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A renewables-based energy system in the UK is possible – but we need to act now

11 May 2023

The UK has made great strides in decarbonising its power system. Let’s build on this progress, writes RenewableUK’s Barney Wharton.

A renewables-based energy system in the UK is possible – but we need to act now
New developments in offshore wind mean that net zero ambitions are within reach. Image credit: Shutterstock.

What does the power system of the future look like?

This was the topic at the most recent All-Party Parliamentary Group on Infrastructure (APPGI) industry briefing, which I had the pleasure of delivering last month.

The UK is a world leader in power decarbonisation.

Ten years ago, coal made up around 40% of the UK’s generation capacity. Last year this fell to just 2%.

At the same time, wind generation has increased from 1.74% of power in 1996 to around 25% in 2022. In total, the carbon intensity of the UK’s power system has fallen by 62% in a decade.

But if the UK is to decarbonize its whole economy, it needs to build on this progress. And the final push will be the most difficult.

Energy doesn’t mean electricity – for the moment at least

The UK meets around 80% of its total energy demand with fossil fuels, the majority of which is used in heating and transport.

To reach net zero, the UK will need to eliminate almost all use of natural gas and replace fossil fuels in transport with either electricity or hydrogen. The hydrogen itself will be made by using electricity to split water.

This means the UK’s demand for electricity will grow massively.

How can the UK meet electricity demand?

First, it will need to deploy more renewables.

At present, the UK has around 13GW of onshore wind on the system. This needs to reach at least 30GW by 2030.

Offshore wind capacity currently stands at 14GW. The UK government has a target of 50 GW by 2030 and, according to the Climate Change Committee, will need to reach as much as 125 GW by 2050.

This may seem ambitious, but we’ve already seen that we can ramp up deployment.

Built in 2000, North Hoyle was the first commercial offshore wind farm in the UK. It consisted of 30 2MW turbines, 8 kilometres from shore.

Dogger Bank C, part of the 3,600MW Dogger Bank Wind Farm, will be 196km from the shore. Using 15MW turbines, it will generate the same power as North Hoyle from just four turbines.

New developments in floating offshore wind turbines mean that the 2030 ambition is within reach.

But the sector still faces barriers

To achieve this, though, the UK must address the barriers to development.

Tim Pick, the UK government’s offshore wind champion, recently published a report outlining some of the key issues.

The planning process is particularly ripe for reform. It can take as long as 12 years from securing a site to starting construction, and then a further three or four years to build. We don't have this much time.

Furthermore, the UK needs to expand its grid.

Current electricity regulation is based on fossil fuels. But the country is moving towards a decentralised, low-carbon system.

We need to be bolder in our strategic planning.

Even if we don’t know where future wind farms will be, we know the UK will need more capacity to get power to the areas that need it. We should be building this network today.

Storage is an essential part of the picture

The fact is that the wind doesn’t always blow. Once renewable sources are on the system, storage will play a vital role in managing power supply.

There are many different types of storage: batteries, compressed-air energy storage (CAES), pumped hydro, which the UK has been using for decades, and underground hydrogen storage.

These different technologies will provide different services.

Batteries are fast-responding and will keep the system stable second by second. Liquid air and pumped hydro have a longer life and will balance the system as generation varies across days.

Green hydrogen, generated by clean, electricity-split water, can be stored for weeks, months or even years.

This will help manage the system as demand for electricity increases in the winter and falls in the summer.

The energy system of the future will be renewable, but we must act now

Offshore wind will be the backbone of the UK’s energy system. But despite recent progress, we can’t be complacent.

The UK government must deliver the planning reform needed to accelerate deployment and maximise economic opportunities.

It needs to get serious about building the network to move power around the country.

It must incentivise the investment necessary to deploy new technologies at pace and scale within the next few years.

If the UK can achieve all this, the low-carbon electricity system that will benefit society, the environment, and the economy is within reach.

Learn more

RenewableUK provided this industry briefing to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Infrastructure (APPGI) on 10 May.

Find out more about the work of the APPGI

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  • Barney Wharton, director of future electricity systems at RenewableUK