Secure, Carbon-Free and Electric? The UK's Energy System in 2050

The UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) has released a major new report addressing two of the British Government’s toughest energy policy goals – delivering reliable energy to consumers while meeting its legal commitment to reduce C02 emissions by 80% by 2050.

The report concludes that:

* The UK electricity sector must be decarbonised by 2050, by which time oil use will be virtually eliminated;

* Tougher energy efficiency measures could reduce exposure to volatile energy markets, buying time before full decarbonisation of the electricity system takes place;

New and improved low-carbon technologies need a reliable carbon price; a market signal of around £200/tonne C02 by 2050, 15 times the current EU carbon price, is needed to hit the long-term target. This rises to £300-350/tonne C02 if action is delayed or more stringent targets are set.

The report finds that decarbonising the electricity system with nuclear, renewables and coal plant fitted with carbon capture and storage (CCS) would unlock new potential, allowing electricity to be increasingly used in transport and buildings. A low-carbon energy system could be a high-electricity system.

But it also shows that the more aggressive pursuit of energy efficiency would make the UK system more secure while still leaving it on track to hit the 2050 target. Under this scenario, energy efficiency provides insurance against delays in the development of low carbon technologies, allowing decarbonisation to take place a decade later.

Report findings include:

* Energy efficiency is the most cost-effective way of reducing energy demand and carbon emissions, while protecting vulnerable consumers from higher energy prices;

* None of the UKERC scenarios foresee renewable energy going in sufficiently quickly to meet the target in the EU Climate and Energy Package;

* Lifestyle changes could dramatically reduce the cost of meeting CO2 targets. This could involve phasing out petrol/diesel vehicles in town and city centres by 2050, though the use of vans could increase as a result of restrictions on HGVs and an increase in internet shopping. Halving energy use in homes is possible with a combination of major efficiency improvements and modest lifestyle change;

* Reducing CO2 emissions leads, for the most part, to reductions in other environmental emissions; the release of some pollutants, notably sulphur dioxide, will fall substantially. However, pressures on water and land use will need to be managed, as will some atmospheric emissions and radioactive releases;

* Major gas shocks could have cost impacts measured in £billions, mainly through lost supplies to industrial consumers. More investment in gas storage or import facilities could mitigate these impacts;

* Investing in research and technological innovation would significantly reduce the cost of reaching CO2 targets; substantial increases in R&D expenditure appear justified;

* Early action on carbon reduction implies taking a longer-term view of investment in a low-carbon energy system: investing more in infrastructure and solutions such as low carbon buildings, hydrogen fuel cells and electric vehicles;

* Microgeneration offers a radically different approach to meeting energy needs, but capital cost and performance are currently barriers for many technologies. However, it could be important in meeting future residential heating needs, and could help catalyse change towards low carbon lifestyles.

Commenting on the findings, Professor Jim Skea, research director at UKERC says: “UK energy policy goals are extraordinarily ambitious. Meeting them will require efforts well beyond the bounds of historical experience. By looking at the energy system in the round, our researchers have shown not only that the goals can be met but that it is possible to reconcile them with wider technological, social and environmental changes.”

Leave a Comment