Britain’s future energy – a look ahead to 2050

To meet Britain’s carbon reduction targets requires a world where environmental sustainability is top priority.
Published: Tue 18 Jul 2017

Preparing for the energy future is an ongoing task that is currently occupying many minds.

It’s not that the 2050 end picture set out by the climate targets of the Paris Accord is changing. Rather that the day to day political and economic mores may impact on the pathways and the sequencing of technologies to achieve that end game.

This is starkly illustrated in the latest Future Energy Scenarios, which National Grid, as the UK transmission system operator, prepares annually as it looks towards the UK’s energy system in the 2050 timeframe.

“It is impossible to forecast a single energy future over the long term,” states Head of Energy Insights Marcus Stewart. “By providing a range of credible futures, it allows us to support the development of an energy system that is robust against a range of outcomes.”

The Future Energy Scenarios serve as a basis for long-term investment and operability planning by National Grid. It is a parallel initiative to the Future Power Systems Architecture project.

Renewables in Britain

The Future Energy Scenarios 2017 offer four key messages.

First, an energy system with high levels of distributed and renewable generation has become a reality.

In 2016, the total amount of renewable generating capacity was 34GW, making up 34% of total installed capacity.

Of this, the installed capacity from distributed generation reached 26GW or 27% of total installed capacity.

This growth is set to continue, increasing the complexity to operate. Looking forward to 2050, these figures could increase to totals of 110GW (or 60%) and 93GW (or 50%) respectively.

Responsive balancing products and services will be needed to deliver flexibility across both the electricity and gas systems.

New technologies

Second, new technologies and evolving business models are rapidly transforming the energy sector.

There are rapid changes in technologies and approaches such as battery storage, electric vehicles (EVs) and demand side response.

Electricity storage capacity totalled 4GW in 2016 and this could grow to almost 6GW by 2020.

The energy sector also is becoming more diverse with a move away from a small number of large companies, to a wide range of smaller providers and innovators.

Effective market and regulatory arrangements and investment will be required to support a flexible energy system and achieve an agile, coordinated and accessible energy market that delivers value for consumers.

Electricity demand

Third, electricity demand has the potential to increase significantly. The shape of demand will also change, driven initially by EVs and later by heat demand.

In 2050, electricity peak demand could be as high as 85GW, compared to around 60GW today.

EVs are projected to reach around one million by the early 2020s, and there could be as many as nine million by 2030. Without smart charging, this could result in an additional 8GW of demand at peak times. Heat pump demand may also add to this.

If weather patterns continue to change, air conditioning could raise peak demand in summer to a similar level to winter towards the end of the scenario period.

Away from peak demand periods the increase in distributed generation, in particular solar, could lead to periods of very low demand on the transmission system.

These changes will require a range of solutions to deliver the best value for consumers, including a coordinated approach across the whole system; investment in smart technologies, transmission and distribution infrastructure; and commercial approaches such as consumer behaviour change.

Gas in the supply mix

Fourth, gas is critical to security of supply both now and as Britain continues the transition to a low carbon future.

Gas provides value to consumers and the whole energy system. It supplies more than twice as much energy annually as electricity today and could still provide more energy than electricity in 2050.

However, the gas infrastructure is ageing and the demands on it are also changing, requiring a more flexible system. It will need to be maintained or adapted, and it is likely that some upstream entry and further storage facilities will close over the scenario period.

Traditional sources of gas also are declining. However, there are plenty of options for providing a continuing supply of gas, both from the world market and from novel sources within Britain. Some of these may require innovative approaches to connecting and transporting gas.

In order to meet the 2050 carbon reduction target, decarbonisation of heat needs to pick up pace now. Thus, gas will continue to play an important role in this transition and beyond with new technologies and the potential use of hydrogen.

Energy scenarios

The scenarios are intended as a range of “credible pathways” for the future of Britain’s energy out to 2050. In only one of those presented, Two Degrees, are all Britain’s carbon reduction targets met.

Features include a collective ambition to decarbonise the economy. High taxes are levied on those who continue to use carbon intensive options, such as conventional gas for heating. Policy and incentives are in place to reduce demand and increase renewable generation.

Society is very conscious of its carbon footprint and is actively trying to reduce carbon emissions. Consumer demand for new green technologies is high and they are happy to spend money on home energy management systems, low carbon heating and insulation.

There is also a drive to make transport greener. Technology and investment are focused on low carbon generation, with the highest levels from sources such as solar, wind and nuclear generation. Investment in gas innovation continues in order to produce more biomethane as well as other green gases.

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