National Grid: UK not preparing to scale CCS or low-carbon heat quickly enough
The National Grid’s Electricity System Operator (ESO) has stated that the UK could reach net-zero by 2046 – but only if it dramatically speeds up the rollout of low-carbon technologies and carbon capture.
These are some of the headline findings from the ESO’s latest Future Energy Scenarios analysis, which assesses how the UK’s energy systems will need to change in the future to account for megatrends like urbanization and climate change.
Of the four scenarios included in the report, two see the UK meeting its net-zero target by 2050. Another, the ‘Leading the Way’ scenario, involves the UK reaching net-zero in 2046 and delivering annual net emissions of -34Mt CO2e in 2050.
Carbon negativity could be achieved without the purchase of offsets from abroad, the ESO believes. But it would require rapid decarbonisation of electricity, heating, transport, heavy industry and transport, coupled with an unprecedented effort to improve carbon sequestration on farms and in green spaces.
It bears noting that the ESO does not believe the UK is on track to meet net-zero by 2050. In its fourth ‘Falling Short’ scenario, the UK is still producing 178 Mt CO2e in 2022. For context, CO2 emissions alone last year were 331.5 Mt.
The UK Government’s climate advisors stated last month that their confidence in the nation meeting its long-term emissions targets has decreased since last year. Advisors pointed out “worryingly slow” progress decarbonising hard-to-abate sectors like heating and agriculture, along with a pathwork approach to improving building energy efficiency that leaves space for loopholes.
Closing the (emissions) gap
The ESO’s analysis identifies many of the same policy and investment gaps for decarbonisation as the Climate Change Committee (CCC).
Analysts noted that the UK has made good progress in decarbonising electricity generation. It is on track to end coal-fired generation next year, and an ever-increasing share of generation is attributable to offshore wind. There are plans in place to scale offshore wind, solar and nuclear in the future under the Energy Security Strategy.
Moreover, emissions from transport are now in decline as electric vehicle uptake continues to grow in public transport, business fleets and among individual motorists.
Successes cannot stop here. Across the net-zero scenarios, at least 89GW of wind and solar is online in the UK in 2030. The capacity reaches 119GW in the ‘Leading the Way’ scenario.
A grid with more renewable energy online requires more energy storage to overcome the challenge of intermittent generation. The ESO wants Ministers to take a deeper look at long-duration storage to complement the growing battery storage pipeline. Its net-zero scenarios involve the creation of at least 12 TWh of long-duration energy storage by 2050.
Past successes, the ESO is warning, have not been replicated in sectors such as heating, heavy industry and agriculture. The rate of key technology deployment in these fields will need to more than treble through to 2035 in the ‘Leading the Way’ scenario.
One example is residential heat pumps. Installation rates will need to hit up to 1.5 million units per year by the end of the decade if the UK is to reach net-zero by 2050.
The ESO is calling for the large-scale deployment of carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) technology in the next ten years. It predicts that no large-scale negative-emissions technology will mature until 2030 at the earliest, due to delayed financial support for key technologies in the past. Nonetheless, investment is needed now to give technologies like direct air capture the chance to scale post-2030.
The ESO also wants the Government to look beyond carbon capture and plan in a more joined-up fashion for transport and storage networks.
It will doubtless prove controversial that the ESO sees bioenergy with CCUS playing a role in the UK’s net-zero transition. Debate is fierce around whether certain kinds of bioenergy are actually low-carbon, particularly biomass. Biomass’s lifecycle footprint can be high depending on how wood pellets are sourced and transported.
Bodies including the IPCC and the UK Government’s own scientific advisors – the Climate Change Committee (CCC) – have stated that man-made carbon capture will be an “option, not a necessity” in transitioning to net-zero. The IPCC’s 1.5C-aligned scenarios have the global CCS capacity averaging 360 billion tonnes by the end of the century.
But concerns continue to be raised that organisations – and even nations – could bet on these largely new technologies rather than working to reduce emissions and back nature-based carbon storage. Globally, the collective capacity of all operational CCS and CCU plants is estimated to be 38.5 million metric tonnes. These arrays are addressing less than one-thousandth of global emissions annually, which now exceed 50 billion tonnes.
Responding to today’s ESO reports, the Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology’s deputy director of policy, Mark Sommerfeld, said: “These scenarios must be taken seriously by the Government. The Association emphasises that the upcoming Autumn budget should now be used to detail policies designed to deliver the most ambitious of these Future Energy Scenarios and ensure the UK remains an attractive market for low carbon investment, or risk falling further behind in the UK’s decarbonisation targets.”
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