What is an Energy System Architect and why do we need one to reach Net Zero 2050?

The UK’s Net Zero system is incredibly complex.

The supply, demand and system-balancing elements are all interconnected and interdependent. They are also dependent on other developments of national infrastructure, cities and industry. It will require detailed input from a broad set of government and industry stakeholders to even articulate the challenge, let alone deliver it.

We need to deliver an unprecedented build rate – between 9 to 12GW built a year, every year until 2050. The UK currently has no CCS capacity, nor a hydrogen production industry. Without these, without major capital energy projects, and a coordinated approach, we will never reach 2050. While governments fluctuate, the outcome of decisions made in the next few years will impact our national life and economic wellbeing for decades.

In a liberalised and competitive ‘free market’, investment decisions are rarely made on a long-term basis. They are also unlikely to support deployment of billion-pound, ‘first of a kind’ projects.

Government intervention in the market is fundamental. A successful example of this is offshore wind: the sector developed because government provided massive support to initiate early projects. Without this, no offshore wind projects would have been built. This now needs to happen for others. The function of an Energy System Architect (ESA) is to develop a system architecture capable of guiding the markets, and ensuring long-term system optimisation. Aspects of this will include: deployment of offshore wind to continue; an essential CCS industry to be created; and the re-installation of nuclear, which has stalled despite government policy to build 15GW to replace our existing nuclear fleet.

This far-reaching programme of change needs the ESA as a guiding mind and coordinating body to keep all drivers (multiple government departments, industry and special interest lobbies) aligned to create the best energy system, and meet evolving demand and available technologies. As Net Zero is now a legally binding requirement, the ESA should have the weight of government authority, but with independence, perhaps a non-departmental public body with a limited lifespan and a well-defined charter. It is a national critical programme that needs be held solely accountable for delivery.

But no plan is ever set in stone for the next 30 years: the ESA will need to be dynamic to global and domestic changes in generation, demand, performance, industry and technology.

The risks in failing to deploy key Net Zero components such as CCS, and the knock-on effects within the system, reinforce the importance of keeping alternative options open, and developing an actively managed and constantly updated system architecture. And it should be run by a technologically neutral system architect, with the power to inform policy and direct the available government support to the areas required most urgently.

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