Sanjoy Sen is a chemical engineer. He contested Alyn & Deeside in the 2019 general election.
“When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority”. Karen Martin, the Business guru, might have some thoughts on the recent Independent Net Zero Review. Covering a wide array of topics, it weighs in at an impressive 340 pages. And sets out no fewer than 129 recommendations. Luckily, only 25 need completing by 2025.
From the perspective of someone who has often paid the price (at work and at home) for failing to heed even one recommendation at a time, I too sense the need to rationalise.
Getting some focus matters because Net Zero is still not the clear-cut issue some might imagine. Opinions vary widely within the party. Think-tanks maintain it’ll be a vote winner. Meanwhile, our sceptical opponents are poised to capitalise. For now, the public is generally keen – until asked to pay for it, that is.
Given the uncertainty, it needn’t be a case of either ploughing on regardless or ditching Net Zero altogether. Instead, we might get the most optimal outcomes by extracting the best of the review and focusing our efforts. Let’s prioritise those priorities.
Go big on the big stuff
On the supply side, the review reflects the growing recognition that only nuclear can deliver low emissions and a consistent, secure energy supply.
But it might have gone further and proposed a more ambitious target. The review backs last year’s British Energy Security Strategy which calls for 24 giga-watts (GW) of nuclear capacity by 2050. Sounds impressive compared to today’s 6.5 GW – but even that would meet just 25 per cent of our future electricity demand: far lower than France’s current 70 per cent and well below current wind and solar targets. (Let’s not forget electricity demand is set to soar if more of us start plugging in our cars and keeping warm using heat pumps.)
And a word of caution. Describing nuclear as the “no-regrets” option risks inviting calamity. As I described last year, from Magnox in the 1960s to Hinkley Point C today, there are technical and economic pitfalls to be avoided. In the rush to hit targets, we need to ensure we are making the right nuclear choices.
Meanwhile, on the demand side, picking up from the Heat and Buildings Strategy, the review notes the vital importance of improving efficiency. For the present, it supports retro-fitting the leakiest properties plus targeted support for low-income households. For the future, it proposes heat pumps to break our ever-growing dependence on imported gas. The key challenges here will include gathering best installation practice from Scandinavia and shifting power demand away from grid peak times.
The review also recognises the key role of public transport. Electric buses are already displacing diesels in UK cities, cutting energy consumption and emissions. But the review also understands the biggest reductions will come when motorists choose to leave the car at home – or at the park-and-ride. And recognises that emulating European integrated public transport systems could prove highly effective at encouraging the required modal shift. That has to be more popular than Labour’s alternative: punitive emissions zones such as London’s ever-expanding ULEZ or Manchester’s failed Clean Air Plan.
Recognise what’s achievable
Despite occupying significant air time, the current onshore wind debate risks creating a distraction and adding relatively little value. With many prime sites already taken, increasing our present 14 GW capacity to the 30 GW Renewables UK target could prove technically challenging and politically contentious. We aren’t vast, empty Texas where fast-growing onshore capacity has already hit 30 GW, with even climate sceptic ranchers cashing in.
By contrast, the blustery seas around our isles, make the offshore target of 50 GW more realistic. Deepwater floating offshore wind turbines coupled with hydrogen is a new technology area where the UK could take an early lead. Plus wave and tidal potential.
But whilst a nuclear reactor can essentially deliver its nameplate capacity 24/7, wind output is, of course, highly variable. Annual onshore and offshore load factors are just 26 per cent and 40 per cent respectively, even hitting zero during the dreaded dunkelflaute. So wind needs either gas or energy storage as back-up, something the review recognises isn’t priced into the attractively low pound per mega-watt hour figures quoted. Wind has a role to play but let’s recognise its limits unless we see a breakthrough in storage.
It’s a similar story with solar, only more so. Rooftop panels can trim utility bills for households and businesses. I might even consider them myself if payback times (a key consideration for investors at any scale) start to come down. But whilst the review calls for a mighty 70 GW capacity, just wait until you see the UK load factor: 10 per cent. And even lower in winter when we need power the most.
Solar can make a contribution but, as Germany (with over 40 GW in already place) is discovering, no matter how many panels you install, actual output is restricted at northern latitudes. A decade ago, engineering giant Siemens noted the same solar panels in Spain would prove twice as productive and could even support a continental super-grid at lower cost. All to no avail: if only there were some kind of political or economic union to drive coherent pan-European energy solutions.
Ditch the lectures and create opportunities instead
The back end of the review notes the UK’s leading role in the global climate agenda. But as I observed after COP26, Indian (and Chinese) politicians have successfully connected millions to the grid in a generation. So they’re unlikely to be awaiting lectures from western counterparts who bet big on renewables, empowered a dictator and ended up dependent upon once-derided American fracked gas. They might be encouraged by UK’s and Germany’s return to coal, though.
Better then to focus on another key area of the review: UK business opportunities. Following rapid growth, India’s cities are now amongst the world’s most polluted highlighting the export potential for cleaner technologies. The review emphasizes the importance of backing research and development and notes the global potential of such offerings as Rolls-Royce Small Modular (nuclear) Reactors: 40,000 UK jobs, £52 billion into our economy. Creating jobs and growing the economy has to be one of the strongest ways of selling Net Zero.
But if we truly believe renewables can deliver Net Zero, perhaps Global Britain ought to start backing international projects such as X-Links. This proposes to combine Morocco’s year-round desert sunshine (load factor: 34 per cent), its predictable Saharan winds (51 per cent) and large-scale battery storage to supply a near-constant 3.6 GW. All connected directly (and solely) to the UK via four 4,000 km undersea Atlantic cables. That’s got to be the most literal interpretation imaginable of by-passing the EU.
Make that priority number 130.
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Author: Sanjoy Sen
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