From hydrogen to AI: Which innovations need to be scaled for a net-zero energy system?

The UK’s transition to a net-zero energy system will be less orderly and more expensive unless policymakers and network operators make difficult strategic decisions this year, the Energy Networks Association (ENA) has warned. We explore the key milestones on the horizon for unlocking crucial technologies.

From hydrogen to AI: Which innovations need to be scaled for a net-zero energy system?

The ENA represents electricity and gas transmission and distribution firms across the UK.

This week, it unveiled an updated innovation strategy with a strong message – that without immediate efforts towards a more joined-up and strategic approach to scaling the next generation of low-carbon technologies, and the infrastructure needed to implement them, net-zero is at risk.

There are also risks that Britain’s energy transition could have unintended negative consequences beyond climate, including higher costs for homes and businesses. It is for this reason that the UK Government is not proceeding with a hydrogen levy on domestic gas bills.

The UK Government is notably targeting a decarbonised electricity system by 2035 – a date which could be pulled forward to 2030 should Labour win the upcoming general election. Ministers have less concrete plans to decarbonise heating; a strategic decision on hydrogen in the gas network is due in 2026.

ENA chief executive Lawrence Slade said: “This is a pivotal year for the UK’s net zero transition and the UK’s energy networks are working hard to supply the infrastructure that underpins the ongoing change.

“To do so successfully, we know it’s impossible to simply continue with what works today – we need new technology, new approaches, new types of collaboration and a shared culture of placing innovation at the core of our corporate planning.”

Here, edie outlines the major milestones detailed in the strategy.


As already mentioned, time is of the essence. Decisions taken by policymakers and energy networks in the next two years will determine the pace and shape of the transition.

The ENA sees the next two years as a crucial time in developing a “core” hydrogen storage and transport network. The Government appears to be on track in supporting these efforts, having outlined its transport and storage principles late last year.

Work will also need to start now to fast-track the development of – and scale supply chains for – the next generation of materials. These include pipelines and asset materials that are fit for hydrogen, next-gen superconductors and battery storage systems. The strategy speaks of the need to be ready for an “unprecedented” expansion of infrastructure from 2028 onwards, meaning the groundwork must be laid now.

Beyond infrastructure, the ENA’s strategy highlights the need for an overhaul to processes for participating in innovation projects. Effective collaboration between businesses and other organisations, such as universities, will be vital to scale innovations after initial demonstrations.

Part of this overhaul will be more clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of networks and of other bodies, like parts of the National Grid and regulator Ofgem.


2030 is a key date for many UK Government targets for scaling renewables. By this point, Ministers want the nation to host 10GW of low-carbon hydrogen generation and 50GW of offshore wind, for example.

The ENA’s strategy includes a reform to the grid connections process by this point. It wants to see projects prioritised based on factors such as environmental benefits, reducing costs for consumers and making energy networks more resilient.

Centrica research published late last year revealed that there are some 371GW of energy generation and storage projects in the grid connections queue. Issues causing delays include blocking by projects without planning consent and/or land rights and ageing grid infrastructure. Some project developers have told Ministers of 15-year waiting times for connections.

Work should also be well underway by 2030 to scale key supply chains and grow the energy workforce to prepare for accelerated transformation. Training programmes for the energy transition should be “well established” by the end of the decade.

Another key facet of the ENA’s strategy is the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to optimise energy systems and enhance decision-making. This practice should be widespread by the early 2030s.

AI will enable data to be collected more efficiently and data-led decisions to be taken more rapidly. The ENA is keen for organisations across energy systems to share data anonymously by 2030 to enhance these practices even further.

Data can and should be shared on energy use, as well as energy generation, transmission and distribution. The strategy floats the idea of more direct engagement between networks and businesses which are energy-intensive, such as heavy industrial players.


By this point, grid connection queues should be a thing of the past thanks to planning reforms and infrastructure improvements. Innovation licencing processes and funding allocation protocols should also have been tweaked for speed and efficiency.

The ENA’s vision entails project developers being able to “plug and play” without delays by 2042.

Additionally, all electricity and gas firms should have made concerted efforts to future-proof their infrastructure in the face of climate change and to provide customers with demand-side actions they can take to ensure they still receive supply during extreme weather.

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) Climate Change Committee (CCC) have called for more credible policymaking and billions of pounds of additional investment to make energy infrastructure more resilient in the face of warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summer.

Also by 2040, the anonymised data sharing platform created in 2030 should be mature. The ENA would like the UK Government to assist with the appointment of a designated body to increase access to the platform.

Enhanced access to data and the use of next-generation software should, the ENA believes, enable networks to take a more active role in balancing energy supply and demand.

Comments (1)

  1. Richard Phillips says:

    Hydrogen is a nice clean fuel, but volume for volume it contains much less energy than methane.
    This must affect the energy capacity of our gas mains.
    And it has to be manufactured, whereas methane comes as itself, from the ground.
    Do our political masters understand these points????

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