The UK is committed to being a net zero economy by 2050, but how will we get there? A new report tests four different scenarios, with renewable energy at its center
Big, bold environmental goals may be polarizing. They are a strong motivating force and a necessary political tool to bring about change, but they can sometimes have the opposite effect: creating inertia and skepticism. 2030 will be a big year in the UK – it’s when new gasoline and diesel cars are banned, offshore wind power will produce enough power to power every household in the country and 2 million people will have paid employment in industries that support a green transition.
But the mother of all goals is above this: zero net emissions by 2050. It’s far enough away that the urgency is tepid, and great enough that it sometimes seems impossible, often intangible. And the reports that look at how we’ll get there often don’t help put things in perspective.
“In the past, these kinds of reports have tended to have a top-down systems approach, looking at big technologies and general trends rather than how people can play a role,” says Kit Dixon, policy and manager. regulation of renewable energies. business Good energy. “We wanted to offer an alternative vision.”
In a report released this week, Good Energy sets out four hypothetical paths to achieving net zero, with a focus on how real people fit in. Data modeling for the report, titled Renewable Nation: Pathways to a Zero Carbon Britain, was done in collaboration with Energy Systems Catapult, a non-profit organization working to accelerate the transformation of UK energy systems.
The Good Energy report sets out four hypothetical paths to net zero. Image: Michael Fousert
The first scenario is a ‘fairly basic’ baseline model, which envisions the UK continuing on its current path, but in a rather unambitious way. Nothing goes beyond the current policies that are in place to bring us to net zero, for example.
Scenario two, called ‘flexible revolution’, sees an acceleration of citizen and community participation. Consider more decentralized and home-level options for power generation, as well as a broad deployment of energy storage technology.
Scenario three sees an increase in renewables. “So we cut the cost of wind and solar power and told the model that it could only use ‘green hydrogen,'” says Dixon. (Blue hydrogen is made nearly carbon-free from natural gas by capturing and storing carbon. Green hydrogen, on the other hand, is made from renewable sources, bypassing fossil fuels.) The report found that we shouldn’t need to rely on hydrogen, not even the green variety, as much as some predict.
In the fourth scenario, renewable energies (waves, tides and geothermal) increase and the load of electric vehicles is expanded even more. Take ‘quick action’ to innovate.
So is adjusting the model a bit like playing God? “Yes!” says Dixon. “You can tweak things and push buttons and pull knobs, and then the model spits out what it thinks is the best cost-optimized route.”
“We are going to have absolutely colossal amounts of solar energy,” says Dixon. Image: Zbynek Burival
In the fourth scenario, what would our energy system look like? “Our energy sector can have almost zero carbon emissions by 2030. By 2050, more than 98 percent of the electricity produced can be through renewable energy.”
Offshore wind power will be deployed on a large scale and there will be significant amounts of tidal and geothermal energy. Also: “We are going to have absolutely colossal amounts of solar energy. And most of it will be decentralized. We need solar panels in about half the houses in the UK. “Hinkley Point C, the nuclear reactor being built in Somerset (” at extraordinary cost, “says Dixon), is still part of the mix, but not more nuclear will be needed in addition to this.
How can we make it happen?
And how will we heat our houses? At least 80 percent of the heating will be electrified by heat pumps and district heating. The latter is where heat is generated in large centralized facilities, sometimes as a by-product of industrial processes such as biomass burning. It is then distributed to households, replacing the use of localized generation: boilers and the like. As an inspiring example, in the Parisian suburb of Champs-sur-Marne, a new district heating project using geothermal energy is underway. The equivalent of 10,000 homes will be heated through a 19km network.
In a future zero-zero UK, domestic and industrial heat pumps will become mainstream. The costs of such technologies will decline over time, Dixon says, if the industry has adequate government support. For example, offering grants for green home renovations. “Also changing the way we charge for electricity and gas. At the moment, 22 percent of your electricity bill goes to environmental taxes. On gas bills it’s less than 2 percent. That’s a subsidy bias for the gas industry, which we don’t think should be there. “
Heat pumps and district heating will keep our homes warm, the report says. Image: He Gong
Presumably, we will also be traveling in electric cars. In fact, 90 percent of transportation will be electrified by 2050. Raising the question of where, how and when we will load these emission-free vehicles. These questions remain unanswered in part as the pervasive charging infrastructure has yet to be realized. The report makes policy recommendations that should go some way to filling these gaps. In terms of when, Dixon says charging should take place primarily during the day – vehicles are less likely to be used during the workday, and there is a lot of solar power around.
Explain that our houses will be like mini power plants, with solar panels on top of the roofs and heat pumps under the roof. Energy storage will also take place at the household level, with 14 million household batteries, probably in combination with electric vehicles.
It all sounds very exciting. And, if the model holds firm, doable. However, the report makes it clear that “doing” must be collaborative, with action from government, businesses and individuals alike. So maybe it’s not like playing God after all, but being the masters of our own destiny on Earth.
Lead Image: Peter Cade / Getty