The UK government has set a goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal will require a significant shift away from fossil fuels, and there are a number of challenges that need to be addressed in order to achieve it.
Its largely accepted that the electrification of our buildings and cars will help us achieve net zero. The removal of direct use of fossil fuels to heat our buildings and power our vehicles will decarbonise locally and the transition to a fully decarbonised grid would then eventually help us achieve net zero on a national level. While this may be true in theory, many other factors need to be considered for this to work.
The grid currently relies heavily on gas to meet heating demands in the wintertime, and although combined cycle gas turbines (CCGT) only account for a yearly average of 14% of the UK Energy Mix, in some of the coldest winter days CCGT still accounts for more than 60% of the energy supply.
Studies have shown that even with full transition of gas as a fuel to electricity via heat pumps (which have 2-4x the efficiency of gas) and the predicted increase in power supply from renewables such as wind and solar, the UK grid is still short of a significant amount of power required to cover the peak heating demand. Conversely, in summer months, with renewables such as solar increasing their energy output, supply is predicted to be much more than the demand.
In addition to this, powering our buildings and vehicles through clean electricity will require a huge increase not just in generating capacity, but also in transmission infrastructure. A recent report by the Energy Transitions Commission estimated that the world needs to spend about $1trn per year between now and 2050 on upgrading grids and storage systems. We are currently spending $260bn per year.
To ensure grid security in the future we need to ensure that:
These issues can largely be tackled both at macro and micro scale. As Built Environment Engineers, we should be implementing these interventions at building level, through robust passive design and modelling to ensure new buildings do not add to the predicted future strain on the grid. The US has already experienced grid failure due to overload.
Achieving net zero emissions by 2050 is a challenging but an achievable goal. By working together, we can create a cleaner, healthier future for ourselves and for generations to come.