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How can the UK move towards a net zero carbon economy by 2050?

October 11, 2021

Keeping net zero ambitions at the centre of the revised National Policy Statements for Energy

The long-awaited draft revised UK Government National Policy Statements for Energy were issued on September 6, 2021. NPS EN 1 (Overarching NPS) and NPS EN 2-5 covering natural gas generation, renewable energy, gas supply infrastructure, oil pipelines, and electricity network infrastructure respectively.

The draft NPS (and last year’s Energy White Paper) focus on how energy, as well as the move towards a net zero carbon economy by 2050, will play a critical role in enabling interdependent infrastructure, ensuring post-Covid economic growth, and levelling up the agenda.

However, can the aims of the Energy White Paper be delivered quickly enough through the planning system?

A step change for energy generation

Ensuring our energy supply remains secure, reliable, affordable, and consistent while meeting net zero goals by 2050 will require a ‘step change’ in the decarbonisation of our energy system.

However, developing appropriate energy infrastructure remains favorable and the Government recognises that there are several different types of electricity infrastructure needed. Additional generating plants, electricity storage, interconnectors, and increased resilience of electricity networks all have a place.

Ensuring our energy supply remains secure, reliable, affordable, and consistent while meeting net zero goals by 2050 will require a ‘step change’ in the decarbonisation of our energy system.

Although we realise the urgency for new electricity Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP), the challenge and time to bring these to fruition—through the national planning process and construction—must be addressed. 

Although we realise the urgency for new electricity Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP), the challenge and time to bring these to fruition—through the national planning process and construction—must be addressed.

The future is electric and innovative

We are in for an electric future: “…. demand for electricity is likely to increase significantly over the coming years and could more than double by 2050 as large parts of transport, heating and industry decarbonise by switching from fossil fuels to low carbon electricity. The Impact Assessment for Carbon Budget 6 shows an illustrative range of 465-515TWh in 2035 and 610- 800TWh in 2050.” (NPS-EN1)

Where electricity, gas, petroleum, hydrogen, and road infrastructure have been conceived independently, it is likely that these will increasingly merge into one system with critical interdependencies.

The Government is playing a strong hand on delivering this through a major need for financing innovation and then rapid adoption. Carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) gets a big billing, where Government restates its commitment to developing business models to incentivise CCUS facilities and hydrogen. NPS-EN1 commits to placing a commercial framework to help developers finance the construction and operation of power and industrial CCUS facilities.

For power CCUS, the Government recognises the relative success of the Contract for Difference (CfD) mechanism in the offshore wind market. To incentivise power CCUS, there’s a commitment to introduce a similar business model so that it has a complementary role to renewables in the system. For industrial CCUS, the Government will incentivise the deployment of carbon capture technology through the Industrial Carbon Capture Business Model including energy-from-waste facilities.

It’s clear the intention is for CCUS to play a role in not only capturing emissions from gas-fired power generation, but also from biomass, energy-from-waste, industry, and hydrogen production.

However, developing a network of carbon transport infrastructure and storage sites is perhaps not as well defined in the NPS. This potentially poses barriers to deployment. If we are to make progress, this is an area that will require focus in the near- to medium-term.

Developing a network of carbon transport infrastructure and storage sites is perhaps not as well defined in the NPS, posing potential barriers to deployment. To make progress, this area will require focus in the near- to medium-term. 

No technology winner, we need a mix

The mix of technologies used to achieve a smooth transition to net zero is largely up to industry. But it will inevitably be driven by financial incentives in the marketplace. Although the NPS specifically discount the development of new coal or oil-fired plants, it’s confirmed that: “… the government does not consider it appropriate for planning policy to set limits on different technologies but planning policy can be used to support the government’s ambitions in energy policy and other policy areas”.

Alongside CCUS, the NPS also support small-scale nuclear, green and blue hydrogen, direct greenhouse gas removal technology, and better overall planning and coordination of the UK transmission network to deliver carbon savings.

In terms of renewables, the commitment to offshore wind is 40 gigawatts (GW) by 2030.  NPS-EN3 now specifically considers solar developments above 50 megawatts (MW) that are now viable, given improved technology, efficiencies, and lower capital costs. Previously not included in NPS, large-scale solar now has a significant role in delivering our energy needs.

The need for low carbon energy features heavily in the NPS. But the role of natural gas generation is recognised in delivering a reliable energy supply. New natural gas-fired peaking plants will be required in the short-term and perhaps beyond 2050 to support the transition to net zero.

The suggestion of dropping the Carbon Capture Readiness threshold of 300 MW is suggested in the NPS, but not confirmed. As part of the energy transition, gas-fired projects will still be around for some time. It will be essential to work with these facilities to mitigate their carbon emissions until they can be replaced by alternative energy production.

NPS EN-6 relates to nuclear electricity generation and has not been revised. However, draft NPS-EN1 does state that: “additional nuclear beyond Hinkley Point C will be needed to meet our energy objectives.” This could be fulfilled by large-scale nuclear, small modular reactors, advanced modular reactors, and fusion power plants.

A changing landscape

From an initial review, the flexibility offered by the revised draft NPS is welcomed. A smooth transition to net zero will rely on a broad mix of technologies. And it will take time and funding to deploy. The recognition that natural gas still has a role to play is a pragmatic approach, showing that the Government needs to carefully balance net zero goals with security of supply.  

Although the NPS are yet to go through a formal consultation process, it’s likely to result in minor amendments rather than fundamental changes. Given the level of changes to the NPS from previous versions, the NPS is an updated document rather than a full-scale rewrite.

In our opinion, there is a lot to do—including revisiting all the NPS, beyond energy. For example, how can the NPS for national networks think beyond just road and rail? How can they align with the strategic planning of future employment patterns, associated mobility needs, and spatial routing of power networks? 

In our opinion, there is a lot to do—including revisiting all the NPS, beyond energy. How can the NPS for national networks think beyond just road and rail? How can they align with the strategic planning of future employment patterns, associated mobility needs, and spatial routing of power networks? 

We would also like to see a joint approach to calculating carbon budgets, ensuring that all NSIPs—not only energy developments—are consented in light of the sixth carbon budget. Given the urgent need for energy NSIPs, we would also welcome a ‘tiered’ approach to consenting smaller and less contentious projects.

We’ll look closely at NPS EN 2-5, the changing policy landscape for energy infrastructure, and how the NPS align. It’s important to consider how both the NPS and the Energy White Paper will affect regional growth, what investment opportunities result from the energy transition, and how innovation will need to be accelerated to meet our collective obligations to decarbonise society. 

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