Roger Hey, Western Power Distribution’s, DSO systems manager Electric Vehicles, Energy networks, Generation, Low-carbon generation, Network Excellence, Policy & regulation, Regulation, Opinion, Western Power Distribution

Network leaders must stop overanalysing and start getting on with the job of decarbonisation says Western Power Distribution’s, DSO systems manager, Roger Hey.

The world is currently facing an extraordinary fight against Covid-19 and, as an industry we are doing everything possible to ensure that power continues to flow while at the same time protecting the safety of our workers.

But while we have this battle on our hands in the short-term, we mustn’t take our foot off the peddle with the much larger long-term challenge of climate change.

The UK is facing a unprecedented challenge to achieve its net-zero carbon emissions commitment by 2050. Transitioning the UK’s energy system to cleaner sources of power has been, and will continue to be, a demanding and stimulating test for government, industry stakeholders and consumers.

When government set its target of net-zero by 2050, it was applauded for being the first major economy in the world to legislate a specific decarbonisation timeframe.

However, 2050 remains an ambitious deadline for reducing the UK’s carbon emissions, especially for the energy industry. It can take several years to build low carbon distributed generators, such as wind or solar farms, and well over a decade to construct larger nuclear power stations, thanks to the UK’s often lengthy planning process and consultations.

When the next 30 years are broken down like this, 2050 feels a lot closer. If the UK is to hit its mid-21st century target, it is crucial that the industry and government focus on implementing simple, “oven-ready” and achievable solutions to the UK’s long-term decarbonisation challenges.

There are such technologies available now, such as heat pumps and simple EV smart charging, that will help us to achieve our national target but need clear policy direction for their implementation.

New innovations will be developed, and technologies improved over the next 30 years, but we should recognise that the core solutions are available now. The time has come to stop debating, and to start implementing our route to net zero.

To reach net zero, WPD estimates that the UK’s electricity networks will need to handle around four times the energy consumption of today. However, this doesn’t mean we need a network that is four times bigger, as the industry has already developed a range of innovations and technologies to create smarter, more flexible networks. These are capable of managing peaks in demand without the need for wholesale reinforcement. Investment in these types of enabling IT infrastructure will be key.

Today, the UK energy industry faces three key challenges to which we already have the solutions at our fingertips to meet net-zero emissions:

Heating the UK’s 25 million homes

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s 2018 report ‘Clean Growth – Transforming Heating, Overview of Current Evidence’ highlighted that domestic heating produces almost one third of all UK carbon emissions.

This is one area where we can achieve valuable gains in the coming years by making a clear policy decision to promote the installation of heat pumps as the UK’s standard heating system for all suitable homes.

Ofgem has underlined the importance of heat pumps to decarbonisation in its recently published Decarbonisation Action Plan, noting, “we expect that heat pumps will be needed to heat many homes, regardless of the future of hydrogen.”

In addition to reducing carbon emissions, Ofgem highlights heat pumps’ potential to significantly reduce customer heating bills and is committed to channelling further funding towards promoting their uptake.

At Western Power Distribution, we are getting on with the job, with plans for our ED2 business plan setting sights on over 400,000 domestic heat pumps by 2030. This solution harnesses natural, atmospheric or ground heat, with greatly reduced energy requirements.

So how do we get more heat pumps on the ground? The Government could send a strong signal through targeted adjustments to UK planning regulations for all new-build homes and introduce tax incentives on heat pumps to promote their rapid adoption. Blending the initial heat pump costs into the sale price of the home would lessen the impact on homeowners.

By embracing heat pumps and working with the construction and house building industries, the UK can make inroads into eliminating a third of our national carbon emissions by supercharging the decarbonisation of homes.

Cleaning up our roads

Delivering his first budget as Chancellor, Rishi Sunak stated that “road transport is responsible for 91 per cent of domestic transport emissions, and around a fifth of overall UK emissions.”

With road transport contributing the lion’s share of the UK’s carbon, facilitating the switch towards electric vehicles must be a priority for the government and industry.

Once again, the UK has made great progress setting out its decarbonisation goals, with transport secretary Grant Shapps recently unveiling the government’s aim to halt the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars by 2035 or earlier if possible, but the roadmap to delivering a strategy for the alternatives remains uncharted.

To reach this target, the UK will need infrastructure to accommodate an estimated 38 million new electric vehicles predicted to be on the road by 2050. The electricity needed to charge these EVs will be equivalent to 140 times the electricity currently used to power Birmingham.

In 2020, we face a chicken-and-egg scenario: currently, there is insufficient charging infrastructure available nationwide to accommodate EVs, with many more rural areas such as Wales having very few public chargers.

As stated in the National Assembly for Wales, Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee report ‘Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure’, “the infrastructure in Wales for electric vehicles currently limited, in particular in terms of rapid chargers.” Consumers are aware of this disparity, with the Transport Research Laboratory’s 2019 study ‘Consumers, Vehicles and Energy Integration (CVEI)’ finding that one of the main reasons people are hesitant to purchase EVs is the lack of charging options and a fear of being stranded.

However, without increased uptake of EVs, it is difficult to make an economic case for expanding the UK’s charging network. To help alleviate these concerns, the Government committed £500 million in the recent Budget to fund the development of a rapid charging infrastructure, with the aim of ensuring that UK drivers are never more than 30 miles from a charge point.

However, the scale of this challenge is increasing every day. To meet government’s target of banning new petrol and diesel cars by 2035, WPD estimates that we will need to install around 5,400 public charge points across our licence areas, every day for the next 15 years, or to achieve the 2050 target we would have to build 2,700 charge points per day. Every time we miss this daily installation target, the number of chargers we need to accommodate increases for every subsequent day.

To achieve the UK’s low carbon transport ambitions, a coordinated government and industry vehicle charging strategy is needed. Where the current fragmented approach has made some progress, often driven by local governments, headway has been fragmented and inconsistent.

A common, national approach is needed to coordinate the wide range of options available – from homes to service stations, town centre carparks to supermarkets – to ensure that everyone has access to safe, affordable and low carbon recharging for their vehicle.

The Department for Transport’s recently released paper on Decarbonising Transport highlighted that more than a third of households in England do not have access to off-street parking. It’s just one example of how we need to create a clear strategy that works for all.

Clarity for consumers

It is important that, with the evolution of the ideas, technologies and approaches for delivering a net-zero UK, consumers are given clear information and advice from decision makers and the industry.

With so many options available for decarbonisation, consumers must be armed with the knowledge and understanding of the lifestyle changes needed to reach net zero to enable them to make informed choices.

Along this journey, it is important that both industry and government have a frank dialogue with consumers about the way forward. For example, carbon capture and storage is a fantastic way of stopping carbon being released into the atmosphere, but we should be honest with consumers that it is not a quick fix.

It will take time to implement and develop the facilities that can effectively capture and store carbon. Ultimately, we will need consumers to choose the low carbon option in future – but without simply and honestly explaining the costs and the benefits of these choices, we cannot expect UK consumers to make the right choice alone and unsupported.

The UK has led the world in setting out the challenge and the ambition for decarbonisation. However, the time has come to commit to a clear route to net zero by implementing road-tested and proven technologies. By outlining a consistent national strategy, the government can set the industry in motion to deliver, while building sustainable public trust and consensus.

The government must act now by implementing policies supporting oven-ready solutions, while legislating to tackle the larger more long-term challenge we must overcome to achieve its net zero target by 2050.

This article first appeared in Network magazine, which has now been incorporated into Utility Week.

What to read next