Comment: an engineering mindset is vital to meet the Net Zero energy challenge

We need a cool, controlled engineering mindset to take centre stage to urgently oversee all parts of our energy system and meet our Net Zero targets, says Dr David Cole, market director of Net Zero Energy at Atkins.

As the last six months have proven, the energy market can be volatile, and its systems are complex. Add to this the vast challenge of decarbonising our power system by 2035, which will have to supply much greater levels of electrification of society, and it’s plain to see we will require a radically different approach to achieve our net zero goals without compromising on reliability.

Current market conditions – and their far-reaching impact, from the crippling costs faced by energy intensive sectors to rising domestic bills – are the direct result of a decade of interventions and policies that have failed to take a whole system approach to the energy market. High wholesale prices are only half of the story. In the UK, thanks to the extraordinary combination of supply constraints and record high gas costs, there was a year-on-year 294 per cent cost increase to balance the system for the final three months of 2021.

This problem is underpinned by years of underinvestment in the UK’s energy infrastructure, but also a skewed policy approach that failed to ensure a resilient energy architecture when making low carbon generation the sole priority. The ‘energy trilemma’ which dominated debates a decade ago – the need to balance clean energy with affordability and security of supply - has been forgotten. In short, there has been a failure to take a whole system approach.

Thirteen years to decarbonise our energy supply

An unprecedented challenge lies ahead: in infrastructure building terms, the 13 years we have to 2035 might as well be tomorrow when considering the time required to gather investment; purchase land; gain planning consent; and construct, connect and eventually operate any new energy asset.

This time now, post COP26, must be regarded as a turning point. From here, we must proceed with pace but also purpose:  we must deliver the resilient, low carbon energy system we need to make our transition to Net Zero a reality.


An engineering mindset is the answer: an independent energy system architect is now crucial to ensure that the UK’s Net Zero ambitions and strategies are founded on practical, engineering risk-based analysis. We need a pragmatic voice of engineering reason, appointed with utmost urgency, to take on this challenge of putting Net Zero ambitions into system-wide, actionable plans.

A steady mind at the helm

In its Technical Annex, the UK government’s Net Zero Strategy1 shows that in 2035 the annual energy demand will represent a 70 per cent increase compared with today’s low carbon supply to the national grid. Nearly all of this will need to be low carbon supply.

This means more nuclear, more offshore wind farms, a huge boost required for carbon capture and storage development and the same for hydrogen infrastructure, and an updated and larger transmission and distribution system. The size of the undertaking can’t be underestimated, but this is a programme that we cannot risk stalling.

The complexities and cost implications of balancing and managing such a transformed system are integral to the way in which we will approach, and achieve, Net Zero. The starting point for the energy system architect must therefore be market reform and simplification, so that we have in our armoury a coherent view of what new energy production sources are needed, and form there start drawing up our ‘to-do’ list for delivery and that we are making sensible decisions based on sound engineering fact.

Getting there will require skilful design and management of a complex, interconnecting system. It will involve devising and operating herculean increases in energy storage, far-reaching improvements to system flexibility, and new energy assets that will be built, as the Net Zero Strategy itself acknowledges, “at, or close to, their maximum technical limit.” 1

Development in any sector cannot be set in stone, so the ability to respond with dynamism and flexibility to changes in global and domestic energy generation, demand, and performance is vital, alongside keeping abreast of the potential for new developments in our industry, and the possibilities that future technologies could deliver.

A cohesive, dynamic action plan for our transition to Net Zero carbon is not a ‘nice to have’; Net Zero is now a legally binding requirement and energy is the lifeblood of our society: we must ensure a reliable, decarbonised energy system and a just transition to net zero.

To realise this, arguably our biggest ever engineering challenge, we need a bold, new approach – and we need it to start quickly.

Dr David Cole, market director of Net Zero Energy at Atkins.

1 ‘Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener’, UK Government Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), Oct 2021