This report, produced by a working group of Fellows of The Royal Academy of Engineering, considers possible energy scenarios that could meet the 2050 emissions reduction target. Four scenarios are explored. They describe the whole energy system in broad brush strokes and are illustrative rather than prescriptive, identifying the principal components of the system and contributing towards a better systems level understanding of the most salient issues.
Scenarios never predict the future; they only show a range of possible futures. However, some fundamental characteristics of all the possible energy futures for the UK can be deduced and these are described below.
The study shows that:
* There is no single ‘silver bullet’ that will achieve the required 80% cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Fundamental restructuring of the whole of the UK’s energy system will be unavoidable.
* Demand reductions across all sectors of the economy will be essential through a combination of increased efficiencies and behavioural change.
* The full suite of low-carbon energy supply technologies already available (or identified as credible) will be needed, including nuclear, renewables and carbon capture and storage brought together in a balanced way.
* The scale of the engineering challenge is massive.
No silver bullets
All the scenarios that we examined require action on both the supply and demand sides of the energy equation. They also require the UK to exploit its renewable energy resources to the fullest possible extent and supplement this with other forms of low-carbon energy such as nuclear or coal or gas stations fitted with carbon capture and storage.
All the scenarios show a requirement for significant change in power flows in the UK system, indicating that significant investment in new energy infrastructure will inevitably be required. The main shift in the scenarios is that much more of energy demand will be met through the electricity system and generation will be added both centrally and throughout the distribution system. The last major investment in the UK’s electricity infrastructure was in the 1970s and much of the equipment installed then is reaching the end of its service life, so we expect to see the need for renewal coinciding with the need for major enhancement, offering a unique opportunity to develop state-of-the- art infrastructure.
All the scenarios require varied and significant reductions in demand which can only be achieved with a combination of technical efficiency measures and behavioural change. Even scenario 1, which is nominally level demand, represents a reduction in demand compared to current predictions of UK energy demand.
We can expect energy using processes to become more efficient over the coming decades, driven by the need to reduce costs. Energy efficiency of processes, machines and appliances can be driven through regulation as well, as has been the case with condensing boilers and is currently the case with cars, but the behavioural changes required among the general population require more and better public engagement, and, inevitably, pricing messages. It was beyond the scope of this report, but it is easy to see that this will bring climate change policies into conflict with efforts to protect those classed as being in fuel poverty.
The full suite of low-carbon technologies
The timescales involved in re-engineering the UK’s energy systems to respond to the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions can be measured in decades and some of the assets put in place to do this will have economic lifetimes of over 50 years. There is no more time left for further consultations or detailed optimisation. Equally, there is no time left to wait for new technical developments or innovation. We have to commit to new plant and supporting infrastructure now.
Because the timescale for the proving and large-scale roll-out of major infrastructure is measured in decades, only the low-carbon technologies that are already known can make a significant contribution to meeting the 2050 targets. They are already in the marketplace, close to it or close to being demonstrated at scale. Untried developments, such as nuclear fusion, may contribute to the energy mix beyond 2050 but to meet the 80% target we have to use what we already understand.
The scale of the challenge
Although the scale of the challenge has often been acknowledged, very few have sought to try to put numbers to it. We do so in Appendix 1 and come up with numbers which are currently beyond the capacity of the energy industry to deliver.
In order to achieve the scale of change needed, industry will require strong direction from government. Current market forces and fiscal incentives will not be adequate to deliver the required shareholder value in the short-term or to guarantee the scale of investment necessary in this timescale.
The experience of engineers shows that implementing fundamental changes to a system as large and complex as the UK’s energy system to meet the 2050 greenhouse gas emissions targets will bring with it many challenges for government, business and industry, engineering and the public alike. Turning the theoretical emissions reduction targets into reality will require more than political will: it will require nothing short of the biggest peacetime programme of change ever seen in the UK.
While the market will be the vehicle for technological and business solutions, the combined challenges of climate change, security of supply and affordability call for a more directed approach from government. This transcends political ideology: only government can facilitate and ensure delivery of the necessary infrastructure, some of which, being natural monopolies, do not respond classically to market forces. The market will not respond unless there is an appropriate long-term national plan and a framework set out by government to ensure the delivery of the necessary infrastructure in the wider context of Europe.
Implementing such fundamental and widespread changes across the planning, industrial, technological, economic, business and customer dimensions of the UK’s energy system will only be achievable in the context of a national strategy to coordinate and drive the process. Such a strategy needs to be informed by a high degree of whole-systems thinking and be underpinned, from the outset, by critical evaluation of the economic, engineering and business realties of delivery across a system.
Despite positive steps, such as the creation of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, current government structures, including market regulation, are, as yet, simply not adequate for the task. This issue must also be addressed as a priority by means of a reorganisation of government departments to coordinate and drive action as well as to provide the clear and stable long-term framework for business and the public that is not currently in evidence.
It also needs to be recognised that the significant changes required to the UK energy system to meet the emissions reduction targets will inevitably, involve significant rises in energy costs to end users.