What should be the UK’s priorities in low-carbon energy?
This country has 31 years until it has pledged that carbon emissions will be eliminated. This “net zero” goal seems like some distance off, and there are undoubtedly other things on the minds of those involved in the carbon-emitting sectors, from politicians through the electricity-generating and distributing industries, to automotive and all the other industries which currently burn fuels for any reason (cement production and the chemical sectors are notable contributors to carbon emissions). However, deadlines have a habit of coming around faster than anybody thinks, especially while they are concentrating on other matters, so the importance of thinking about net zero should not be underestimated.
We would like to know where our readership thinks the UK should focus its efforts on preparing for a low-carbon future. There are many possible options. Positioned off the edge of the world’s largest landmass, UK is blessed with the among the best potentials for wind energy in the world, and despite the large installed base, there is undoubtedly room for more wind capacity. Alternatively, perhaps we should focus on another abundant source, although one that is rather more challenging to access: the sea, in the forms of wave and tidal energy. Soggy north-western Europe may not be the most blessed region for insolation, but photovoltaic energy is proving increasingly interesting, with costs falling and R&D in the UK particularly strong for low-cost technologies based on perovskite crystals rather than silicon.
Opinions still differ on whether nuclear energy should be classed as low-carbon. It certainly produces no emissions in operation, but the embedded carbon in nuclear facilities – particularly in the millions of tonnes of cement and steel necessary to build them – takes many years to offset, and production of nuclear fuel requires high-energy mining and metal processing. Nuclear fusion is a different matter, of course, and it remains to be seen how much carbon will be embedded in its equipment and fuel production (lithium extraction is not a low-energy process). However, the UK is involved in developing new technologies for fission generation in the form of small modular reactors (SMRs) and is also part of the consortium building the huge ITER fusion reactor in France, while privately-funded fusion technologies are also being developed in Britain.
You may, however, think that the priority should not be electricity generation but the long-term and large-capacity storage of electricity, without which many renewables cannot effectively contribute to supplying the distribution grid. Another possibility (although not one we had room to include in our options) is that decarbonising the non-electricity parts of the energy landscape, such as heating or transport, might be a bigger priority in readers’ eyes. Please let us know in comments.
As ever, we positively encourage discussion of this matter. Readers should familiarise themselves with our guidelines for the content of comments before submitting, and bear in mind that all comments are moderated to ensure that discussion remains on topic. We will publish the results of this poll on 17th August.