Net Zero system overview

Net Zero can only be achieved through dramatic transformation of our entire energy system, incorporating energy generation, heating, transportation and industry. It requires changes in how we use our land, how we travel and even what we eat. And it will test our financial resolve, with HM Treasury suggesting that the cost of these changes may exceed £1tn. However, the high cost of achieving Net Zero must be compared to the cost of doing nothing.

Net Zero will test society’s will and commitment to the moral imperative to safeguard the global environment.

The 2050 Net Zero system will be underpinned by five key components: increased electricity generation; hydrogen as an energy vector; carbon capture and storage (CCS); systems integration; and system optimisation.

Reaching Net Zero by the path described by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) report will require:

  • Power generation to more than double (300 to 645 TWhr/yr).
  • 4x increase in low-carbon electricity generation (155 to 645 TWhr/yr).
  • 10x increase in hydrogen production and infrastructure for its use.
  • The creation of an entirely new CSS industry to capture 176Mt CO2 per annum – compared to 0 currently in the UK.
  • A sustained build rate of 9-12 GW/yr (including replacing of existing assets).

Simply to generate enough electricity to meet predicated demand, a deployment rate of new capacity will need to surpass anything in the UK’s history. Previously the largest single gigawatt annual addition to the UK’s generation capacity has been around 6GW. Such an increase will not be achieved without a sustained programme of works, cutting across the numerous existing generating technologies, as well as the development of other components, such as carbon capture and storage.

In addition to the changes required in how we generate our power, substantial changes will be required to the supporting infrastructure:

  • Smart grids: a sophisticated smart grid will be required to manage supply and demand on a real-time basis at individual user, regional and national level.
  • Hybrid heat pumps: which use both hydrogen and electricity, will be needed to provide least-cost heating.
  • Electric vehicles: mass adoption of electric vehicles will be needed, both private and mass transit. This will require significant investment in charging infrastructure and offers a particular challenge where only on-street parking is available. Vehicle-to-grid technology could offer an opportunity for energy storage.

Modelling such a complex system is a significant technical challenge, acutely sensitive to input data. An increase in the cost of one type of electricity generation and decrease in another may substantially alter the optimal balance between the two. Modelling results must therefore be taken as an indication of the direction of travel only, with a flexible approach deployed that is ready to adapt to technological developments, changes in gas prices, international market developments and policy decisions, which could all impact the UK’s ability to deliver Net Zero and the methods required to do so.

The Net Zero goal is extremely ambitious and will require coordinated use of what we call the ‘four levels of control’ across all types of government:

  1. Exhortation – the societal impact will be significant, public acceptance is critical.
  2. Taxation – the societal impact will be significant, public acceptance is critical.
  3. Spending – government can lead by supporting research and high-risk development.
  4. Legislation / Regulation – new laws can aid progress, for example, through the banning of petrol and diesel vehicle sales.

In order to manage this system, we propose the creation of an Energy System Architect, which we explore in more detail in the next article.

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