11 OCT 2021


To achieve net zero by 2050, the UK needs sound plans founded upon risk-based engineering analysis to create a resilient, decarbonised energy future, argues David Cole of Atkins.

The current instability in the energy market has shone a light on the resilience of the UK’s energy system. Global surges in gas demand, coupled with low wind output and interconnector outages limiting imports from the continent, have tightened capacity margins and created record high gas prices, but these short-term spikes reveal market issues that are deep rooted and which must urgently be addressed.

For a decade, UK energy policy has focused heavily on bringing forward investment in clean energy, intervening in the electricity market to generously subsidise renewable sources and effectively freezing out other technologies. This has undoubtedly been a success - our electricity system has decarbonised by over 60% in the last seven years. However, the successful growth of renewables on our system has masked our continued reliance on fossil fuels and imported electricity to balance these increasing volumes of intermittent power. To rebalance our energy system and meet decarbonisation goals, we need to revisit market fundamentals.

Remember the trilemma

The critical challenge in energy has always been the need to balance the ‘trilemma’ - the competing pressures of affordability, sustainability and security of supply. The urgency to meet low carbon targets and fixation on one criterion has upset the balance, creating a weather-dependent energy system without the technology needed to mitigate fluctuations and a critical under-investment in new power beyond wind over the last decade. In short, the current crisis has been a long time coming.

Meeting the UK’s net zero targets is a gargantuan challenge. Accelerating the build rate of new generating assets from 6GW to as much as 12GW a year is an unprecedented undertaking, but the choice and blend of generating technologies will be critical to design a resilient energy system and ensure a just transition to net zero.

Any notion that our energy system for 2050 will be determined by competitive selection of the most appropriate technologies should be viewed critically. Currently it is being determined on the basis of economic modelling and with no public evidence of an engineering and operations based strategic plan.

We cannot look at the cost of power in isolation. For example, the rapidly falling £/MWh cost of offshore wind fails to acknowledge the wider system costs required to bring more intermittent power onto the grid. This includes purchasing additional stand by power, the cost of energy storage, incentivising large energy consumers to reduce peak time consumption (demand side response), infrastructure investment (and, without it, the cost of curtailment payment, when generators are paid when demand is low and renewable output is high, even though we don’t take their power). 

Offshore wind has a major role to play in decarbonisation and developing a system that adapts to our future technology mix is at the heart of achieving net zero, but we must make rational decisions that take into account whole-system impacts. 

A whole-system approach

Atkins has long made the case for the creation of an energy system architect to provide a plan for the net zero transition. This body would be independent of any specific technology and hold policy makers to account, but also provide a balance between the economists who make the choice of generating technology on the basis of lowest cost and the engineers who, whilst recognising the need to minimise cost, may give more weight to system operability and reliability. 

The UK is not yet on track to achieve net zero by 2050. To get there, we urgently need to move away from the scenarios that provide a false sense of security with their multitude of pathways and an illusion that a multitude of choices still lie ahead of us. Instead, we need sound plans founded upon risk-based engineering analysis to create a resilient, decarbonised energy future. We must focus on engineering net zero. 

David Cole is market director of net zero energy at Atkins.

Click here to read a copy of Atkins’ latest white paper, Towards Net Zero.


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