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Clean Energy

UK Power Generation — Who will Clean Up?

Decarbonising the UK's power generation sector is imperative for Net Zero. How will it get there?

If the Government is to hit its target of Net Zero by 2050, one of the key planks of this strategy is the decarbonisation of the country’s energy production sector. In this, it is making good progress. In 1990, the power generation sector accounted for 23% of the UK’s GHG emissions. However, by 2019, this figure had fallen to 11% — 58 MtCo2E — and was driven by the replacement of coal with natural gas, renewable sources, such as wind and solar, and the reduction in demand for electricity with the uptake of more energy-efficient appliances. This represents a 72% reduction over the period.

Yet while progress has undoubtedly been made, 58 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent of GHGs are still being pumped into the atmosphere each year by the sector. Clearly, for the UK to reach its net zero goal by 2050, this cannot continue. In a similar way that natural gas has replaced coal to bring down GHGs, clean and renewable sources — such as solar and wind power — now need to replace natural gas as the country’s main sources of power generation.

UK Energy mix

According to National Grid ESO (Electricity System Operator), in October 2023 the country’s energy by usage was as follows: Gas 27%, Wind 33.7%, Nuclear 13.9%, Biomass 6%, Coal 1.6%, Solar 3.4%, Imports 10.7%, Hydro 2.6% and Storage 1.1%. Of note is that the clean energy source of wind produced most the UK’s electricity in that month, which is to be applauded. However, when viewed across the year to date (see figure 1.) what becomes apparent is that the energy mix fluctuates across the year.

Source: National Grid ESO

And this goes to the heart of the issue with renewable energy sources — when hitched to the rhythms of the natural world they are also subject to its vagaries. Thus, energy from wind can only be generated when the wind is blowing, typically in the autumn and winter months, and solar is only maximised when the sun is shining, typically in the spring and summer months. As a result, to maintain the level of consistent power the country requires, GHG producing natural gas and, at times, coal is burnt to bridge the gap. And as the graph clearly shows, natural gas is currently producing the lion’s share of the UK’s electricity requirements.

Furthermore, as the country moves towards Net Zero there is a growing demand for clean electricity, from homeowners looking to decarbonise their heating system to drivers wishing to contribute by moving to electric cars, not to mention the proliferation of more and more electrical devices as the world moves inexorably towards the internet of things. The question thus arises: what clean energy source is to replace natural gas to maintain a base level of power throughout the yearly cycle?

Policy Papers

In November 2020, the then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, published the Government’s 10 Point Plan for its ‘green industrial revolution’. The ten points were: advance offshore wind; drive the growth of low carbon hydrogen; deliver new and advanced nuclear power; accelerate the shift towards zero emission vehicles; promote green public transport, cycling and walking; decarbonisation of the airline and shipping industry; invest in ‘green’ buildings; invest in carbon capture, usage, and storage; protect the natural environment; and promote green finance and innovation.

The following month the Government published its Energy White Paper ‘Powering Our Net Zero Future’. The Paper is divided into six chapters: Consumers, Power, Energy System, Buildings, Industrial Energy and Oil & Gas, and lays out its plans for how each sector will play its part in the decarbonisation of the UK power sector.

Following this report, in October 2021, the Government published its ‘Net Zero Strategy: Build back Greener’. This Strategy Paper overlaps the Energy White Paper and draws upon the UK Hydrogen Strategy, published in August 2021, and again highlights the Government’s plan for the decarbonisation of the UK Power sector. Key commitments are also made across different sectors of the economy.  Rather than try to paraphrase each commitment, we’ve picked out some of the key ones here:

On Power:

·        Take action so that by 2035, all our electricity will come from low carbon sources, subject to security of supply, bringing forward the government’s commitment to a fully decarbonised power system by 15 years.

·        Deliver 40GW of offshore wind, including 1GW of innovative floating offshore wind by 2030.

·        Implement the Dispatchable Power Agreement (DPA) to support the deployment of first of a kind power CCUS (Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage) plant.

·        Secure a final investment decision on a large-scale nuclear plant by the end of this Parliament whilst taking measures to inform investment decisions during the next Parliament on further nuclear projects as we work towards our net zero target. (This includes plans for Small Modular Reactors and Advanced Modular Reactors.)

·        Deliver the actions in our recent Smart Systems and Flexibility Plan and Energy Digitalisation Strategy to maximise system flexibility.


On Fuel Supply and Hydrogen:


·        An ambition for 5GW UK low carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030.


On Industry:


·        Ambition to deliver 6 MtCO2 per year of industrial CCUS by 2030, and 9 MtCO2 per year by 2035.

·        Set up the Industrial Decarbonisation and Hydrogen Revenue Support (IDHRS) scheme to fund our new industrial carbon capture and hydrogen business models.

·        Support the deployment of CCUS through the £1 billion CCS Infrastructure Fund.


On Heating & Buildings:


·        Aiming to phase out the installation of new and replacement natural gas boilers by 2035 in line with the natural replacement cycle, to ensure that all heating systems used in 2050 are compatible with Net Zero.

·        Making heat pumps as cheap to buy and run as a gas boiler by growing the heat pump market to support 600,000 installations per year by 2028 and expanding UK manufacturing – with the ambition of working with industry to reduce costs by at least 25-50% by 2025 and to parity with gas boilers by 2030 at the latest.

