In the face of compelling evidence and political commitments, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and serve to hasten the likely devastating impacts of climate change. The greater knowledge and evidence we accumulate, the more we understand the limits of our actions to date. Incremental change is no longer enough to stall the potentially devastating effects of a changing climate.
The requirement is for rapid and transformational action akin to the Space Race of the 1960s. As President John F Kennedy said in his legendary moon speech in Rice Stadium, Houston:
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
This microsite provides an introduction to our thinking on how to resolve the technical elements impeding meeting the UK’s Net Zero goals. With a series of blogs and an in-depth technical report looking at the UK’s energy system, we aim to contribute to the thinking to how rapid and transformational change can be delivered.
The UK has long held a leadership role on climate change policy and action. With the legal commitment to Net Zero by 2050, the UK continues to be at the head of all developed countries’ commitment to effectively respond to climate change risks.
Over the coming months we will be complementing the current focus on energy systems development to focus on the infrastructure and transportation sectors. These will emerge in early 2020.
1 World Meteorological Organisation, ‘Greenhouse gas concentrations in atmosphere reach yet another high’, 25 November 2019
2 UN Environment Report, ‘2019 Emissions Gap Report’, November 2019
How does the UK’s energy system meet the Net Zero 2050 challenge?
Net Zero by 2050 is achievable but not without substantial changes to the UK’s energy mix and requiring significant investment. This demands a 30-year complex programme.
To achieve Net Zero the UK needs:
A flexible approach to ultimate system configuration
It is impractical to define the ultimate post 2050 energy system today. However, decisions taken in the next few years will set the framework within which markets must deliver Net Zero. We must keep options open and avoid pursuit of short-term, least cost solutions that may not lead to the optimal long-term system.
An Energy System Architect
The 2050 Net Zero Energy System will be highly complex.
Effective system balancing is essential, and the optimal system will not be delivered without Government intervention. This should be based on a strategic view of the entire ‘system architecture’ and evaluation of the whole system cost.
The UK needs a single body to plan and optimise the overall 2050 energy system configuration across generation, infrastructure and transport. The creation of an Energy Systems Architect (ESA) is critical to its success.
Clean, reliable, consistent nuclear power
Clean, reliable, consistent nuclear has an important role to play in the UK’s journey to Net Zero. With declining UK gas production, nuclear offers the only firm low carbon power with assured security of supply.
The UK needs an increased focus on its nuclear strategy, and the development of innovative approaches to financing and construction risk.
Nuclear presents a low technological risk but is significantly challenged by the current financial model. 8.4GW is being constructed or planned via Hinkley Point C and Bradwell B.
A key role from Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is critical to the Net Zero scenario due to a continued reliance on CCGT as part of the generationmix, as well as the use of steam meathane reforming for hydrogen production.
The Net Zero scenario requires the UK to have 40% of UK’s energy dependent on CCS. That equates to an equivalent volume of CO2 that is four times the current global CCS capacity by 2050. The UK currently has no CCS industry and no firm plan in place to deliver this.
The Government needs to bring forward and fund pilot carbon capture and storage projects as quickly as possible to enable up to 176 Million Tons (MT) of CO2 sequestration per annum required in the 2050 Net Zero scenario.
Increased capacity from renewable energy sources, primarily offshore wind
Offshore Wind development has been a success for the UK’s partnership between Government and industry. The Offshore Wind Sector Deal calls for the rapid growth of our offshore wind capacity from less than 10GW today, to 30GW by 2030. This is achievable in terms of build rate, but there are uncertainties regarding the challenges of integration, system balancing and stability. Net Zero requires 75GW by 2050.
Technical challenges require the UK Government and industry to:
Greater investment in hydrogen projects
Hydrogen can serve as both an energy vector and an energy store and can contribute to industry decarbonisation, domestic heating and transportation.
Net Zero assumes that 30% of the UK’s energy will be delivered through hydrogen (a tenfold increase in production from current values) - 80% of this would have to be produce by Steam Methane Reformation (MR) which greatly increases the risks associated with hydrogen’s role in achieving Net Zero due to the reliance on CCS.
The UK must accelerate the current hydrogen research programme and make some critical system decisions.
An optimal, reliable and balanced system
With high penetration of variable power generation, system balancing depends on firm power, interconnectors, demand-side response and energy storage.
However, there is currently no battery technology capable of grid-scale balancing storage – and there is no such technology on the horizon.
The implications of climate change reach across all countries and communities to have a significant negative impact on our lives. These are significant political, policy and technical challenges to grapple with. Our aim was to make a positive contribution to the endeavour to our legal requirement to become Net Zero by 2050. If we are to mitigate the devastating implications of climate change, political ambition needs to marry with policy development forged on the back of technical considerations to unlock the necessary rapid and transformational change.
We have carried out a series of detailed engineering assessments to understand the risks, challenges and opportunities associated with the UK’s Net Zero target and provide a ‘toolkit’ for policy makers. We are delighted to share here our assessment of the changes required in the UK energy system.
We recognise that the problem is not just an energy sector one and will not be saved by major energy projects alone; attention must also be paid to how we consume and use energy. Millions of homes must be better insulated, millions of old gas and oil fired boilers must be replaced, thousands of diesel and petrol vehicles must be replaced with electric ones, with the infrastructure to support this in place.
Over the coming months we will complement our work on the energy system with technical papers on Infrastructure and Transportation sectors to support policy makers, politicians, businesses and a range of other stakeholders to understand the implications of these sectors to achieving Net Zero by 2050.
We don’t claim to have all the answers, no single organisation does, but across these pages we begin to explore the challenges associated with major capital energy projects, the technologies to be engineered and deployed and the principal technical and commercial risks that could prevent us from achieving Net Zero by 2050.
As one of the world’s leading engineering and design consultancies, we believe Atkins have a compelling and substantial role in advising and challenging our national endeavours to meet the UK’s Net Zero legal obligations.
Drawing on an unparalleled depth and breadth of multi-discipline expertise in this report we focused on the most technically challenging and time-critical infrastructure challenges in the context of complex environmental change.
Our technical specialists work together across disciplines to help our clients develop solutions to complex environmental change.
We use the experience that we have gained working on projects worldwide to develop solutions to manage the risks to cities associated with complex environmental change. We have the necessary breadth of technical skills from economists through to geologists and climate change scientists across the world that we can utilise to ensure the solutions developed are appropriate to their specific location and the challenges faced. We are at the forefront of carbon critical design that helps our clients to reduce and manage their carbon footprints and prepare for a changing climate. Our clients include most of the international donor agencies, as well as numerous public sector organisations and private sector companies.