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Supply and demand: Energy security in the UK

September 19, 2022

By John Ord and Amer Rafique

Extreme weather events are contributing to energy issues around the world. Here’s how the UK is handling it.

Since November 2021, the UK and Ireland have been lashed by six significant storms. They were Arwen, Barra, Corrie, Dudley, Eunice (the most severe), and Franklin. Thousands of homes were left without power for days, with citizens unable to keep warm and get by. Not every event is caused by or linked to climate change. But a study published last year has found that global warming is leading to a projected increase in the frequency and/or severity of extreme weather events in the UK.

Extreme bouts of weather—such as fierce storms, high winds, heavy rainfall, flooding, heatwaves, and drought—cause significant disruption across the UK. This disruption affects several of our sectors, particularly when it comes to energy and resources. And it has industry experts wondering: How can we secure our energy supply during future storms while also reaching our net zero sustainability targets?

The UK’s Energy Security Strategy aims at answering that question. How? By focusing on nuclear new build, increased renewables targets, removing our reliance on foreign gas supplies, and a new governmental body to oversee energy resilience. But what happens when the winds blow too hard or not enough? Or as we sweat through heatwaves or freeze during winter storms? And does this strategy reach far enough to secure our energy supply in the UK?

Extreme bouts of weather—such as fierce storms, high winds, heavy rainfall, flooding, heatwaves, and drought—cause significant disruption across the UK.

When the winds blow—or when they do not

The UK has increased its offshore wind target from 40 gigawatts (GW) to 50GW by 2030. 5GW of that is to be generated by floating offshore technology, a fairly new trend we have seen emerging in the industry.

The country is also reforming their planning laws to speed up new offshore approvals. This will allow us to build them faster. But this sizeable increase (from an already ambitious target) will require other things as well, such as buy-in from key stakeholders and a dedicated supply chain. We need the components to construct such an increase, as well as the ability to connect offshore wind to our transmission network.

But there are many days when the wind doesn’t blow. Or other days when storms are too severe for turbines to operate. Or days when the clouds roll in, and our solar panels are not fully effective. In any of these instances, we need flexible, large-scale energy storage. Encouraging these systems through appropriate policies is a good place to start.

Local battery storage clearly provides local energy buffering. But we haven’t invested in large-scale energy storage for decades. Why not?

As we look to expand renewables, we must develop large-scale storage to address our generation intermittency at the national level. Local storage will play a pivotal role in local demand management. And there is now a clear need for long duration energy storage on a national scale. This will help us power our communities when we cannot rely on renewables for full power.

The UK has increased its offshore wind target from 40 gigawatts (GW) to 50GW by 2030.

Building our full nuclear suite

Another way we could achieve energy security is with nuclear power. How? Nuclear provides baseload generation that can help us balance our increasingly intermittent energy system. The Energy Security Strategy brought long-awaited positive news for the nuclear industry. It is targeting up to eight new nuclear reactors by 2030. And they are exploring sites at Sizewell in Suffolk, Wylfa in Anglesey, Oldbury in Gloucestershire, and Moorside in Cumbria.

However, the uncertainty of long-term decommissioning costs is a key issue we must address. Previous challenges for new nuclear projects have included financial risk. This risk has been related to the inability to agree on an electricity tariff for nuclear generation—one that built in the whole life cost of a nuclear project from conception to decommissioning.

The UK strategy has been further developed over the years, with concepts like the Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) that’s proposed in Cumbria. Now, financing might find more comfort with a better view of whole nuclear lifecycle costs. By providing increased certainty on final disposal costs, we might achieve a better basis for tariff negotiation.

If we do strive for more nuclear new builds, including small modular reactors, the sector does need to push on with nuclear waste disposal, GDF planning, and permitting in parallel. But the development of these facilities could provide us with the base generation and flexibility we need to secure the UK’s energy.

Decarbonization is critical to the future of this planet. But so are we, and we need to keep the lights on in our communities as we combat climate change in the process.

Moving our energy around the country

The key to unlocking our renewable future is not simply through constructing new nuclear power stations, installing rows of turbines in the sea, or layering our buildings with solar panels. It’s about our ability to move electricity and store excess energy. To generate massive amounts of renewable energy, we need the integrated infrastructure to move it where it needs to go, when it needs to be there.

Our transmission network is under significant pressure. It needs a lot of upgrades and new infrastructure. We need to make sure we can distribute that 50GW of offshore wind power to where it is needed. Our transmission and distribution network operators need to work collaboratively on a nationwide solution.

We welcome the appointment of an Electricity Networks Commissioner to accelerate progress on network infrastructure. We need this complex overhead line infrastructure—especially in the face of more severe weather events.

The UK’s transmission network is under significant pressure. It needs a lot of upgrades and new infrastructure.

Using our geography to produce hydrogen

Another way the UK is looking to secure its energy supply is through hydrogen. In fact, their new hydrogen generation target has recently doubled to 10GW. Hydrogen can help us decarbonize our energy use while providing yet another alternative energy source during times of need.

In the next nine years, the UK is determined to turn a fledgling industry into one that will steer our fourth energy revolution. By setting its sights on a hydrogen economy—one that is ubiquitous across all sectors from heating homes to decarbonizing transport and industry—we are putting even more pressure on our electrical supply.

But what the current strategy hasn’t considered is our geography and resources. Physical geography has defined the UK’s economic geography for decades. Areas of our physical geography have an abundance of hydrogen’s vital ingredients: Clean water and large-scale renewable generation. We should be building our future hydrogen industry in these areas.

The impacts of climate change, including extreme weather events, will physically alter how and where we live. It will also change how and where we generate energy. Using geography to our advantage should be part of the strategy. 

From hydropower, wind, and solar, to hydrogen and nuclear, the UK Energy Security Strategy is inclusive, and all forms are welcome.

Future connections through land development

Various industry leaders were calling for a systems operator, architect, or a separate body to oversee energy security and resilience. Those calls were answered in the launch of the Future System Operator (FSO).

But when it comes to the land development sector, there is the challenge of addressing the ever-increasing cost of connection due to grid constraints. One of the FSO’s roles should be helping to de-risk growth, especially with the electric revolution in heating and electricity. We have a responsibility to encourage land development opportunities that support renewables, such as a wind farms, a localized power grid, or solar panels as canopies. Installing renewables on-site would be a value-added benefit to future new communities.

But the future of the UK’s onshore wind industry is not as ambitious as—and more restrained than—offshore wind production. Why? Well, the lack of space, for one. But onshore wind projects also require several consultations and partnerships to gain support from communities in exchange for guaranteed lower energy bills. The power of supportive communities in the face of new onshore generation projects is crucial to our infrastructure sector. It could also help address our housing crisis.

Securing energy in the UK

As you can see, securing the UK’s energy supply is a high wire balancing act. It is certainly not a one size fit all approach. We need to leverage all forms of energy to be successful, especially while we’re dealing with extreme weather events.

From hydropower, wind, and solar, to hydrogen and nuclear, the UK Energy Security Strategy is inclusive, and all forms are welcome. Decarbonization is critical to the future of this planet. But so are we, and we need to keep the lights on in our communities as we combat climate change in the process.

  • John Ord

    John has over 20 years of experience in client, consulting, and contracting organisations, giving him a comprehensive understanding of the dynamics and future direction of his industry.

    Contact John
  • Amer Rafique

    Amer has 30 years of engineering, project and programme management experience helping a range of utility and infrastructure clients to successfully deliver their projects.

    Contact Amer
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