Enough modelling, start building - why it is time for Engineering Net Zero

Dr David Cole, market director in Power at Atkins, explains why the time for modelling Net Zero scenarios has passed - and why the UK must instead move into action
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By Atkins

25 Feb 2021

2020 was one of the hottest years on record and produced some climatic extremes including wildfires, record low Arctic ice, highest reliable temperature recorded and the most active hurricane season.

As well as the global pandemic, many governments face the challenge of ageing infrastructure (or building from scratch) – with a growing desire to achieve this by placing no additional climate burden on the planet (i.e. net zero) or even seeking to achieve positive benefit (negative emissions).

The Net Zero by 2050 target and scenario set out by UK Climate Change Committee requires fundamental analysis and basic questions: Can you build it? Can you build it in time? Will it work?

Through extensive analysis in Engineering Net Zero report, there are some crucial considerations and conclusions for the UK – but in summary:  

  • The build rate of new energy infrastructure will be higher than ever achieved (see figure for electricity generation) and at least three times its current size to power the electrification of heat and transport. The power sector must replace almost all the current ageing generating capacity and build as much again – at an estimated build rate of 9-12 GW every year, for 29 years.
  • The potential make-up of this capacity continues to change (e.g. the suggested increase of 75 to 95GW in offshore wind), but ever-shifting long term goals will hinder the ability to track progress, start planning and building. The system can’t easily be split up into separate parts – energy supply and demand systems must be developed together and the ways how they’ll work together effectively. Electrification of transport cannot be planned or scheduled without considering the impact on the electricity generated to power it. Up to eighty percent of today’s infrastructure will still exist in 2050 – these must be retrofitted to be energy efficient and new infrastructure developments should follow material and construction standards according to climate measures. Whole system thinking is imperative to deliver the right balance of new infrastructure, energy supply and technology.
  • The task is really complicated and expensive – to be expected with the largest challenge modern society has ever had to overcome. There is a lot of vested interest, nationally and internationally – but the UK needs a plan and an Energy System Architect to set the right pace immediately and get Net Zero delivered.

Currently there are ideas, enthusiasm, regional targets as cities set route maps and checklists – but these alone won’t get the UK to Net Zero. A nationwide programme is required, run by an accountable, separate body to put it into action.

There is enough modelling of net zero to cover all options – we must move from producing thousand-page reports about a potential 2050 system, and focus on getting to 2025, 2030 etc. Engineering leadership is needed to reduce risk and create successful projects that can be invested in and crucially built now.

Implementing huge tasks has historically been separated from Government policy departments; Net Zero is no exception. The strategy and programme should be separated out to a body answerable to Parliament to deliver a comprehensive nationwide programme that reaches into almost every home and continues UK industries and employment opportunities. The UK opportunity to create highly skilled jobs and exports should not be missed – and learn from the £10bn per annum current investment in renewable generation – to focus on skills and capability. The UK has the opportunity to lead in:

  • Nuclear generation of all sizes
  • Carbon capture and storage
  • Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage
  • The generation, transport and storage of hydrogen
  • Energy storage
  • Floating offshore wind
  • Integration and operation of complex systems such as nuclear & renewables & hydrogen
  • Opportunity to build and sell energy through interconnection (with significant amount of firm power coming off the bars across Europe this decade)
  • Design and build of industrial clusters and energy hubs

The task requires using the technologies available today to build the net zero system at scale, now. New technologies to widen future options and increase the pace of decarbonisation must be encouraged and developed simultaneously. The way the UK manages data and complex systems must be improved, from current methods, as well as how the country manages and pays for waste and decommissioning of the numerous assets in operation and construction such as solar panels, turbines, batteries, etc.

There’s a lot to do, and while the checklist may appear to be overwhelming, there isn’t the luxury of not doing it and 2050 is just 29 years away. Global decarbonisation and achieving Net Zero is the biggest engineering challenge humanity has ever faced. To make it work, governments and investors need engineering - it’s time to stop modelling Net Zero and start building it.


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