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UK pathways to net zero
National Grid ESO shows three possible routes to UK's net zero target

Net zero carbon emissions by 2050, a binding target adopted by the UK government last year, is achievable, but it will require action on all fronts, with full engagement across all sectors of society, according to the UK’s electricity grid operator, National Grid ESO.

For the first time, in its Future Energy Scenarios report, National Grid ESO outlines what needs to be done to make net zero by 2050 a reality.

Critical technologies

Common to all three scenarios are major transformations in the energy system impacting consumers and producers alike. Across the three scenarios, there are core technologies which National Grid ESO believes are essential to success. These are:

Greater energy efficiency

This is the ‘no regret’ option, which means more can be done with less energy.

The expansion of wind and solar power

Any successful net zero by 2050 pathway depends on clean electricity supply, which in effect means wind and solar power. By 2033, net emissions from the power sector must be negative, according to the report. 3 GW of wind and 1.4 GW of solar need to be built in the UK every year from now until 2050.

Electrification of transport sector

Transport must electrify, but also have the capacity to flow power back to the grid, a technology known as vehicle-to-grid (V2G).

Hydrogen

For net zero, hydrogen will provide between 21% and 59% of net zero end user energy needs by 2050.

Heating

Heating must change. This can be done via electrification or by using hydrogen, but also by the deployment of heat pumps and thermal storage in the home.

The list of critical technologies does not end there. Carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) is needed in two areas, National Grid says. It will capture carbon emissions from the production of ‘blue’ hydrogen via the reformation of natural gas, and it will deliver negative emissions via bioenergy plus CCS, a technology known as BECCS.

Whole system approach

The transformed energy system of tomorrow needs a whole system approach, National Grid argues. This is because each of the system’s parts increasingly depend on each other. Hugely enlarged renewable energy generation introduces more variability in supply and this has to be met within the system by increased flexibility.

This is where V2G and hydrogen production come in. At times of electrical over-supply, millions of electric vehicles will charge up and hydrogen will be produced via gigawatts of electrolysers to create a stored fuel. At times of electrical under supply, the V2G system will flow power back into the grid, while hydrogen, which can be also be used for heating and as a vehicle fuel, can be transformed back into electricity via fuel cells – essentially electrolysers working in reverse – to balance the system.

These possibilities, alongside other forms of electricity storage, such as batteries, and demand-side management, imply a much more integrated energy system than today, one in which all parts of the system need to ‘communicate’. This communication will be delivered by digitalization, for example smart meters and V2G controls. Indeed, the flow of data within an integrated clean energy system is likely to prove just as important as the energy flows.

Scenario differences

How National Grid ESO’s scenarios differ is in the role played by each of these critical technologies, which in part depends on consumers’ willingness to adapt.

'Consumer transformation' scenario

In the ‘consumer transformation’ scenario, in which consumers are happy adaptors, there is high energy efficiency and heating is almost entirely electrified.

'System transformation' scenario

In its ‘system transformation scenario’, where consumers are less willing to change, hydrogen is the main source of heating and energy efficiency levels are lower

‘Leading the way’ scenario

In its ‘leading the way’ scenario, which represents the fastest credible decarbonization pathway, consumers’ lifestyles change most and heating is provided by a mix of hydrogen and electrification.

What is clear is that for net zero to be achieved, the way in which energy is produced and consumed must change and the degree and speed of change will depend greatly on consumers’ willingness to adopt new technologies. Energy producers, meanwhile, are being called on to deliver major innovations in multiple areas to provide the critical technologies on which the success or failure of the energy transition rests.

Photo credit: National Grid ESO

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