As a footnote to these commitments, it’s probably worth noting whether an ‘ambition’ or an ‘aim’ can really be considered a ‘commitment’ but clearly the intention is there. Additionally, one commitment in the Energy White paper was to ‘build a commercially viable fusion power plant by 2040.’ However, the Net Zero Strategy paper makes no mention of this.  


It is one thing to generate masses of low-cost renewable energy, it is another entirely to move it around a network to where and when it is required, whether it is electricity, hydrogen, or biogas. The Government’s own assessment is that ‘an additional £20-30 billion is required by 2037 to maintain and reinforce the UK’s electricity network.’ In June 2022, the Government put the money where its mouth was with the announcement by Ofgem of a £20.9bn five-year investment plan in regional energy grids that ‘will boost grid capacity, improve customer service and resilience to prevent power outages, and prepare the way for increases in the generation of cheaper, greener, home-grown energy to bring down bills in the long-term.’

And in November 2023, in a joint statement with the Government, it announced the Connections Action Plan (CAP) which would ‘accelerate wind, solar and battery power generation connecting to the electricity grid.’ The plan aims to tackle delays in connecting to the grid by removing the current ‘first come first served’ model which has led to the connection queue being jammed up by so-called ‘zombie’ projects that promise much but deliver little.

Projects that have proven viability and have passed several milestones will now be given priority over others. Viable projects in the pipeline could contribute up to 400GWH of clean energy annually, according to Ofgem – more than enough power for the UK’s energy requirements.  Under the plan, average connection times should be cut from the current five years to just six months.  

Similarly, there would need to be investment in the UK’s gas grid for its transition to piping hydrogen and biogas. Fortunately, a recent report for the National Infrastructure Commission and Ofgem by engineering firm ARUP concluded that ‘the evidence that large amounts of the existing network is suitable for hydrogen is unequivocal.’ Moreover, the report says that currently 83% of the network is suitable for hydrogen and this will rise to 99% by 2032 ‘when the iron mains risk reduction programme is scheduled to be complete.’

However, the report is more equivocal when it comes to the times scales for implementation and delivery and the transition costs involved. ARUP have estimated the costs based on three potential future energy-mix profiles as outlined by National Grid ESO Future Energy Scenarios report. These range from £46bn – between 2025-2050 – for a supply-side led transition to Net Zero, £59bn for a more balanced transition between consumers and suppliers and £70bn for a consumer-led transition.  

As part of its commitment to hydrogen, in October 2023, National Gas announced a contract which would pave the way towards a no-regrets hydrogen network’.  The contract will see consultancy firms Jacobs and ERM work together to deliver pre-Front End Engineering Design (pre-FEED) activities for a hydrogen backbone connecting industrial regions across Britain.

National Gas says that this will inform decisions over Project Union, National Gas’s project to create a British hydrogen backbone. Additionally, in November it went further with the announcement of the second phase of the ‘East Coast Hydrogen Project’ – a project that will ultimately deliver production, storage, transmission, and distribution of hydrogen across the industrial Midlands and North East.  

Hydrogen source

The problem with basing large parts of the economy on hydrogen is that there are no abundant sources of the gas in its pure form in nature – it cannot be tapped but must be manufactured.  Currently, most hydrogen is formed by the – intensively C02 emitting – process of reacting natural gas with steam to produce what is known as ‘Blue’ hydrogen.

Alternatively, it can be made through electrolysis where electricity is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. If the electricity used for the process comes from renewable sources, this is zero carbon hydrogen is known as ‘Green’ hydrogen. However, there are questions over the viability of using electrolysis as the primary method of production due to the volumes of hydrogen required. Hence the importance of the CCUS plants.  

Another source of power, which currently provides approximately 9% of the UK’s energy and provided 11% of the UK’s electrical power in 2022 – comes from biomass. As set out in the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero’s 2023 ‘Biomass Strategy,’ biomass is defined as ‘any material of biological origin, including the biodegradable fraction of products, crops, wastes and residues from biological origin.’

Aside from enabling renewable electricity generation using Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) plants, biomass can also be used as a feedstock for low carbon hydrogen through reformation, gasification, and pyrolysis technologies. Additionally, biomethane can be used as an interim low carbon transport fuel and provide heating fuel to off-the-grid housing stock.

Green technology opportunities

Weaning the UK power sector off fossil fuels is a big challenge for government, regulators, and suppliers, but it’s also a huge opportunity for green technology companies. From heat pumps, solar panels and wind turbines to hydrogen and biogas production facilities and energy storage facilities – and all the complementary technologies in-between like matching supply with demand – the time is now, and the market is ready for a proliferation of solutions that will enable the successful transition to Net Zero.

However, while the above has briefly outlined the Government’s roadmap to decarbonise the UK power sector, the road is unlikely to be a straight one. For all the planning and evidence gathered, Net Zero is a moving target. Can hydrogen replace natural gas for the heating of homes? Can enough of the gas be produced at the right price if it can?  Is hydrogen really the answer when its production will require the storage of the C02 by-product for years to come? Can enough dispatchable green power be stored to replace fossil fuels on a particularly cold, windless, and overcast winter day?

We don’t pretend to have the answers but would love to have your opinions on any topic raised in this article. Not merely out of curiosity but to share them in an effort create debate and find solutions that will help the UK reach its net zero goal. #

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