UK Government firms up 100% clean electricity target for 2035

The UK Government has confirmed that plans to end unabated fossil fuelled electricity generation by 2035, floated by Boris Johnson at the Conservative Party Conference, will be enshrined in law.

UK Government firms up 100% clean electricity target for 2035

Meeting the target will require a major shift in the UK's electricity mix

Johnson first floated the commitment on Monday (4 October) during a visit to a Network Rail site. It was then reiterated by Business and Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng as the Conference progressed. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) confirmed late on Thursday (7 October) that the commitment is being formalised.

The Department had already set out plans to deliver a net-zero power system by 2050 through the Energy White Paper last year, but was facing pressure to develop specific and more ambitious targets for electricity, from industry, green groups and on the international stage; the US recently backed a 2035 target for a 100% clean electricity grid, and Canada has a similar ambition.

The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) recent roadmap to a global net-zero energy system by 2050 stated that advanced economies such as the UK should target net-zero electricity by 2035.

Aside from the UK’s long term climate targets and growing global net-zero movement, a key motivator has been the recent gas price crisis, which has pushed the wholesale cost of electricity up in the UK due to the fact that some 40% of electricity generation in the UK at present is gas-fired. Gas prices have skyrocketed at least 70% since August, prompting green campaigners and trade bodies to call for plans to decrease the UK’s gas reliance.

“Recent volatile gas prices have also demonstrated how the way to strengthen Britain’s energy security, ensure greater energy independence and protect household energy budgets in the long-term is through clean power that is generated in this country for the people of this country,” Kwarteng said on Thursday.

BEIS has not yet published full information on how it intends to deliver the 2035 goal. A statement from the Department confirms that it will detail further support for “home-grown” nuclear, hydrogen and carbon capture and storage (CCS) as well as wind and solar, to ensure security. A point of interest is that the BEIS statement references onshore wind as well as offshore. Offshore wind is currently the only renewable energy sub-sector with a sector deal, with the Government targeting 40GW of capacity by 2030. Onshore wind capacity additions, meanwhile, were essentially banned for years through exclusion from the Contracts for Difference (CfD) process.

Further information, the Department has stated, will be included in the forthcoming Net-Zero Strategy. This policy package is due before COP26 begins in Glasgow in just over three weeks’ time, and will outline sector-specific decarbonisation plans.

The Heat and Buildings Strategy, which will map out plans to decrease gas for heating in buildings, should be published before the Net-Zero Strategy. However, it has been subject to a string of delays, with no sign of its impending release at the Conservative Party Conference. In the meantime, Scotland has drawn up its own plans to cut emissions from the built environment by 68% by 2030.

Green economy reaction 

Responding to the news, the Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology’s (REA) chief executive Dr Nina Skorupska said: “It is very welcome that the Government has committed to decarbonising the UK’s electricity system by 2035. Firm, long-term policy is now needed to ensure that this target is met including; regular CfD auctions; routes to market for Large Scale Energy Storage and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS); plus a grid that appropriately rewards flexibility. We look forward to receiving the upcoming Net Zero Strategy in the coming weeks and hope that it will provide detailed and wide-ranging support for all renewables and clean technologies.

“However, we believe that the Government could be even bolder in its ambitions, with our Strategy setting out a plan which could see a net-zero grid delivered by 2032. There is an urgent need to electrify significant proportions of heat and transport quickly and decisively, and there is much more work to do to increase grid flexibility to support the energy transition.

“In short, this is a positive commitment, but one that now needs to be backed up by substantive policy.”

Charles River Associates’ vice president for energy, Simon Ede, said: “To achieve this goal, the Government must be bold in its ambition around renewables and urgently resolve its policy on nuclear generation as well as ensure the system is flexible to cope with fluctuating wind generation levels. 

“The government’s previously announced target of 40GW of offshore wind generation by 2030 already looks out of date. National Grid ESO thinks something around 60GW will be required by 2035 to help decarbonise the system. That’s six times what we had in 2020.

“Getting that amount of capacity built in time will be tight – especially given the lead times required to build offshore capacity. Industry will need to beat the build-out rates in the offshore sector of the last few years. Importantly, the government will need to release more offshore acreage more quickly.  The 8GW of acreage auctioned last year the Crown Estate was considered limited in scale and so demand far outstripped supply and prices were consequently high. Great for the Crown Estate – not brilliant for rapidly building out capacity at lowest cost to consumers.

“Alongside this, by 2030, Britain’s existing nuclear power plant fleet will likely have been completely retired.  To support a system dominated by wind generation reliable baseload generation will be required according to most projections. < Britain may need around 6GW of nuclear capacity – if permitted and accepted politically. Hinkley Point C, which is currently being built by EDF, will come online by the end of this decade and should cover half this amount. Sizewell C, another EDF project, might account for the other half but is still awaiting approval. Further delay in getting that going may mean it’s not available by the middle of the next decade. For this the government needs to finalise how (levels and manner in which) new nuclear plant will be remunerated, the risks of development and how longer-term decommissioning and risk from management of waste are dealt with.

“The government is also pursuing an interest in fusion reactors. This really is a technology for the distant future. When thinking about the middle of the next decade, another option that might be more realistic would be to build new small modular nuclear reactor technologies. Due to the modular design of these plants, they are able to be built in smaller timeframes and at (theoretically) lower costs, and certain designs can be paired with molten salt storage units allowing for the provision of flexible generation – a much-needed service in the absence of peaking gas plants.”

Sarah George  

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie