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A low carbon electricity system is now closer than we think

18 July 2022

Hidden in the recent news cycle was some ‘astonishingly’ good news for low carbon energy in Great Britain.

A low carbon electricity system is now closer than we think
Great Britain will build 11GW of new renewable power projects, mostly coming from offshore wind. Image credit: Ann in the uk/Shutterstock

The traditional ‘energy trilemma’ highlights the importance of balancing three factors:

  • sustainability and the environment
  • affordability and availability
  • security and reliability

The wisdom behind this approach has never been more apparent than in 2022.

Those of us concerned about climate change have long advocated the need to wean society off its dependence on cheap and plentiful fossil fuels.

These have generally enabled humanity to enjoy much more comfortable lives, but at a terrible cost to our climate and environment.

What Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means for energy

However, it’s been Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that has radically changed the energy supply paradigm.

Traditional sources of energy are spiralling in price, sending millions into fuel poverty, while their future reliability is now very much in doubt.

Worryingly, it took Russia’s aggression to persuade Europe to cancel the almost-completed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

This would’ve brought even more cheap Russian gas to Europe, showing that rhetoric about preventing climate change had been just hot air.

A low carbon energy future is inevitable

Most low carbon sources of energy generally score very well on the trilemma for sustainability and security. They originate either domestically or in the territory of Britain’s neighbours and allies.

The issue has always been their affordability and availability.

Low carbon energy used to be relatively expensive compared to gas fired power stations. Renewable power was also intermittent – only on when it was windy or sunny.

But the climate crisis means we need to radically decarbonise all power sources while electrifying huge areas of our economy, from home heating (via heat pumps) to powering new electric vehicles.

The Climate Change Commission’s (CCC) Sixth Carbon Budget predicts that our electricity generation must almost triple by 2050, from about 300TWhrs to almost 800TWhrs.

A step change for Britain’s renewable capacity

It was welcome then that hidden in the recent news cycle was some astonishingly good news for low carbon energy.

Following the latest round of Contracts for Difference (CfDs) auctions, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy has confirmed:

  • Britain will build 11GW of new renewable power projects – more than three times the capacity of Hinkley Point C and more than was auctioned in all three previous CfD rounds combined.
  • The prices will be four times lower than the current cost of gas and 70% less than the first CfD auction round in 2015.
  • The projects already have planning permission, and all are due to be ready by 2026/27.

The new capacity will mainly come from offshore wind (7GW) and solar (2.2GW) but includes some onshore wind. Plus, the innovative technologies of tidal stream and floating offshore wind.

Benefitting consumers

This new power will be very sustainable and affordable.

In total, 93 locations will host projects from the latest CfD allocation. As renewables become sited in a more diverse range of locations, they also become more reliable.

Renewable energy will always need balancing with baseload power sources, such as nuclear and some fossil fuels, to ensure continuity of supply.

However, one day these sources will be made clean by capturing and storing their carbon output.

Moreover, these new sources of low carbon power will:

  • Accelerate the reduction in the embodied carbon of electricity still further. The decline in carbon from electricity generation has been one of the biggest factors behind Britain’s decarbonisation progress since 1990.
  • Reduce Britain’s dependence on imported fossil fuels from less stable parts of the world and make it more independent from the impact of world events.
  • Make British power more economical for consumers as well as helping Britain’s balance of payments.

Accelerating climate action is vital

The most recent CCC report on Britain’s climate action was unusually critical of the government’s progress in implementing measures on decarbonisation. In particular it criticises:

  • significant policy gaps, for instance on electric vehicle charge points and insulation of existing houses
  • lagging delivery, including on heat pump installation for houses
  • inadequate risk management and contingency planning

All this wonderful low carbon power coming on stream can help address some of those gaps. It will also make our cities cleaner and healthier by eliminating fossil fuels from our cars and homes.

We need to move quicker as a nation to grasp this opportunity.

Read ICE’s response to the Climate Change Committee’s recent progress report to Parliament.

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  • Tim Chapman, Partner and Director at Boston Consulting Group