Generation gap for emissions targets?

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Generating the Future: UK energy systems fit for 2050 - .PDF file.

Earlier this week I attended a press briefing delivered by members of the Royal Academy of Engineering, who were presenting a report entitled ‘Generating the future: UK energy systems fit for 2050’.

The experts warned that the UK faces fundamental restructuring of its energy system if it is to meet future energy demand and achieve an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The report considers four possible energy scenarios that could meet the 2050 emissions reduction target, each of which demonstrate that there is no single ’silver bullet’ solution to deliver the 80 per cent cut. A brief outline of the four scenarios can be read below.

Dame Sue Ion, chair of the Academy’s energy scenarios working group, warned that time has run out for extra consultations or detailed optimisation.

‘Infrastructure on this scale doesn’t happen on political timescales,’ she said. ‘It takes decades to prove and roll out large-scale major infrastructure so only those low-carbon technologies we already know of can help us to meet the 2050 targets.’

The report goes on to stress the huge significance of the engineering challenges ahead, stating that Britain will need to exploit its renewable energy resources and supplement this with nuclear power and coal- or gas-fired generation fitted with carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Unsurprisingly, the issue of skills was raised during the discussion and the report acknowledges that major training programmes would be required across all sectors to provide personnel with the appropriate skills to build and maintain the new infrastructure.

The report adds that the bulk of this would consist of traditional engineering and technician training but, with new technologies becoming more prevalent, new disciplines will also be needed.

Step in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which this week announced that the National Skills Academy for Power is now ’ready to open for business’.

Similarly, new national skills academies are to be developed to cover rail engineering; logistics; green building services; and biotechnology and composites.

The government expects the combined skills academies to attract more than 300,000 people to training programmes over the next four years.

In the nuclear sector, the government says it will co-fund the delivery of up to 1,000 apprentices per year subject to employer demand for places and the availability of training. This commitment is said to be part of plans to deliver 35,000 advanced and higher apprenticeships to people aged 19 to 30.

‘Ambitious government projects such as high-speed rail and new civil nuclear power need a range of new skills to make them a reality,’ said business secretary Lord Mandelson. ‘We are investing in the industries where employers’ need is greatest – tens of thousands of people working in these industries, the consumers they serve and the UK as a whole will see the benefit.’

Comforting words, perhaps. During the briefing, members of the panel occasionally compared the challenges ahead to those faced by the Victorians when implementing infrastructure projects, adding that the upheavals required to meet our energy needs were likely to need ’the biggest peacetime programme of investment and social change the UK has ever seen’.

With this latest investment in skills it might seem to some observers that the government is backing an engineering future.

Energy scenarios

‘Generating the future: UK energy systems fit for 2050’ created four possible scenarios for the UK’s 2050 energy demand.

Level demand with fossil fuel prioritised for transport

’Level demand’ is still substantially lower than currently predicted for 2050 and is by no means ’business as usual’. It would require more than 80 new nuclear or CCS-equipped coal power plants before 2050, along with vast increases in all types of renewables to meet a huge increase in electricity demand from about 42GW to 127GW, largely to replace fossil fuels used for low-grade heating. ’Building new power stations on this scale is probably only achievable by monopolising most of the national wealth and resources,’ says the report.

Medium-demand reduction with fossil fuel prioritised for low-grade heat and electrification of transport

Medium-demand reduction with fossil fuel prioritised for transport and electrification of low-grade heat

These two scenarios both assume a demand reduction of around 28 per cent, mostly by reducing heat loss from buildings and hence the demand for space heating. The first medium-demand scenario requires transport to be 80 per cent electrified while the second does the opposite, channelling all the available fossil fuel into transport and electrifying heating systems using heat pumps and resistive heating. There would still not be enough fossil fuel to meet demand and significant electrification of transport would still be needed. However, both these scenarios are more practical than the ’level-demand’ scenario, needing around 40 new nuclear or CCS-equipped power plants to be built (these could be fuelled by coal, biomass or gas).

High-demand reduction with fossil fuel prioritised for transport

This scenario reduces overall demand by 46 per cent, again by improving buildings to reduce the need for low-grade heating, which is almost completely electrified to conserve fossil fuels for transport. This would enable the electricity system to remain about the same size as it is today with about 20 new nuclear or CCS-equipped power stations being required. However, nearly 58 per cent of this scenario’s electricity would be supplied by intermittent sources, well beyond the limits of what has been achieved before.