result in the U.K. actually hitting its targeted carbon reductions. The coming changes will require buy-in from consumers as well as industry, the grid operator says.
“Consumer technology choices today will influence [decarbonization] pathways and options for efficient whole system operation in the future. Visibility and interoperability standards must be embedded to maintain options for smart management and market participation,” the report states.
National Grid ESO itself has a goal of being able to support a carbon-free grid by 2025, which it is on track to achieving.
Adding more wind, solar and electric vehicles seems achievable, if challenging. But National Grid says the U.K. needs to see immediate action on carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS), with projects built across multiple industrial clusters in place by 2030.
CCUS paired with bioenergy power generation, as is planned at the Net Zero Humberside cluster, could lead to negative emissions of 62 metric megatons of CO2 (equivalent) by 2050, the report says. That’s more CO2 than the U.K.’s aviation sector puffs out in an average year.
The country will also need to get at least 21 percent of its end-user energy from green hydrogen, and perhaps much more, the report says.
The U.K. is at something of a clean-energy policy crossroads. A long-overdue draft energy bill is expected at some stage. The results of consultations on the funding of new nuclear power are also expected soon. Most crucial in the near term is the outcome of a consultation on the contracts for difference (CFD) auction program. The fourth auction is due in September 2021.
The government is mulling the addition of solar and onshore wind to the CFD program, having blocked them from the 2017 and 2019 rounds on largely political grounds. Floating offshore wind could also get its own ringfenced support. The U.K. Solar Trade Association is lobbying for CFD auctions to be held every six months.
Lack of a regulatory framework
The most obvious problem associated with achieving these outcomes is the lack of a policy and regulatory framework for developing hydrogen and CCUS infrastructure.
The U.K. is beginning to take steps in both areas. Earlier this month, Kwasi Kwarteng, secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, announced he would co-chair a hydrogen advisory council. His co-chair will be Sinead Lynch, the U.K. country head for Shell. Rival European nations, including Germany and the EU itself, have already published their own hydrogen strategies.
When it comes to CCUS, front-end engineering design work has been completed for at least two fully scaled projects in Peterhead, Scotland and Selby, near Drax’s coal-turned-gas-and-soon-to-be-biomass facility. These were part of a legacy £1 billion funding competition that was canceled in 2015, six months before the winners were due to be announced.
The Peterhead project was led by Shell and the utility SSE. A new project in Peterhead, Acorn CCS, is making progress, with Macquarie taking a 22.5 percent stake in the venture this month. It hopes to start storing CO2 in 2024, with a blue hydrogen plant in production in 2025.
“Although these are not firm predictions, we’ve talked to over 600 industry experts to build this insight, and it’s clear while net-zero is achievable, there are significant changes ahead,” said Mark Herring, head of strategy at National Grid ESO, in a statement.
The government's own official climate advisers have told it to back hydrogen as an urgent priority.