How a ‘flexible’ power system will be key for the UK to meet net-zero targets

After enduring a difficult few months for power supply and demand, questions about the UK’s ability to meet ambitious 2050 net-zero targets have been raised. Andrew Tunnicliffe learns about future challenges, the Flexibility in Great Britain project and how a “flexible” energy system might be the answer. 

With the removal company booked and boxes almost packed, Prime Minister Theresa May threw a curveball. In her final days at Downing Street, she set about creating a legacy other than Brexit. Suggesting it was our “moral duty” to leave the world a better place than we found it, she said: “Now is the time to go further and faster to safeguard the environment for our children. We must lead the world to a cleaner, greener form of growth.”

She announced the UK would become the first major economy in the world to pass legislation to achieve net-zero carbon emission by 2050, a bold but sometimes criticised announcement. Whatever your view on the political theatre that surrounded it, the goal was ambitious. It also meant that original targets of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by the middle of the century were consigned to history.

On news of the target passing into law a short while later, then Energy and Clean Growth Minister Chris Skidmore said that it put clean growth at the heart of the government’s modern industrial strategy. “We’re pioneering the way for other countries to follow in our footsteps,” he added.

/ Great Britain faces a huge challenge to deliver a net-zero energy system by 2050. /

UK energy infrastructure faces challenging future

It is clear that ambition isn’t lacking, but is the UK ready to be a pioneer?

“Great Britain faces a huge challenge to deliver a net-zero energy system by 2050,” warns Andrew Lever, the director of the Carbon Trust. “This [the revised 2050 target] will have a large impact on the energy system in 2050, and we hypothesise that storage and flexibility will be increasingly important to manage supply and demand.”

In May, the Carbon Trust announced its next major initiative: working with Imperial College London and a raft of industry stakeholders to provide valuable insight into how a flexible energy system can help secure a net-zero economy by 2050, through the Flexibility in Great Britain project.

/ Great Britain faces a huge challenge to deliver a net-zero energy system by 2050. /

Lever says that today’s energy system is transitioning from a linear one, where energy is supplied to consumers by a small number of large power stations or oil and gas fields. He believes this model will be increasingly unfit for purpose as the country strives to meet 2050 requirements.

Indeed, research conducted by Imperial College London shows that the UK only avoided a blackout during the extremely challenging first half of 2020 thanks to the flexibility provided by power stations and businesses.

During this time, wind farms were supporting the power network, producing 40% more power per day than during the same period in 2019. However, as the wind eased, output fell sharply, at one point leaving the grid with just 0.2GW of spare capacity.

Imperial’s research, conducted on behalf of Drax Electric Insights, found that biomass, pumped storage, and gas increased their output to meet demand, “while factories and supermarkets reduced their usage to help maintain normal day-ahead power prices”.

/ The emergence of electrified heating via heat pumps will result in greater integration between gas and electricity networks. /

Carbon Trust looks to a flexible future

The Trust’s project will see it and Imperial work with an industry consortium, comprising business, government and regional authorities, regulators, and industry bodies. The aim is to look at how net-zero can be achieved by adopting more integrated and flexible practices; through research, industry engagement, and, most interestingly, modelling. However, it will go beyond the power sector to look at how others, like transport and heat, can better work together and with the power sector.

“The emergence of electrified heating via heat pumps, for example, or hydrogen for heating via electrolysis, will result in greater integration between gas and electricity networks,” says Lever.

He says that some examples of greater integration might include: increased coordination between the heat and power sectors; more collaboration between heat and transportation providers; and enhanced distributed systems at city or regional scales, meeting local energy needs effectively while coordinating with the national system.

/ The emergence of electrified heating via heat pumps will result in greater integration between gas and electricity networks. /

Imperial will deliver the modelling, using its Integrated Whole Energy Systems Model, to investigate opportunities for greater integration across the sectors, as well as provide insight into the most suitable business models to ensure all sectors are ready for the future.

The Trust is convinced that there are opportunities to be cost effective, if cross-sector engagement can be fostered. This is particularly evident given the growing focus on decarbonisation in transportation and heating.

