National Grid ESO has modelled four scenarios for what the future of the UK’s energy system could look like, and it found that in three of those scenarios the UK will achieve its net zero emissions goal by 2050.
Dubbed the Future Energy Scenarios (FES), National Grid ESO puts together a report each year which looks at the way energy is changing in the UK. It’s based on input from over 600 experts and looks at how the UK’s approach to both electricity and gas is set to change over the next 30 years.
The UK Government is keen to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 or earlier, while environmental campaigners have pushed for a more ambitious goal of 2030. However, some industry experts have warned that even 2050 will be challenging, and could be impossible. This is the first year that National Grid ESO has modelled what the UK’s energy use will look like in 2050, and it appears that the report agrees with the Government, that 2050 is achievable for reaching net zero.
How will the UK achieve net zero?
Three out of the four scenarios modelled by National Grid ESO found that the UK will achieve its goal of net zero emissions by 2050 or earlier. This was largely thanks to the deployment of new technologies, as well as fundamental changes for energy consumers, particularly in transport, heating and energy efficiency.
The first big change that National Grid ESO found was that UK consumers are likely to overwhelmingly opt for electric vehicles in the future. As of the end of May 2020, there were an estimated 128,500 pure electric vehicles on British roads, although that number is set to climb to 11 million by 2030. That will more than double by 2040, where an estimated 2040 will be in the hands of UK consumers.
One of the big issues with the move to electric vehicles will be the demand it will put on the grid. National Grid ESO doesn’t see this as a problem as it believes that by 2050 up to 80% of households with an EV will be ‘smart charging’ their car. That means charging the car outside of the evening peak to take advantage of lower electricity costs.
National Grid ESO believes EVs could also help balance the grid, with it noting that Vehicle to Grid technology will be used by 45% of homes, offering up to 38GW of flexibility electricity to manage peaks and fill in troughs in demand.
In addition to removing gas guzzlers from the streets of the UK, National Grid ESO also found that UK homes were likely to be much more energy efficient in the future. This is already a key goal for the UK’s Government, having just launched the Green Homes Grant scheme to help homeowners pay for energy efficiency upgrades.
In all of its scenarios, National Grid ESO found that by 2050 homes will no longer be using natural gas boilers and instead there will be more than 20 million heat pumps installed. aAs many 8 million homes could be actively managing their heating demands by storing heat and shifting their use outside of peak periods.
The analysis shows significant changes for the energy system too with emissions from the sector negative by 2030. This is generated by 40GW of offshore capacity and using Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage, and the scaling up of non-traditional sources of flexibility such as demand side response and storage.
In what scenario does the UK fail to achieve net zero by 2050?
In three of the four scenarios modelled by National Grid ESO, the UK achieves its net zero emissions goal by 2050. However, that relies on ‘immediate action across all key technologies and policy areas, and full engagement across society and end consumers’. If the UK doesn’t act immediately to fully engage, then National Grid ESO predicts that it’ll likely miss the net zero goal by 2050.
Several factors are key to achieving the net zero goal, and failing to implement just one of the key factors could see the possibility of net zero by 2050 slipping through our fingers. The most important factors are:
- Open data and digitalisation underpin the whole system thinking required to achieve net zero. This is key to navigating increasing complexity at lowest cost for consumers.
- The economics of energy supply and demand fundamentally shift in a net zero world. Markets must evolve to provide incentives for investment in flexibility and zero carbon generation
- Hydrogen and carbon capture and storage must be deployed for net zero. Industrial scale demonstration projects need to be operational this decade.
How does Covid-19 impact on the UK’s quest for net zero emissions?
The full extent of COVID-19 became apparent too late to be factored into the analysis and will be examined fully in FES 2021. However, the UK has already seen a massive shift in the use of renewable electricity thanks to a decrease in demand from the grid.
While that demand is now increasing again, office life may not return to normal, meaning commercial buildings may draw less energy from the grid, while people spend more time at home.
Mark Herring, National Grid ESO head of strategy, notes, “This year’s Future Energy Scenarios paint an exciting picture of net zero Britain with electricity playing a crucial role in meeting the 2050 emissions targets.
“Although these are not firm predictions, we’ve talked to over 600 industry experts to build this insight and it’s clear while net zero is achievable, there are significant changes ahead.
“Across all scenarios, we see a growth in renewable energy generation, including significant expansion in installed offshore wind capacity. There is a widespread uptake in domestic electric vehicles, and growth and investment in hydrogen and carbon capture technologies too.
“Our new analysis of the level of societal change needed to achieve net zero also shows that consumers need greater understanding of how their energy use impacts the wider system, and how changes to their lifestyle have an impact on net zero ambitions.
“While COVID19 came too late to be factored into this year’s analysis many of the areas highlighted will be crucial in a green recovery from the pandemic, particularly improving energy efficiency across all sectors and significant investment in low carbon electricity generation.
“There is already significant progress being made towards net zero, including ESO planning to operate a zero-carbon electricity system by 2025, but the fundamental changes outlined make it more important than ever to have a coordinated approach to decarbonizing the whole energy sector.”