Why we must act faster on cleaner energy
The pandemic means we’re not dealing with ‘business as usual’, with a lot of Government time dedicated to this unprecedented issue.
With the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK now has a unique opportunity to take action and lead the world in its response to climate change through this period.
However, the need for climate strategy to avert the risks of irrevocable climate change aren’t stopping.
Indeed, as Patricia Espinosa, UN Climate Change Executive Secretary commented, "COVID-19 is the most urgent threat facing humanity today, but we cannot forget that climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity over the long term".
The public wants climate action
Following extreme weather incidents in recent years and the growing visibility of climate activists such as Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, the public today are far more aware of the need for urgent action to halt the negative effects of global warming.
With the country in lockdown, car and flight emissions have dropped significantly, industry has paused, and the public can more clearly see the effects of carbon emissions and air pollution on their lives and the planet. This has only increased the sense of urgency the public feels in dealing with climate change. While emissions from electricity generation in the UK have almost halved on 1990 levels, there’s still a long way to go to meet net zero.
According to the Pace of Change report from Siemens Energy UK & Ireland, 71% of UK consumers believe the Government should be acting faster to develop clean energy. The public want to see the Government take even bolder steps to move the UK towards net zero carbon. They want to see more investment in wind and solar technology across the UK, and interestingly, there is also a call for investment in hydrogen too.
In the energy transition, there is no one silver bullet
The UK Government started in the right direction as one of the first countries to set a national target to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050. But, to reach this target, it means replacing the UK’s existing energy infrastructure, with something just as big and clean.
This isn’t to say the Government hasn’t done anything, small steps on the road to net zero have been taken such as the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) announcing £90 million for projects to tackle emissions from homes and heavy industry, including Europe’s first hydrogen plants.
But, if the UK is going to reach net zero by 2050, low carbon electricity generation will need to quadruple. This means we’re going to go further to create a market for new technologies such as hydrogen power and carbon capture use and storage (CCUS).
What we do know is there is no one silver bullet to answer the difficult question on climate change. Therefore, the Government must invest in all the tools open to the UK. That means embracing a balance of technology and energy sources to develop a flexible power mix.
As traditional power sources reduce in capacity, renewable generation continues to increase. Indeed, throughout the lockdown period in the UK, the solar power industry reported a record high of 11.5% of electricity generation in May. But as we move towards net zero and see more heat and transport move away from fossil power to electrification, we’re going to need to increase the sources of cleaner power generation to meet this demand.
Younger generations are leading the charge on cleaner energy
Unsurprisingly, the Pace of Change study found there is strong demand from young consumers for cleaner sources of energy, with 65% of millennials wanting to reduce their carbon footprint through renewable fuels. Notably, of all the sources, 15% of millennials and Generation Z think that the UK Government should invest more in the hydrogen energy network in order to reach net zero targets.
Hydrogen power offers enormous potential to decarbonise the whole energy chain as a zero-carbon fuel and a reliable energy carrier which can be easily stored and transported. It can be produced by using renewable energy, such as wind or solar to separate water (H2O) into its component elements of hydrogen and oxygen and could be used as an alternative to natural gas.
Across the UK there are already ongoing trials using hydrogen blended with the natural gas supply to decarbonise heat. And, when it comes to using gas to provide electricity generation, high-efficiency, combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) plants will play an important role. CCGTs currently make some of the cleanest gas-fired power stations. But in the near future, gas stations such as these are also capable of being upgraded to decarbonise power generation through hydrogen power, or CCUS.
This evolution will help further deployment of renewable energy, so that eventually the country’s gas turbines can transition to run on hydrogen. The level of flexibility provided by gas-fired power will complement renewable energy generation on the grid, allowing natural gas to be phased out while significantly reducing carbon emissions from gas power generation on the path to net zero.
