Great Britain’s system operator National Grid has provided its latest view on the way that the UK’s energy sector could develop over the next few decades.
Released on 5 July, the Future Energy Scenarios (FES) report, which is updated annually, models four plausible pathways for the energy system through to 2050 based on policy choices, and evaluates the impact that these would have on the power generation, transport and heat sectors. It is regarded as a key indicator of the future direction of travel, and helps to drive planning and investment decisions.
The four scenarios in this year’s FES are:
- Consumer Power—a market-driven world, with limited government intervention, and with high levels of prosperity allowing for high investment. New technologies abound, but the focus is on consumers over cutting emissions;
- Gone Green—a world where policy interventions and innovation are both ambitious and effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and where the 2050 carbon reduction target is achieved;
- No Progression—a world where “business as usual” activities prevail. Society is focused on the short term, concentrating on affordability above green ambition. Traditional energy sources dominate, with little innovation; and
- Slow Progression—a world where economic conditions limit society’s ability to transition as quickly as desired to a renewable, low-carbon world. Choices for residential consumers and businesses are restricted, yet a range of new technologies and policies develop. Some progress towards decarbonisation is made but at a slower pace than society would like.
In all of this year’s scenarios, National Grid suggests that, due to the closure of nuclear power and coal plants, there is a significant need for the deployment of new power generation sources in the years ahead.
Security of supply is, however, maintained, through an “increasingly diverse” combination of technologies: more small-scale thermal generation, access to additional capacity through greater interconnection, and the continued growth of low-carbon technologies.
Gas remains the “backbone” of the electricity supply mix, with the No Progression scenario suggesting that approximately 7GW of new large-scale combined cycle gas turbines (CCGTs) will be developed by 2022.
The flexibility offered by gas is regarded as important in providing back-up for the growth of more intermittent renewables, such as wind and solar, in the generation mix.
Gas is also expected to continue to play an important role in the heat sector. National Grid suggests that it will remain a primary heating fuel until the 2040s, and will then support the electrification of the sector by serving as the most efficient source for top-up heating.
But a key area of concern this year is progress on decarbonisation. National Grid takes the view that the most cost-effective approach to the low-carbon transition will be to focus on the electricity generation sector initially, and then to use low-carbon electricity to support progress in other sectors.
While other technologies can support the transition, decarbonising electricity will require the deployment of at least two of nuclear power, renewables, and carbon capture and storage (CCS).
The most efficient pathway, National Grid says, will utilise all three of these: deploying, by 22GW of nuclear power, 100GW of renewables and 20GW of CCS.
Under EU legislation, the UK has a target to source 15% of its energy from renewables by 2020. But even under the FES’s most optimistic decarbonisation scenario—Gone Green—the UK will only reach this target in 2022. In the No Progression scenario, the target will not be met until 2029.
This reflects the fact that progress on rolling out renewables across the three key sectors of electricity, heat and transport has, thus far, been uneven; significantly faster progress has been made in power generation than in the other two areas.
This disparity is reflected in the FES. The Gone Green scenario does see the UK meeting the unofficial sub-target of 34% of electricity being sourced from renewables by 2020.
However, the report projects that, in order to meet the overall 15% target, renewable heat will need to increase by approximately 60TWh from 2016 levels. For perspective, over the past four years the increase was under 10TWh.
Overall, the report emphasises the extent to which the decarbonisation agenda is impacting on the energy mix, and driving the UK to rely on an increasingly diverse range of technologies to meet the challenges of the energy trilemma.
But the pace of change, and the impact of political developments like the EU referendum, make it more difficult than ever to judge which of the pathways presented will capture the reality of the energy system over the next few decades.