Will the UK achieve its true green potential?
When it comes to the challenge of meeting the UK’s future low-carbon energy needs, two analysts at the Energy Technologies Institute come straight to the point: “There is no time to invent and deploy a set of novel breakthrough technologies”. Instead, the UK should integrate into its energy system known but underdeveloped solutions – particularly those involving biomass and the offshore disposal of carbon dioxide.
It’s not often that old age is considered “a relatively unusual but fortunate position”. But Jo Coleman and Andrew Haslett of the Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) think the phrase certainly applies to Britain’s power plants, many of which are nearing the end of their lifetime. The way they see it, the plants’ retirement will open up opportunities for new power-generating capacity.
And “for a modest incremental cost we have the choice to make this new capacity low carbon,” explain the two analysts in their contribution to the e-book The colours of energy, which bundles together 36 thought-provoking essays on the future of energy.
According to Coleman and Haslett, bioenergy has much potential in Britain. Their analysis shows that some 20,000 square kilometres of agricultural land could be released for “energy crops” with no detrimental impact on food production.
These crops would be harvested specifically for “gasification” into hydrogen or syngas (a synthetic natural gas) – two versatile gaseous fuels. Alternatively, they might be converted to either liquid biofuels (which can be burned in car engines) or solid biofuels (which can be burned in boilers for warmth or electricity).
The wind that sweeps over the UK’s territorial waters also offers a ready source of low-carbon power if it is harnessed by offshore turbines. But the biggest offshore opportunity for Britain may lie in the permanent disposal of carbon dioxide.
Locked in beneath the waves
In fact, according to Coleman and Haslett, the UK’s depleted offshore oil and gas fields and saline aquifers make it “ideally placed to achieve a significant proportion of its emission reductions to 2050 and beyond through carbon capture and storage (CCS).”
The ETI has identified 78 gigatonnes of potential storage capacity in UK territorial waters, whereas the country would probably need only 3 gigatonnes by 2050. With so much spare capacity, the UK could not only meet its own CCS needs but also provide CO2 disposal services to Western European countries. By combining CCS with bioenergy, the UK could even help offset CO2 emissions from fossil fuels that cannot be easily replaced.
“Our analysis highlights the enormous potential of CCS and bioenergy across the full range of future scenarios,” say Coleman and Haslett. This potential may ultimately be brought to reality not by warm-hearted altruism but by hard-nosed economics.
“Missing out on one of these technologies would double the cost of delivering the climate change targets,” warn Coleman and Haslett. And they go further: “If neither were to be developed, it is difficult to see how the UK would be able to meet those targets at all.”
To be sure, the authors admit that CCS has experienced “a number of false starts and frustrations in the UK.” Many more development projects would be required. “They need to form the backbone of a future network capable of transporting and storing carbon dioxide from power generation and industrial sources.”
First things first
Most homes in England, the largest UK nation, were built between 1919 and 1980. According to Coleman and Haslett, “around 80% of today’s homes will still be around in 2050, and the vast majority are poorly insulated and highly inefficient in terms of energy use.” Consequently, the energy efficiency of homes and offices deserves to be a top priority for the UK energy policy.
Waste offers another opportunity that should be grasped immediately, say Coleman and Haslett. “Waste gasification allows heat or electricity to be generated locally and syngas to be injected into the gas grid.”
For the most part, however, the main “metric of success” for the components of the UK’s energy system is not how quickly and extensively they can be deployed now, but how well prepared they will be for the start of a mass rollout a decade hence. In any case, by 2050 “the country will have to reorganise its energy distribution infrastructure, build major new networks and adapt its buildings and vehicles.”
In the meantime, Coleman and Haslett urge the UK to continue “to create scope for prompt action and economic advantage in what will ultimately be a global marketplace for low-carbon technologies and supply-chain capacity.”
- Read Coleman and Haslett’s full essay – Targets, technologies, infrastructure and investments: Preparing the UK for the energy transition – in The colours of energy. Download the book for free to your iPad or e-reader and discover more about possible pathways into the future of energy.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in The colours of energy – Essays on the future of energy in society are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of Royal Dutch Shell plc nor any of its subsidiaries (Shell).
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The 21st century will be decisive in the various transitions to a future with cleaner energy. Written by leading experts, The colours of energy contains 36 thought-provoking essays about the many energy challenges society faces in the coming decades.