Cutting carbon: how the UK Government can reach net zero
The UK Government’s emissions reduction target has recently become even more ambitious.
Originally, the target was an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050, under the Climate Change Act. Now, the Government has chosen to implement the advice of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) and has committed to a 78% reduction by 2035, effectively committing to meeting its original target 15 years earlier.
This is an ambitious target, but it’s also commensurate with the scale of the crisis the planet is facing if emissions aren’t brought under control. It’s not enough to simply set bold targets, however, because there also needs to be a smart and strategic approach to making an emissions reduction of this scale a reality. Ahead of the UK’s presidency of COP26 this year, the world will be watching as the Government seeks to turn commitments into action.
With this in mind, these are the steps I believe the UK Government needs to take in order to reach its ambitious net zero target and deliver a sustainable future for the planet.
Electricity market reform
The energy system is being transformed by new technologies, from renewables to new ways of using electricity, such as e-mobility or electric heat pumps for heating.
In order for this system to deliver the maximum possible environmental benefit the current system must be readdressed to reflect these new technologies which will come forward.
Indeed, the Committee on Climate Change outlines in ‘The Sixth Carbon Budget: The UK’s path to Net Zero’, that “a failure to develop electricity market arrangements, to ensure security of supply as the share of intermittent renewables increases could cause wider economic damage if confidence in the reliability of UK energy supplies is affected”.
Within a flexible market, it will be possible for energy networks to monitor energy flows and send market signals that would allow for the most efficient use of green energy based on supply and demand. Through smart meters and appliances, renewable energy and energy-efficient resources can be allocated most efficiently, with green energy supplied when this is most affordable.
Investing in wind power
The Government has committed to a target of 40GW of offshore wind power by 2030. It should be noted that it took 20 years to get to our current 10GW, so increasing this by 30GW in the next nine years is highly ambitious.
Making this a reality is going to require significant investment. Even if you take away the cost of the wind farms and the wires to the beach, upgrading the grid onshore will cost around £11 billion in the run up to 2030.
To meet the 40GW target, ensuring a consistent pipeline of offshore projects will be crucial, as this will provide certainty for the supply chain to invest in people to be able to deliver this.
While the Ten Point Plan and Energy White Paper only committed to developing 1GW of floating offshore, this innovation will mean we are able to use deeper waters and coupled with developments which will see hydrogen produced at sea from offshore wind farms, means the wind sector will have a further important role in meeting net zero.
A hydrogen strategy
The UK will need to create a new market for zero-carbon hydrogen power to realise its target of net zero emissions by 2050. The scale of the necessary increase in hydrogen use is significant, with David Joffe, the CCC’s head of carbon budgets, arguing that the UK will need 10 times the current levels of hydrogen to reach net zero.
Currently, the UK only produces around 25TWh of hydrogen every year – equivalent to the power that will be generated by just one nuclear power plant, Hinkley Point C, when it comes online in 2026. We’re less than a billion seconds away from 2050, so the process of making up this shortfall needs to begin now, requiring the UK to build several hundred gigawatts of hydrogen production capacity over the next 30 years.
The good news is, the UK Government has a target of 5GW of hydrogen production by 2030 and the Scottish Government too has said it is aiming for 5GW of hydrogen production. We anticipate more detail from the UK Government in its Hydrogen Strategy, due to be published in the summer.
Local area energy planning
No single approach to decarbonising the UK’s energy system can be applied nationwide. Every part of the UK has its own mix of technologies and networks in place, requiring a tailored approach.
The most effective way to work with this reality is to empower local areas to take the lead in planning their own energy systems, enabling them to identify how to meet carbon emissions reductions targets at the least cost. While central coordination will be necessary to ensure a joined-up approach, there would be greater scope for local Government to partner with energy networks and other key local stakeholders to drive transformative change.
With this local plan in place, there will also be the opportunity to create new green jobs and boost investment in local areas, while using local insight to determine the most effective and cost-efficient route to decarbonisation.
Once local authorities have developed their decarbonisation energy plans, particular cities and towns that have demonstrated the potential for rapid decarbonisation could be prioritized as pathfinders, receiving additional funding to make their vision for fast energy change a reality.
Long-term decarbonisation mandate on building owners
Achieving net zero by 2050 will rely on nearly all heat in buildings being decarbonised. As a result, there needs to be a long-term mandate from the Government on building owners, ensuring they decarbonise over time.
Clearly making this happen will rely on there being enough heating engineers with the skills to install zero carbon solutions. As such, it’s vital that the Government invests in skills programmes to boost the number of engineers who can play their part in transitioning the country to net zero.
This should be paired with updated regulations around new build developments, ensuring all new build properties are fitted with energy efficient heat pumps and the correct insulation.
Incentivising the transition
Finally, as with any behavioural change that the Government wishes to create, the correct incentives need to be in place. On one level, this simply means that innovators in the decarbonisation space are financially incentivised to deliver solutions.
It also means sending the correct signals to consumers to shape their purchasing decisions, shifting these towards zero carbon.
In some instances this is already happening – the Government’s decision to ban new petrol cars from being sold from 2030 is already shifting social norms, prompting more people to consider electric vehicles, with global sales forecast to rise by 70% in 2021.
In other areas, more needs to be done as it is not only transport which will undergo fundamental change, but the way people heat their homes and cook food too. This will require a huge public information campaign on how these changes will be made in the existing housing stock.
It’s clear that the Government’s 2050 net zero emissions target is ambitious, but it’s also necessary and achievable. Now it must be backed by a similarly ambitious, smart and decisive strategy to make it a reality.
