The energy system in 2050 will look very different to how it looks today. But just how different? With nearly four decades still to go, and many uncertainties yet to be resolved, no-one can be sure which, if any, low-carbon technologies will turn out to be cheap and viable enough to emerge as outright ‘winners’.

However, The UK Energy Research Centre will today publish new research which reveals that there are, in fact, a number of consistent patterns which can be used to make some assessment as to what the energy system might look like in 2050.

The UK Energy System in 2050: comparing low-carbon, resilient scenarios, reports new scenario projections for the UK energy system to 2050, and compares them with earlier projections, using the UK MARKAL energy system model.

The scenario comparison reveals a number of robust conclusions, as well as continuing uncertainties, of great policy relevance. Together, they add up to a required wholesale transformation of the UK energy system if the UK’s 2050 statutory carbon targets are to be met, and have prompted a call from the report’s lead author for the inclusion of a 2030 carbon intensity target in the Energy Bill.

The main conclusions are:

  • Decarbonisation: By 2030, the UK electricity system will need to be decarbonised by at least 80% from the level in 2000 (of 500gCO2/kWh). There is a strong case for including a maximum carbon intensity target of electricity of 100gCO2/kWh for 2030 in the 2012 Energy Bill
  • Gas: There is considerable gas electricity capacity in both 2030 and 2050 in all scenarios. But in the absence of carbon capture and storage (CCS) this can only be used as back-up for low-carbon sources if the carbon targets are to be met
  • Costs: There is still considerable uncertainty about the relative current or future costs of the main low-carbon electricity supply technologies – renewables, nuclear, and CCS – so efforts must continue to develop, deploy and demonstrate them all until the picture is clearer
  • Energy efficiency technologies: These will need to be widely deployed, especially in buildings and vehicles, to reduce both energy demand and the cost of supplying low-carbon energy for the demand that remains
  • Heating homes: By 2050, individual gas boilers will be largely a thing of the past. Instead, electricity, either directly or through heat pumps, will make a major contribution to heating, supplemented by biomass and solar thermal
  • Getting from A to B: The vehicles on our roads will be very different to the ones we see today. Those still with internal combustion engines will run on biofuels. By 2050 most cars will be powered either by electric batteries or hydrogen fuel cells – enabling people to travel greater distances, but with much lower carbon emissions. But to secure public buy-in, a system of subsidies, coupled with taxes on high-carbon alternatives, may be needed
  • Transport infrastructure: Only biofuels will be easy to distribute through existing filling stations, so investment will be needed in both new filling infrastructure, and a large-scale distribution network
  • The future of the National Grid: The role of the gas grid will need to be re-thought. It could be used to carry biomethane or hydrogen

The principal author of the report, Paul Ekins, who is a Co-Director of the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) comments on the results: "It is hardly surprising that an energy system like the UK’s, which was built to take advantage of fossil fuels, will need to undergo a wholesale transformation if these are to be replaced by other sources of energy that do not emit carbon dioxide."

"These results, which emerge from the same basic model, but under a wide range of different input assumptions, are of the utmost policy relevance. They show that there is no reason not to include a 2030 carbon intensity target in the Energy Bill, because without radical decarbonisation of the electricity system by then there is no chance of meeting the 2050 carbon target cost effectively. They also show that the UK needs to continue to develop and seek to deploy all of the major low-carbon technologies, until issues relating to their cost and public acceptability are clarified and either a clear best choice among them, or something resembling an optimal mix between them, becomes apparent."

"The results also show the absolute importance of energy efficiency and conservation. Producing low-carbon energy is a costly and politically controversial endeavour, whatever technologies are deployed. The more efficiently it can be used, and the less that is required to satisfy the desired level of energy services, the easier it will be to deliver the necessary low-carbon supply. Our research shows that both heating and transport in 2050 will need to use very different technologies to today’s, and that planning for and deployment of the new infrastructure that will be required needs to begin without delay."

"Some of these insights are not new. What these scenarios show overall is the scale of the change across the whole across the energy system that is required, and that the pace of change needs to accelerate markedly if the targets are to be met. The necessary changes represent a formidable policy challenge. But the scenarios clearly show that the technologies to meet the challenge exist. Deploying them is a much lower cost option than the damages from climate change that will ensue if the UK and other countries fail to rise to it."

- Ends -

Notes to Editors:

1.   The authors of the report are:

  • Paul Ekins, Professor of Resources and Environmental Policy and Director of the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources, University College London
  • Dr Ilkka Keppo, Lecturer in Energy Modelling, UCL Energy Institute
  • Professor Jim Skea, RCUK Energy Strategy Fellow and Professor of Sustainable Energy, Imperial College London, former Research Director, UK Energy Research Centre
  • Professor Neil Strachan, Professor of Energy Economics and Modelling, UCL Energy Institute
  • Will Usher, former Research Associate and current PhD student, UCL Energy Institute
  • Dr Gabrial Anandarajah, Senior Research Associate, UCL Energy Institute

2.   The MARKAL model was initiated by the International Energy Systems (IEA) in the 1970s, and has become the best-established energy system model around the world, used in hundreds of modelling exercises in dozens of countries. It has been extensively used by both the Government (most recently the Department on Energy and Climate Change in 2011) and the Committee on Climate Change, since the rebirth of energy policy in the UK ten years ago.

3.    The UK’s carbon intensity of electricity in 2000 was around 500gCO2/kWh. There has been substantial debate as to whether to include in the 2012 Energy Bill a 2030 carbon intensity target of 100gCO2/kWh.

To read the full report, go to: www.ukerc.ac.uk/support/tiki-download_file.php?fileId=2976 or download the UKERC Energy Insight briefing paper.

For further information, please contact Lindsay Wright, Head of Communications, UK Energy Research Centre, 020 7594 2669 lindsay.wright@ukerc.ac.uk.

About the UK Energy Research Centre

The UK Energy Research Centre, which is funded by Research Councils UK, carries out world-class research into sustainable future energy systems. It is the hub of UK energy research and the gateway between the UK and the international energy research communities. Our interdisciplinary, whole-systems research informs UK policy development and research strategy.

www.ukerc.ac.uk.

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