Taking this even further, by coupling hydrogen with wind power via an electrolyser we can use the power of wind to create hydrogen for use as a form of energy storage. Hydrogen can also be used to support electrification of the transport sector. As we showed at Goodwood Festival of Speed in summer 2019, a hydrogen fuel cell, produced using wind power can be used as an electricity generation source to charge electric vehicles.
By converting hydrogen to ammonia for storage or transportation, it is also a viable way to store excess renewable electricity generation between seasons – one of the four key scenarios laid out in the National Grid’s 2019 Future Energy Scenarios.
The demand for sustainable energy will only grow
Although the UK is taking its first steps with hydrogen power, our research shows the younger generation are already knowledgeable about it. Clean energy sources are clearly front of mind among the younger generation who will ultimately become tomorrow’s business decision makers. As we continue on the path to 2050, their demand for sustainability and renewable energy will only grow.
The Government must now address the market for all the low carbon energy sources of the future, including how to harness the power of wind to create hydrogen energy if they are to keep pace with consumer demand and ensure the UK meets its net zero targets.
In the future, our children will ask what we did to stop the rising tide of climate change. We must act now to make sure we don’t risk failure for generations to come.
This article was contributed by Steve Scrimshaw, CEO, Siemens Energy
Industry movement with heat decarbonisation
It is estimated that the heat network market requires approximately £30 billion of investment by 2050 to meet the UK Government’s net zero targets, and the decarbonisation of heat has been highlighted as a particular challenge.
The Climate Change Committee’s Sixth Carbon Budget states the UK should target 20% of UK heat demand through low-carbon heat networks by 2050 - but as with most discussions surrounding mass decarbonisation, even reaching that target won't be an easy task. In the UK approximately 40% of energy consumption and 20% of GHG emissions are due to the heating and hot water supply for buildings.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimate that globally, around half of all energy consumption is used for providing heat, mainly for homes and industry.
Source: Heat Trust
This week saw some positive movement, however, with gas distribution company SGN and UK renewable energy solutions provider Vital Energi announcing a 50:50 joint venture, which will create an Energy Services Company (ESCO) representing utility infrastructure and heat network providers.
This includes delivery of heat to developments planned by SGN’s property arm, SGN Place, and the local vicinities where there is a demand for low-carbon heat.
The objective is to supply new and existing residential, industrial and commercial facilities and development activity is already underway for two projects in Scotland and the South East, with another 20 in the pipeline. SGN is looking to develop alternative heat solutions alongside its core gas distribution business and expand into the growing district heating market, recognising the future of heat is likely to include a mix of technological solutions and energy sources.
Vital Energi is seeking to expand into asset ownership opportunities to complement its core design, build and operations businesses. The complementary skillsets of both organisations will offer a compelling proposition for developers, commercial and industrial users and public sector bodies seeking low-carbon heat solutions.
SGN’s Director of Commercial Services and Investments Marcus Hunt said: “Heat networks are likely to play an increasing role in the delivery of UK heat in the context of net zero. The creation of this joint venture with market-leading Vital Energi enables us to build a presence in this emerging market, delivering new heat infrastructure and supporting decarbonisation.”
Nick Gosling, Chief Strategy Officer at Vital Energi, said: “Combining the resources, expertise and know-how of both organisations will allow us to play a major role in delivering the UK’s transition to low and zero-carbon heat.”
In March, the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) starting collaborating with Highlands and Islands Airports Limited (HIAL) to decarbonise heat and power at Kirkwall Airport through green hydrogen technology. 2G Energy was selected to deliver a CHP plant which generates heat and electricity from 100% hydrogen.
Heat decarbonisation options
The Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) highlights the following options for decarbonising heating.
Use renewable electricity to generate heat in the home. As power sector emissions fall, emissions associated with electric heating are decreasing rapidly.
Low carbon gases
Replace natural gas that most homes use for heating with hydrogen, which releases energy but not carbon dioxide, the only waste product is water. Biomethane is also an option as it produces less carbon than natural gas over a full lifecycle.