Why Transmission & Distribution Utilities Need Digital Twins
As with any new technology, Digital twins can create as many questions as answers. There can be a natural resistance, especially among senior utility executives who are used to the old ways and need a compelling case to invest in new ones.
So is digital twin just a fancy name for modelling? And why do many senior leaders and engineers at power transmission & distribution (T&D) companies have a gnawing feeling they should have one? Ultimately it comes down to one key question: is this a trend worth our time and money?
The short answer is yes, if approached intelligently and accounting for utilities’ specific needs. This is no case of runaway hype or an overwrought name for an underwhelming development – digital twin technology can be genuinely transformational if done right. So here are six reasons why in five years no T&D utility will want to be without a digital twin.
1. Smarter Asset Planning
A digital twin is a real-time digital counterpart of a utility’s real-world grid. A proper digital twin – and not just a static 3D model of some adjacent assets – represents the grid in as much detail as possible, is updated in real-time and can be used to model ‘what if’ scenarios to gauge the effects in real life. It is the repository in which to collect and index all network data, from images, to 3D pointclouds, to past reports and analyses.
With that in mind, an obvious use-case for a digital twin is planning upgrades and expansions. For example, if a developer wants to connect a major solar generation asset, what effect might that have on the grid assets, and will they need upgrading or reinforcement? A seasoned engineer can offer an educated prediction if they are familiar with the local assets, their age and their condition – but with a digital twin they can simply model the scenario on the digital twin and find out.
The decision is more likely to be the right one, the utility is less likely to be blindsided by unforeseen complications, and less time and money need be spent visiting the site and validating information.
As the energy transition accelerates, both transmission and distribution (T&D) utilities will receive more connection requests for anything from solar parks to electric vehicle charging infrastructure, to heat pumps and batteries – and all this on top of normal grid upgrade programs. A well-constructed digital twin may come to be an essential tool to keep up with the pace of change.
2. Improved Inspection and Maintenance
Utilities spend enormous amounts of time and money on asset inspection and maintenance – they have to in order to meet their operational and safety responsibilities. In order to make the task more manageable, most utilities try to prioritise the most critical or fragile parts of the network for inspection, based on past inspection data and engineers’ experience. Many are investigating how to better collect, store and analyze data in order to hone this process, with the ultimate goal of predicting where inspections and maintenance are going to be needed before problems arise.
The digital twin is the platform that contextualises this information. Data is tagged to assets in the model, analytics and AI algorithms are applied and suggested interventions are automatically flagged to the human user, who can understand what and where the problem is thanks to the twin. As new data is collected over time, the process only becomes more effective.
3. More Efficient Vegetation Management
Utilities – especially transmission utilities in areas of high wildfire-risk – are in a constant struggle with nature to keep vegetation in-check that surrounds power lines and other assets. Failure risks outages, damage to assets and even a fire threat. A comprehensive digital twin won’t just incorporate the grid assets – a network of powerlines and pylons isolated on an otherwise blank screen – but the immediate surroundings too. This means local houses, roads, waterways and trees.
If the twin is enriched with vegetation data on factors such as the species, growth rate and health of a tree, then the utility can use it to assess the risk from any given twig or branch neighbouring one of its assets, and prioritise and dispatch vegetation management crews accordingly.
And with expansion planning, inspection and maintenance, the value here is less labor-intensive and more cost-effective decision making and planning – essential in an industry of tight margins and constrained resources. What’s more, the value only rises over time as feedback allows the utility to finesse the program.
4. Automated powerline inspection
Remember though, that to be maximally useful, a digital twin must be kept up to date. A larger utility might blanche at the resources required to not just to map and inspect the network once in order to build the twin, but update that twin at regular intervals.
However, digital twins are also an enabling technology for another technological step-change – automated powerline inspection.
Imagine a fleet of sensor-equipped drones empowered to fly the lines almost constantly, returning (automatically) only to recharge their batteries. Not only would such a set-up be far cheaper to operate than a comparable fleet of human inspectors, it could provide far more detail at far more regular intervals, facilitating all the above benefits of better planning, inspection, maintenance and vegetation management. Human inspectors could be reserved for non-routine interventions that really require their hard-earned expertise.
In this scenario, the digital twin provides he ‘map’ by which the drone can plan a route and navigate itself, in conjunction with its sensors.
5. Improved Emergency Modelling and Faster Response
If the worst happens and emergency strikes, such as a wildfire or natural disaster, digital twins can again prove invaluable. The intricate, detailed understanding of the grid, assets and its surroundings that a digital twin gives is an element of order in a chaotic situation, and can guide the utility and emergency services alike in mounting an informed response.
And once again, the digital twin’s facility for ‘what-if’ scenario testing is especially useful for emergency preparedness. If a hurricane strikes at point X, what will be the effect on assets at point Y? If a downed pylon sparks a fire at point A, what residences are nearby and what does an evacuation plan look like?
6. Easier accommodation of external stakeholders
Finally, a digital twin can make lighter work of engaging with external stakeholders. The world doesn’t stand still, and a once blissfully-isolated powerline may suddenly find itself adjacent to a building site for a new building or road.
As well as planning for connection (see point 1), a digital twin takes the pain out of those processes that require interfacing with external stakeholders, such as maintenance contractors, arborists, trimming crews or local government agencies – the digital twin breaks down the silos between these groups and allows them to work from a single version of the truth – in future it could even be used as part of the bid process for contractors.
These six reasons for why digital twins will be indispensable to power T&D utilities are only the tip of the iceberg; the possibilities are endless given the constant advancement of data collection an analysis technology. No doubt these will invite even more questions – and we relish the challenge of answering them.