Going Green or Business as Usual? What Might the Future Hold for Energy in the UK?

Are we likely to meet our targets to increase the use of renewables to 15%  of our total energy use by 2020, or to decarbonise our economy by 2050? In 2040, will we as citizens and will our elected Governments prioritise reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, or material wealth for consumers, with little regard for the environment? It is of course impossible to predict the future, but it is possible to construct different, realistic scenarios for how we as citizens and our elected Governments will behave in the coming decades. Such scenarios, regarding future energy use, consumption and behaviour, are published each year by the National Grid, and used by energy companies and policy-makers to inform strategic decision-making.

The latest iteration of the National Grid’s futures work was published this summer. ‘Future Energy Scenarios 2016′  (FES) sets out four visions in which levels of ‘green ambition’ and economic prosperity vary, which has consequent effects on investment in energy technologies, patterns of energy use, consumer behaviour and policy priorities. The National Grid is confident that the reality of the future of energy generation and use in the UK is captured somewhere within the range of the four scenarios within FES 2016.

The context for the FES scenarios is the tremendous change that has been seen in the UK energy system over the course of the past year; the National Grid describes this in the FES document as placing the UK in the midst of an ‘energy revolution’. Renewable electricity generation has grown, there have been advancements in alternative sources of gas and innovation in new consumer technologies. Underpinning all four scenarios are common current trends: that decarbonisation is driving significant changes to energy supplies in this country, many of which will reduce flexibility in energy generation. It is therefore becoming increasingly important to manage consumers’ demand-side responses (e.g. through Smart Meters) and to invest in electricity storage. Across all scenarios the National Grid is expecting an evolution in gas supplies, with exploitation of gas from shale (fracking), biomethane, bio-substitute natural gas and hydrogen from electricity and gas schemes all important to varying degrees. All of the scenarios have a high level of gas-fired power generation, as this will become increasingly important to provide flexible electricity generation and back-up heating.

The FES is clear that under all of the scenarios, the UK will not meet its target to deliver 15% of all energy from renewable sources by 2020. The earliest that this will be met – under the ‘Gone Green’ scenario – is 2022. This is due to the significant progress that is still required to decarbonise heating and transport. The pace of change in these sectors must accelerate significantly; a 170% increase on 2016 levels of renewable heat is required, an increase of 60 Twh (terrawatt hours), against a backdrop of an increase of less than 10 Twh between 2012 – 2016.

There must be a clear pathway to decarbonise heat and transport. To do so, energy generators and policy-makers must first continue progress to decarbonise electricity generation, using this low-carbon electricity then to support the decarbonisation of the heat and transport sectors. A mix of nuclear, renewables and carbon capture and storage (CCS) is seen as optimum in the FES document to deliver the decarbonisation of electricity generation, whilst gas continues to play a significant role. Even under the ‘Gone Green’ scenario, in 2030, 70% of homes will still use gas for all or part of their heating requirements. There could be up to 11GW of CCS-enabled gas-fired power station capacity by 2040.

The National Grid produced the FES document through extensive consultation with stakeholders throughout the energy sector and other interested parties. The scenarios are intended to be a stimulus to further debate and discussion about the energy future that the UK wishes to see, and how to get there.

The RGS-IBG is running a 21st Century Challenges Policy Forum event on the evening of 29th November, examining the future of the UK energy system, how this might be affected by the vote to leave the European Union and how energy generation at sub-national scales is likely to become increasingly significant. Find out more here.

The Scenarios in Brief

Gone Green

The economy is growing strongly and there are high levels of prosperity, with a focus from policy-makers and consumers on long-term environmental goals. Policy interventions and innovations are ambitious and effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The 2050 target, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% on 1990 levels, is achieved. The UK’s renewables target – 15% of all energy from renewable sources – is met in 2022.

Slow Progression

Economic conditions limit society’s ability to transition as quickly as desired. Policies balance the objective of moving to a low carbon world against the constraints of having less money available than in Gone Green. In homes and businesses, the cheapest energy-saving measures are preferred (such as loft and cavity wall insulation). Low-carbon technologies such as nuclear, wind and solar, are installed at a slow pace whilst there is a high dependency on gas imports (93% of gas imported) due to a lack of development of shale gas extraction. The renewables target is met in 2024 and the decarbonisation target is met beyond 2050.

No Progression

Business as usual. Society is focused on the short-term. Policies support traditional energy supplies with minimal subsidies from Government. There is little emphasis on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and consequently progress to meeting the renewables and decarbonisation targets is very slow; the 2020 target is met in 2029. Any technological developments focus on cost-reduction and ensuring the security of supply. As a result, shale gas extraction is prioritised and gas imports fall to low levels. However, energy generation from wind is 50% less than under ‘Gone Green’.

Consumer Power

There are high levels of prosperity, with high investment and innovation, but little intervention from Government with many decisions and interventions taken at local level. New technologies focus on meeting consumers’ desires and not on greenhouse gas reductions per se; reductions come about through increasingly efficient appliances that consumers swap regularly for the ‘latest thing’. There is a high level of support for local energy generation from individuals and communities, so this is has the greatest installed capacity in distributed generation and electricity storage of all of the scenarios: 44% of all electricity is from small-scale generation in 2040.

Image: Stanford Nuclear Power Station. cyocum, Flickr.

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