The shrinking road to net zero

Posted on: 6 July 2022 by Professor Karl Whittle in Issue 2

In an article first published in the New Statesman, Karl Whittle, Professor of Zero Carbon and Nuclear Energy, reflects on why the UK needs to invest clean energy now.

There are now fewer than 1,500 weeks to go until the end of 2050, by which time the UK needs to have radically decarbonised society to achieve its own net zero targets. For policymakers, it is no longer a question of should carbon emissions be reduced, it is a question of how.

Reducing consumer energy demand

There is no way to reach net zero without reducing the total demand for energy – and change begins at home. To take a really obvious example, existing technologies such as LED lights can reduce energy consumption and demand. More significantly, it’s necessary to also reduce consumer demand through changing the way we live, work and travel. The current energy crisis has brought into sharp relief both the economic cost and political implications of high energy demand. When it comes to the heating of our homes, the largest reduction in demand will come from improved levels of insulation that will reduce heat losses, such as in the roof space and through the use of double or triple-glazed windows. When combined with more energy-efficient heating systems, such as heat pumps or electrified boilers, an effective energy reduction for heating can be realised.

This is important because the use of our homes is changing and, for many, they are also now a workplace. For those still travelling to work, petrol and diesel are highly effective sources of energy – both are mobile and energy-dense, making them ideal for transport applications. Decarbonising transport will require a move to either batteries or hydrogen-based technologies, using fuel cells. Moving to battery-based transport is relatively easy, if not often expensive, to achieve for consumers through purchasing an electric vehicle and the use of a charging point. At the level of the individual, this does not place any extra strain on the national grid, but ten million cars simultaneously charging would be the equivalent of the UK’s daytime electricity demand. Solutions to this challenge, such as only charging during times of low demand, do already exist, but a more effective solution would be to increase the use of public transport and through the redesign of our towns and cities to enable greater use of walking and cycling.

Decarbonising industry

To meet its net zero targets, the UK must significantly decarbonise industry. Companies are already transforming their operations and many large organisations have set their own net zero carbon emission targets sooner than the national 2050 date. For example, NSG Pilkington has trialled the use of hydrogen for the provision of the high temperatures needed in its glass production processes. This is just one example of change required, but there are many others, with companies such as AstraZeneca moving to zero carbon emissions by 2025, and Unilever following by 2039. This is where organisations such as the decarbonisation project HyNet, the North West Hydrogen Alliance, and Glass Futures, a global centre of excellence for low-carbon glass manufacturing, are focusing their expertise, developing solutions for the transition to a zero-carbon future that includes technologies such as hydrogen.

For most organisations, the effective and efficient use of buildings changed during the Covid-19 pandemic, with increased flexibility in working at home. This is likely to be a blueprint for the future, with more homeworking being the norm, and so ensuring buildings are efficiently occupied, or used, is key in reaching net zero.

Energy storage and infrastructure

Linked to a reduction in overall demand is the need to store energy generated from renewable sources. This energy can be stored using a variety of technologies – ranging from batteries, through pumped hydroelectric storage, such as at Dinorwig in north Wales, to hydrogen. The use of storage allows for a balanced energy mix to be developed, with consistent energy, such as from nuclear, balanced with these other sources, increasing the rate of migration away from gas, which is currently around 40 per cent of the UK’s electricity generation.

Hydrogen is an alternative means of storing energy; as a gas it can be stored in a multitude of ways and can be directly combusted. Its generation, however, requires energy, but this could be managed using energy in periods of low demand. One key difference with batteries is that once the capacity has been reached they cannot be charged further. With hydrogen the limit is only determined by the ability to store the gas.

Upgrading the UK’s energy infrastructure needs to begin now. It is better to use a pragmatic solution that can be implemented and replaced later, rather than wait for a perfect technology to be developed, because it reduces the emissions of carbon now, helping prevent irreversible climate change.

Levelling up

On the road to reaching net zero, the potential opportunities for levelling up will be widespread, as the societal change required in many areas will be equivalent to the post-war reconstruction of the 1940s and 1950s. There are currently over half a million people working in the low-carbon and energy industries in the UK, and this will need to be expanded.

Increased investment in housing in major cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow where the level of home insulation is poor, or through the installation of home heating technologies, will require a significantly expanded skilled workforce. Significant national investment is needed, but this will create many high-skilled jobs and drive economic growth across the UK.

In the north-west of England and north Wales there are clear opportunities for regional growth arising from the net zero transition. Coupled with their existing expertise in manufacturing and digital technologies, and the opportunities arising from transport change, this region can become world-leading, creating high-wage, high-skilled jobs and driving economic growth.

As the UK moves to a net zero energy system with energy generation broadly based within its borders, the ability for the nation to control its own costs becomes increasingly possible while becoming more energy secure.

Providing we are able to reduce energy demand, increasing energy security reduces exposure to external markets and factors, allowing costs and prices to be determined locally, helping to keep them down.

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