/ We aim to develop a robust and up-to-date evidence base on the role and value of flexibility in a net-zero system. /

Developing flexible strategies for billions in saving

This project follows previous work that suggested tens of billions could be saved as the UK energy system transitions. In 2016, the Carbon Trust and Imperial said they believed savings could total £40bn on the cost of the energy system of the future, if sectors could find a route to greater flexibility, improved storage, and better integration.

“We hope to establish the value of flexibility to the Great Britain energy system in reaching net-zero, and make recommendations on the policy and regulatory actions required now to make investing in flexibility an attractive proposition,” Lever says.

/ We aim to develop a robust and up-to-date evidence base on the role and value of flexibility in a net-zero system. /

Once complete – findings are expected to be published in early 2021 – the results could provide policymakers and industry with a useful tool for developing strategies needed to meet the 2050 deadline.

“This will assess the system level value of deploying flexibility within the UK, and the sensitivity of this value to different assumptions. We aim to develop a robust and up-to-date evidence base on the role and value of flexibility in a net-zero system, to help the sector and government create technology, policy, and business model pathways to help realise this vision,” Lever continues.

/ The next six months will be crucial in setting the global economic recovery on a sustainable footing. /

Technology has the answers 

Lever believes that projects of this kind can provide insights into the costs and benefits of different approaches and identify when and how flexibility could be valuable. However, he says it is also important to consider beyond technology and review the policy, regulatory, and market barriers to its deployment.

“These findings, particularly when supported by cross-industry and government stakeholders, strengthen the case for removing those barriers and builds the business case for investment,” he adds.

An area that Lever is already optimistic about is technological development: how technologies can assist in reaching the 2050 target and how the significant reductions in cost seen in recent years are helping drive innovation. He says that offshore wind and lithium-ion battery storage are two examples of success stories in the sector.

/ The next six months will be crucial in setting the global economic recovery on a sustainable footing. /

Now though, the focus should be on “developing the infrastructure to use hydrogen as a replacement for natural gas, and the development of carbon capture and storage, for example”.

“Our goal is to provide a robust evidence base that allows industry, policymakers, and regulators to navigate the road to net-zero,” continues Lever.

The project is timely given a recent warning from the International Energy Agency that the next six months will be crucial in setting the global economic recovery on a sustainable footing. Lever says that continuing to focus on the long-term goal of net-zero emissions, and demonstrating the economic and social benefits of doing so, are “critical to ensuring that we are not locked in to sub-optimal pathways in the coming decades”.

The energy sector of the future will not look the same, that is clear. The question is, can it continue to manage the challenges of today, whilst planning for tomorrow? This project might present some of the answers.

Playing catch-up in the US

“In Europe, offshore wind has been there for a number of years, but I think in the United States we're a little bit behind that,” said Karustis.

Should it be successful, Halo’s approach could lead to a surge in US onshore wind, which has historically lagged behind other regions in terms of wind installation and production. Since 2016, according to the International Energy Agency, the US has installed just 22.6GW of new onshore wind capacity, compared to 30.7GW in the EU, and 50.3GW in China, struggles that Karustis hopes to address.

Last December, the Chinese Government approved a number of new offshore wind projects, totalling 13GW of production and costing around $13.3bn, as the country continues to invest in utility-scale power. Karustis hopes projects like Halo’s distributed turbine can contribute to a more balanced wind sector in the US, with both large- and small-scale operations expanding renewable power.

“The large-scale wind turbines wouldn't be phased out, it's kind of an ‘all of the above’ thing,” he said. “The large wind farms play a very important role for us in reducing the carbon footprint globally, and hopefully the micro wind market is going to augment that by producing energy where energy is being used. It's a good two-pronged approach.”

This two-pronged approach also includes other renewable power sources, including solar and utility-scale wind; Halo is not trying to replace all clean energy with its turbines, but offer another option for people eager to engage in renewable power, who may have been historically sidelined due to the high costs of building utility-scale facilities or the unsuitable geographical characteristics of the places they live.

“When you look at that market we're very excited because just as megawatt-scale wind is a large market, I think distributed wind can be as big of a market or bigger over time,” said Karustis.

“When you have incentives and improvements in the technology, the costs go down, so you can be more competitive and compete, and that's certainly the case with megawatt-scale wind,” he continued. “Just 15/20 years ago, it wasn't competitive with natural gas [and] coal, but it is now. So those government policies have helped and they've driven the technology improvements, so it's all bundled together.”