Low carbon energy: the next decade is critical for the UK

Paul Boughton

The UK can implement an affordable transition to a low carbon energy system by 2050 but decisions taken in the next decade will be critical, according to a new report published by the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI).

The Insights Report, written by Jo Coleman, the ETI’s Director of Strategy Development and Chief Engineer Andrew Haslett, looks at the targets, technologies, infrastructure and investments needed to ensure a smooth and affordable low carbon transition out to 2050.

It concludes that the UK can implement an affordable transition to a low carbon energy system over the next 35 years by developing, commercialising and integrating technologies and solutions that are already known, but underdeveloped.

However, decisions taken in the next decade are critical in preparing for the transition and crucial decisions must be made about the design of the UK future energy system by 2025 to avoid wasting investment and ensure the 2050 targets remain achievable.

The report acknowledges that there is not one single technology answer but a need to develop and prove capability across a complementary basket of technologies. The immediate large-scale development focus should be on replacing the UK’s nuclear power stations, energy efficiency measures and generating energy from waste.

It also highlights the enormous potential of carbon capture and storage (CCS) and bioenergy to the UK’s future energy system.

According to the ETI’s analysis, if either of these technologies do not feature it would at least double the cost of delivering climate change targets from around 1% of GDP to 2%. Another way of looking at it is the value of CCS or bioenergy to the energy system is £200bn each and if neither are developed it is really difficult to see how the UK would be able to meet its climate change targets.

ETI Strategy Director Jo Coleman said: “Our analysis has shown that the UK can implement an affordable transition to a low carbon energy system over the next 35 years.

“But, by the mid-2020’s the UK has to make important decisions about its energy infrastructure – so the country has 10 years or two parliaments to work through these decisions.

“We see enormous potential and value in developing CCS and bioenergy and the success or failure of deploying these two technologies will have a huge impact on the cost of achieving the UK’s legally binding  climate change targets.

“Significant policy intervention will be needed to support these technologies along with nuclear, offshore wind and heat networks, which is why decisions taken over the next decade are so important.”

The Insights Report tackles what support might be needed, the opportunities and challenges for the UK, what an affordable transition might look like, how to prepare, financing CCS and building investor confidence.

ETI Chief Engineer Andrew Haslett said: “2050 may seem a long way off but there is no time to invent and deploy a set of novel breakthrough technologies and the cost of adaptation will inevitably be higher than the cost of mitigation.

“Many of the UK’s ageing power plants need replacing, so the UK will have to pay for this new capacity anyway. This is why we focus on how you can reduce the abatement cost – the additional cost of meeting energy demand through a low, rather than high carbon energy system. It shows in the modelling to be a modest incremental cost when viewed against the lifespan of the new technology and long-term environment benefits.

“In the next decade the UK should focus on ensuring it is prepared by developing options and exploring trade-offs between particular sets of technologies, and also testing technical, business and regulatory models at scale to give stakeholders the confidence they need to move to full-scale implementation.”

Jo Coleman adds: “People are often surprised by this but CCS must be central to any national strategy for meeting carbon targets cost effectively as it enables flexible, low carbon electricity generation, supports renewables and cuts emissions from industrial processes.

“It can also deliver negative emissions when combined with biomass. By growing biomass carbon is actively removed from the atmosphere and stored in plant matter as it grows. When the biomass is then harvested and converted into energy, the opportunity is taken to capture the emitted carbon and store it securely offshore. In this way, the cycle becomes carbon negative, creating headroom in the emissions budget and reducing the need for expensive abatement measures elsewhere.”


Targets, technologies, infrastructure and investments - preparing the UK for the energy transition

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