With the removal company booked and boxes almost packed, Prime Minister Theresa May threw a curveball. In her final days at Downing Street, she set about creating a legacy other than Brexit. Suggesting it was our “moral duty” to leave the world a better place than we found it, she said: “Now is the time to go further and faster to safeguard the environment for our children. We must lead the world to a cleaner, greener form of growth.”

She announced the UK would become the first major economy in the world to pass legislation to achieve net-zero carbon emission by 2050, a bold but sometimes criticised announcement. Whatever your view on the political theatre that surrounded it, the goal was ambitious. It also meant that original targets of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by the middle of the century were consigned to history.

On news of the target passing into law a short while later, then Energy and Clean Growth Minister Chris Skidmore said that it put clean growth at the heart of the government’s modern industrial strategy. “We’re pioneering the way for other countries to follow in our footsteps,” he added.

UK energy infrastructure faces challenging future

It is clear that ambition isn’t lacking, but is the UK ready to be a pioneer?

“Great Britain faces a huge challenge to deliver a net-zero energy system by 2050,” warns Andrew Lever, the director of the Carbon Trust. “This [the revised 2050 target] will have a large impact on the energy system in 2050, and we hypothesise that storage and flexibility will be increasingly important to manage supply and demand.”

In May, the Carbon Trust announced its next major initiative: working with Imperial College London and a raft of industry stakeholders to provide valuable insight into how a flexible energy system can help secure a net-zero economy by 2050, through the Flexibility in Great Britain project.

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Lever says that today’s energy system is transitioning from a linear one, where energy is supplied to consumers by a small number of large power stations or oil and gas fields. He believes this model will be increasingly unfit for purpose as the country strives to meet 2050 requirements.

Indeed, research conducted by Imperial College London shows that the UK only avoided a blackout during the extremely challenging first half of 2020 thanks to the flexibility provided by power stations and businesses.

During this time, wind farms were supporting the power network, producing 40% more power per day than during the same period in 2019. However, as the wind eased, output fell sharply, at one point leaving the grid with just 0.2GW of spare capacity. Imperial’s research, conducted on behalf of Drax Electric Insights, found that biomass, pumped storage, and gas increased their output to meet demand, “while factories and supermarkets reduced their usage to help maintain normal day-ahead power prices”.

Carbon Trust looks to a flexible future

The Trust’s project will see it and Imperial work with an industry consortium, comprising business, government and regional authorities, regulators, and industry bodies. The aim is to look at how net-zero can be achieved by adopting more integrated and flexible practices; through research, industry engagement, and, most interestingly, modelling. However, it will go beyond the power sector to look at how others, like transport and heat, can better work together and with the power sector.

“The emergence of electrified heating via heat pumps, for example, or hydrogen for heating via electrolysis, will result in greater integration between gas and electricity networks,” says Lever.

He says that some examples of greater integration might include: increased coordination between the heat and power sectors; more collaboration between heat and transportation providers; and enhanced distributed systems at city or regional scales, meeting local energy needs effectively while coordinating with the national system.

Imperial will deliver the modelling, using its Integrated Whole Energy Systems Model, to investigate opportunities for greater integration across the sectors, as well as provide insight into the most suitable business models to ensure all sectors are ready for the future.

The Trust is convinced that there are opportunities to be cost effective, if cross-sector engagement can be fostered. This is particularly evident given the growing focus on decarbonisation in transportation and heating.

This project follows previous work that suggested tens of billions could be saved as the UK energy system transitions. In 2016, the Carbon Trust and Imperial said they believed savings could total £40bn on the cost of the energy system of the future, if sectors could find a route to greater flexibility, improved storage, and better integration.

“We hope to establish the value of flexibility to the Great Britain energy system in reaching net-zero, and make recommendations on the policy and regulatory actions required now to make investing in flexibility an attractive proposition,” Lever says.

Once complete – findings are expected to be published in early 2021 – the results could provide policymakers and industry with a useful tool for developing strategies needed to meet the 2050 deadline.

“This will assess the system level value of deploying flexibility within the UK, and the sensitivity of this value to different assumptions. We aim to develop a robust and up-to-date evidence base on the role and value of flexibility in a net-zero system, to help the sector and government create technology, policy, and business model pathways to help realise this vision,” Lever continues.

Technology has the answers

Lever believes that projects of this kind can provide insights into the costs and benefits of different approaches and identify when and how flexibility could be valuable. However, he says it is also important to consider beyond technology and review the policy, regulatory, and market barriers to its deployment.

“These findings, particularly when supported by cross-industry and government stakeholders, strengthen the case for removing those barriers and builds the business case for investment,” he adds.

An area that Lever is already optimistic about is technological development: how technologies can assist in reaching the 2050 target and how the significant reductions in cost seen in recent years are helping drive innovation. He says that offshore wind and lithium-ion battery storage are two examples of success stories in the sector.

Now though, the focus should be on “developing the infrastructure to use hydrogen as a replacement for natural gas, and the development of carbon capture and storage, for example”.

“Our goal is to provide a robust evidence base that allows industry, policymakers, and regulators to navigate the road to net-zero,” continues Lever.

The project is timely given a recent warning from the International Energy Agency that the next six months will be crucial in setting the global economic recovery on a sustainable footing. Lever says that continuing to focus on the long-term goal of net-zero emissions, and demonstrating the economic and social benefits of doing so, are “critical to ensuring that we are not locked in to sub-optimal pathways in the coming decades”.

The energy sector of the future will not look the same, that is clear. The question is, can it continue to manage the challenges of today, whilst planning for tomorrow? This project might present some of the answers.