For hydrogen to work, the pipes in the national gas grid would need to be replaced and home boilers would need to be adapted or changed. This is possible but could incur considerable cost.
Biomethane is chemically identical to methane from natural gas, so is suited to existing infrastructure and appliances. It is unlikely, however, that it can be produced in sufficient quantities to replace fossil gas entirely.
A hybrid system combining both electrification and hydrogen is a third option. Here, heat pumps could be used to meet the majority of heat demand, with a (low carbon) gas boiler taking over in extremely cold weather. Advantages of this approach include helping establish a market for heat pumps while hydrogen is developed to displace natural gas in the hybrid system eventually, and the ability to call on hydrogen when heat demand is at its very highest.
Heat networks connect a central heat source to a number of buildings via a series of underground hot water pipes, and are popular in countries such as Denmark, where heat networks supply 63% of households. The Government expects the heat networks market in the UK to grow quickly to supply up to 20% of heat demand over the next decade or so, investing £320 million into its flagship Heat Networks Investment Project to help get this underway.
Heat networks work particularly well in built-up urban areas or industrial clusters where there is a large and concentrated demand for heat. Over time, it is thought that if the central heat source can be low carbon, then there is the opportunity to ensure that multiple homes and buildings are decarbonised at once.
Biomass can be used to reduce emissions when used instead of more polluting fuels like oil in off gas grid properties. Support for biomass boilers has been available since 2011 via the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), but take-up has been low.
Supply constraints also restrict the role that biomass – burning solid material such as wood – can play. In any case, according to the Committee on Climate Change, this resource may be better used in other sectors of the economy such as construction, where it provides carbon storage without the need for CCS and reduces demand for carbon-intensive materials such as steel and cement.
The Energy Transitions Commission (ETC)'s latest report sets out how rapidly increasing demand for bioresources could outstrip sustainable supply, undermining climate mitigation efforts and harming biodiversity, unless alternative zero-carbon options are rapidly scaled-up and use of bioresources carefully prioritised.
"Alternative zero-carbon solutions, such as clean electrification or hydrogen, must be developed rapidly to lessen the need for bio-based solutions," it states.
The overall decarbonisation of industry is another major challenge, especially among four sectors that contribute 45 percent of CO2 emissions: cement, steel, ammonia, and ethylene, according to a McKinsey report.
The process demands reimagining production processes from scratch and redesigning existing sites with costly rebuilds or retrofits. Furthermore, companies that adopt low-carbon production processes will see a short- to mid-term increase in cost, ultimately placing them at an economic disadvantage in a competitive global commodities market.
Ken Hunnisett is Project Director for the Heat Network Investment Project (HNIP)’s delivery partner Triple Point, which is the delivery partner for the government's Heat Network Investment Project, which is responsible for investing up to £320million in strategic, low-carbon heat network projects across England and Wales.
He is calling for the urgent need to invest in the development of new heating infrastructure to support the nation’s decarbonisation effort. So far £165m of HNIP funds have prompted £421m CAPEX, providing more green jobs as the UK economy eases from the lows sustained from the pandemic.
Decarbonising the UK's heating infrastructure is critical if we are to reach our net-zero goals and it’s crucial that progress is made in this decisive decade, he added.
"Heat networks are a part of the lowest-cost pathway to decarbonising our homes and workplaces in the future but are also the bit of the jigsaw that we can be putting into place now," he said. "Penetration into the UK market is still low, despite heat representing 37% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, the largest single contributor by some way. Funding needs to be urgently directed towards reducing the environmental impact of the residential sector, particularly given the slow pace of the decline in residential emissions in comparison to those of business and transport."
Currently, just 3% of UK buildings are serviced by heat networks. "Further investment in this industry, using public and private funds, will not only drive wider sustainability targets but will boost the economy by providing more green jobs as the country emerges from the pandemic," he said.