UK slipping behind on build rate required for net-zero target

The UK is achieving less than half of the required build rate to deliver energy systems that will reach net-zero emissions by 2050, according to a new whitepaper from engineering consultancy Atkins.

UK slipping behind on build rate required for net-zero target

The whitepaper notes that the UK’s future energy system will have to be supported by technologies still in their infancy - carbon capture and storage (CCS)

The “Race to Net-Zero” whitepaper explores the capacity requirements of low-carbon technologies based on the Committee on Climate Changes’ (CCC) recommendations to the UK Government on the net-zero legislation. Under the requirement, Atkins has found that 48 natural gas units, 66 biomass facilities, six nuclear power stations, and 6,520 offshore wind turbines will be required.

Additionally, undefined unit numbers for the 20GW of onshore wind, 80GW of solar, and 15-30GW of energy storage are required to meet net-zero and will need to be facilitated. Based on these estimates, Atkins has calculated that the UK is currently achieving 43% of the required build rate.

Atkins’ market director for power generation assets, nuclear and power Dr David Cole said: “Market intervention in the UK offshore wind industry saw the cost of construction and electricity come down, resulting in the UK now being a global leader in deploying renewables. Similar intervention is now required across nuclear, new technologies and other energy sources so that the UK energy industry can construct the above number of facilities in enough time.

“We must replace almost all our current generating capacity and build as much again, and to put this context, the highest we’ve reached was 6GW in 2012 of gas and renewables infrastructure. The longer we wait, the higher these numbers will rise. In the midst of a global crisis, it can be overwhelming to think of future targets, but climate change is not going to fade away and thirty years is not a long time – we must act now; the government must act now.”

Capacity gaps

The whitepaper notes that the UK’s future energy system will have to be supported by technologies still in their infancy – carbon capture and storage (CCS), energy storage and hydrogen production. As such, the report calls for urgent government intervention and investment to ensure that these technologies can be supported. It is unlikely that the UK will have any industrial-scale CCS projects up and running until the mid-2020s.

Atkins predicts that the power share in 2050 will consist of nuclear (11%); wind and solar (58%); combined cycle gas turbines with carbon capture storage (22%); and bioenergy with carbon capture storage (6%).

Another key recommendation of the report is the creation of a new Government entity or ‘Energy System Architect’ that would oversee planning and optimisation of the energy system while ensuring that whole life costs of the transition don’t spiral.

Atkins’ Global’s Engineering Net Zero report recently found that the UK will need to facilitate a four-fold increase in low-carbon energy, including expanding offshore wind capacity by up to 75GW, in order to reach its net-zero emissions commitment for 2050.

The report notes of a severe capacity gap in carbon capture and storage, nuclear, wind and hydrogen energy generation – technologies which have been outlined as essential by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) in reaching the net-zero target that it recommended to Government last year.

According to the report, the technologies will be required to assist or balance the four-fold increase in low-carbon energy generation required by 2050. The report states that the 155TWh of clean energy in 2017 will need to reach 645TWh by 2050. While this can be accelerated by an additional 75GW in offshore wind capacity, the reports warn that policy plans to limit nuclear capacity in the mid-2030s will hinder the net-zero target.

A similar report from independent, not-for-profit Energy Systems Catapult has claimed that reaching net-zero emissions in the UK by 2050 is possible but would require “unprecedented innovation across the economy”.

Matt Mace

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