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The director of the Electricity System Operator talks to Utility Week as part of our Countdown to COP campaign. He stresses that the energy system alone cannot deliver decarbonisation and that the industry must bring consumers along. He also talks about the "clear, urgent, no regrets actions" that can remove barriers to deploying decarbonised heat solutions at scale.

What opportunities does COP26 represent for the utilities sector, and how can we capitalise on them?

Our Future Energy Scenarios, four different pathways for the energy system between now and 2050, outline the level of change required to make net zero a reality, both in the energy sector and wider society. COP26 will bring a new spotlight to those changes and an opportunity to accelerate progress, agreeing clear targets and action plans, both nationally and on a global scale.

In Great Britain progress towards decarbonisation is exciting, with the transition to a zero carbon grid one example, but we need to keep up the pace, ensuring industry, government and the regulator are working in partnership to solve the challenges that lie ahead.

Globally there is a need for a major collaborative effort in overcoming technical barriers related to the integration of clean energy into power systems at an unprecedented scope and scale. Power system operators are already coordinating through initiatives such as the Global Power System Transformation Consortium and GO15 and COP26 will give a further platform to countries around the world to pursue a path to modern, low-emissions energy systems.

What does the UK need to achieve in the next nine months to present itself as a world leader in tackling climate change? What role can utilities play in that?

The last 15 years have been truly transformative. The UK has led the world in decarbonisation, with the electricity sector slashing CO2 intensity by 60 per cent between 2013 and 2019, and 2020 was the greenest year on record.

There is more to do as we look to the future, particularly coming to terms with the impact of Covid-19. Any post pandemic investment or policy pledges should be targeted to have the dual effect of stimulating the economy, focused where possible in the areas of society most affected, while also accelerating the UK along the path to net zero.

The recent energy white paper, which builds on the recent 10-point plan, is the beginning of the further policy detail required. With our role at the heart of the energy system we look forward with interest to the further strategies and consultations expected this year. Further detail on hydrogen, heat and buildings and transport will be particularly welcome, with these sectors key drivers of accelerated progress towards net zero.

Where do you see further opportunities for pan-utilities co-operation on the path to decarbonisation?

The UK has been at the forefront of change, and we’re passionate about leading the way – working with others to deliver net zero both at home and abroad. That is why, as part of the journey to COP 26, we’ll be working with partners across the world to discuss how we can all accelerate decarbonisation and learn from each other’s experiences.

We’ve proved that you can take an energy system with little renewable generation and transform it into a cleaner and greener system with deliverable plans for zero carbon operation. Each country’s challenge is different, but through collaboration we can overcome any issue. We are working with the Powering Past Coal Alliance, GO15 and the newly formed Global Power System Transformation Consortium to do just that. Through these international organisations we can share our knowledge and expertise with system operators, regulators, legislators, and policy makers across the world, helping each other on our decarbonisation journey.

What is your principle ask of government and/or regulators to unlock the sector’s potential to accelerate the green transition?

As a nation we need to decide how we will decarbonise heat in the 2020s if we are to achieve a net zero energy system by 2050. Policy action is required to improve the thermal efficiency of homes and to accelerate the installation of low carbon heating technologies, such as hydrogen or heat pumps. This plan needs to consider regional differences such as existing infrastructure, geography and existing housing stock.

Decarbonized heating can truly transform our energy landscape to one that can deliver net zero carbon emissions and while the pathway is uncertain, there are clear, urgent no regrets actions that can remove barriers to deploying solutions at scale.

Another key area of focus is offshore power and its associated onshore infrastructure. GB can be a world leader with offshore wind as the backbone of a clean, reliable net zero energy system. However, we need focus on how the country’s electricity network can unlock the huge amount of offshore capacity we need, and efficiently connect multiple generating sites.

Our Offshore Coordination project is, in partnership with a wide variety of stakeholders, examining a whole range of different technical and engineering solutions, all with the aim of ensuring value for money for consumers, facilitating offshore wind’s contribution to the net zero target and reducing the environmental and social impact of onshore connections.

How can utilities help to encourage all consumers to be more active participants in the net-zero journey?

Part of the challenge of the net zero 2050 target is that the energy system alone cannot deliver decarbonisation. It exists to serve consumers and its evolution will reflect their behavioural changes over the next 30 years.

In a net zero world, fossil fuels need to be replaced by electricity and hydrogen for transport and heating. At the same time, consumers must be willing to change how and when they use energy and be prepared to change to more energy efficient technologies.

Importantly, as an industry we need to educate consumers before we can expect them to act. Our Carbon Intensity app shows people the greenest times of day to use electricity and helps them see real time information on how our electricity is being produced. Real time data is a simple way to educate and empower consumers. If they can be flexible with their electricity use, they can make more environmentally friendly choices and save money too.