Carbon-free 2050: five ways the UK energy industry will have to change

JP Casey 14 November 2019 (Last Updated July 15th, 2020 21:38)

The UK government’s target of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 is ambitious, with reliance on North Sea oil and a ban on onshore wind farms hamstringing the burgeoning UK renewable industry. JP Casey looks at five areas where the UK Government needs to improve over the next three decades to reach this target.

Carbon-free 2050: five ways the UK energy industry will have to change
Despite increasing awareness of the dangers of climate change, North Sea oil production reached a seven-year high in 2018. Credit: Berardo62

Reduce reliance on North Sea oil

North Sea oil production reached a seven-year high of 1.09 million barrels per day in 2018 and in July 2019, the Oil and Gas Authority opened up applications for exploration projects in 768 blocks and part-blocks across the North Sea, the first licensing round announced since the UK’s commitment to reaching net zero emissions.

This expansion has been criticised by environmental groups, with WWF Scotland calling the awarding of new licences “totally irresponsible”. Scottish oil and gas fields, including the North Sea regions, are responsible for 96% of the UK’s crude oil and natural gas production between 2017 and 2018, according to the Scottish Government, so new projects such as these will do little to address an imbalanced and environmentally damaging industry.

These projects are also undermined by the diminishing long-term financial potential of the sector, with many industry majors now focusing on decommissioning works. The Scottish Government reported that between 2017 and 2018, operating expenditure increased by £1.1bn compared to the previous two years, a figure that excludes decommissioning costs, which are estimated to be as high as £58bn, so divesting from North Sea oil and gas projects will be crucial to delivering a financially and environmentally sustainable energy mix.

Overturn the onshore wind ban

There has been a de facto ban on onshore wind projects in the UK since 2015, when a Conservative victory in the year’s general election led to tighter licensing rules for onshore projects. While the law was intended to give local communities greater say over the construction of wind farms, the result has been a 94% decrease in applications for new onshore farms, with The Guardian reporting that were it not for the change in policy, the UK may have up to 794 additional wind farms on its soil .

Despite the policy, UK wind power has grown considerably, with the government reporting that the percentage of total electricity used from sources generated by wind has increased from 1.5% in 2008 to 18% in 2018. Onshore and offshore projects have collectively reduced annual carbon dioxide emissions by over 26 million tonnes per year, according to the charity RenewableUK.

However, the efficiency of onshore and offshore projects remains imbalanced, and addressing this will be crucial if the UK is to meet its 2050 targets; on average, each of the 37 offshore projects has an operational capacity of 229.27MW, compared to just 6.32MW for each of the 2,067 onshore operations.

Reintroduce solar subsidies

In July 2018, the government ended a policy of feed-in tariffs to encourage homeowners to install solar panels on their properties, leading to a 94% fall in the number of home solar panel installations by June this year. The policy saw the costs of building solar panels fall from around £12,000 to £6,000, and encouraged around 800,000 solar installations across the UK over its eight-year existence.

Rooftop solar could be particularly effective in the UK due to the relative lack of potential for development of large-scale solar farms. The country’s largest, Shotwick Solar Park, has an annual production capacity of just 0.6% of the UK’s total capacity of 12,318MW, as smaller, rooftop-mounted panels are likely to be more efficient in a country with little land area and relatively low exposure to sunlight.

Furthermore, reintroducing subsidies could be especially useful as the British public is considered to be broadly supportive of solar power. According to Switch, a project backed by RenewableUK, 81% of the British public are in favour of solar power, which has seen its share of UK electricity grow from 3.1% in 2016 to 3.4% the following year, making it the third-biggest source of renewable power in the country.

Commit to technologically advanced nuclear projects

Despite well-founded concerns regarding the safety and waste disposal issues posed by nuclear power, technological advances could help overcome these drawbacks, and the power source could form a vital component of the UK’s energy mix if it is to achieve zero emissions by 2050.

Developments such as Hinkley Point C, which will ultimately produce 3.2GWh of electricity and power around six million homes by 2023, are a promising start for the UK nuclear sector. EDF Energy finished construction on the base of the facility’s first nuclear reactor in June this year , and supporters of the project are optimistic that the station will begin commercial production by 2023, as scheduled.

However, the UK nuclear sector remains muddled, with Hitachi suspending work on its Wylfa Newydd plant in Wales earlier this year, a move which could cost the company over $4bn , and raises questions about the government’s commitment to ensuring a reliable supply of nuclear energy. With renewables inherently unreliable, dependent as they are on external environmental factors, a mixture of renewable power and nuclear baseloads could be the future of UK energy, provided the government can commit to both sources.

The government has also made a number of commitments to advanced nuclear technologies, including £40m in investment as part of its Advanced Modular Reactor programme, and is considering a proposal to invest a further £18m into the development of small modular reactors to power the country’s first “mini nuclear power station” . These types of facilities tend to be easier and cheaper to install than large-scale power stations, and can be safer in the event of a disaster.

Invest in tidal and wave power

While the UK is not blessed with significant sunlight for solar power, the country has considerable potential for water-based forms of renewable power. In 2013, the UK Government estimated that the country has around half of Europe’s tidal energy resources, and could boast a capacity of up to 50GW should all of the potential subsea turbines be constructed. The industry also has significant financial benefits for the UK, as the country’s strong geographic position means the industry could be worth up to £76bn, according to RenewableUK.

Wave Energy Scotland (WES) has invested in these fields, by coordinating a number of workshops with international partners to further understanding of wave power. The group has worked with the US Department of Energy and the International Energy Agency on these initiatives, and has funded a number of small-scale wave energy projects, such as a hinged wave energy converter developed by start-up Mocean Energy, aiming to introduce more organisational oversight to a sector that has been typically underdeveloped in the UK.

While the WES involvement is a promising start, decisions such as the government’s refusal to grant subsidies to Tidal Power’s proposed tidal project near Swansea have undermined the state’s commitment to water-based renewable power. In February 2019, Tidal Power announced plans to continue work on the facility without government funding, raising hope that the region could see a significant new renewable project, and should serve as an indication to the government of the industry support for clean power in the UK.