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Climate-related failure of the power system key risk as UK fails to keep pace with climate change

Extreme weather events are expected to become more frequent, presenting hazards for the UK's power sector.

Extreme weather events are expected to become more frequent, presenting hazards for the UK's power sector.

The UK is not keeping pace with the impact of climate change, with the risk of climate-related failure of the power system growing.

In a new 1,500-page report from the Climate Change Committee (CCC), it highlights eight priority risks that need immediate attention, including that to people and the economy from failure of the power system.

Renewable electricity is set to play a key role in the decarbonisation of numerous sectors in the UK, with electricity moving from providing 15-20% of our energy today to 65% by 2050. Sectors such as transportation and heat, as well as light, communications and delivery of other critical services such as water, are being transitioned to electricity to aid decarbonisation.

But as this transition takes place, people and the economy will be increasingly vulnerable to any impact extreme weather driven by climate change could have on the power system. This could include flooding, water shortages, increased temperatures and wildfire, sea level rising and potential increases in storms, swells and wave heights, all of which could impact generation and distribution.

The CCC pointed to the UK’s most recent blackout in August 2019, when a lightning strike caused a chain of events that left a million people without power and stranded train passengers for hours. This is just one small example of the impact extreme weather could have on the security of the electricity supply.

In addition, weather dependent clean energy generation is expected to play a dominant role in the energy mix, for example offshore wind with the country working towards a target of 40GW by 2030. Such increases will be essential for the network to reach net zero by 2035, with National Grid ESO yesterday announcing it is on track for periods of completely zero-carbon generation by 2025, a significant milestone.

But relying on weather dependent renewables can create challenges, as was evident at the beginning of the year when cold weather and low winds led to Britain’s electricity system having to rely heavily of gas generation to ensure security, with this driving power prices up accordingly. Such events must be planned for, to ensure system stability and security of supply regardless of weather events.

While the country’s power sector has generally good plans in place to manage the risks associated with 2°C and 4°C warming scenarios, the next ten years will need to see huge growth in investment in both increases in electricity generation and expansion of the distribution grid said the CCC.

It urged the government to work with Ofgem and the industry to review the approach to electricity system design and risk assessment, ensuring that the more central role of electricity in the UK’s energy system is taken into account.

Climate resilience was a core principle of both the energy white paper and the National Infrastructure Strategy, and the CCC called for the opportunities outlined within both documents to be seized.

Beyond these there are a number of upcoming opportunities to integrate adaption into policies, including the Offshore Transmission Network Review, and the upcoming Net Zero Strategy in the UK. In England, there should be a review of public procurement rules and guidance, in Northern Ireland a second round of Flood Risk Management Plan, in Scotland the final tranche of the Low Carbon Fund investment in Emerging Energy Technology and in Wales the future Welsh Climate Change Adaptation Plan, amongst others the CCC said.

The UK is already experiencing widespread changes in the climate, including average land temperatures of 1.2°C higher than pre-industrial levels. UK sea levels have risen by 16cm since 1900, and episodes of extreme heat are becoming more frequent. Yet, since the CCC’s last risk assessment five years ago, over 570,000 new homes have been built that are not resilient to future high temperatures it said.

“The severity of the risks we face must not be underestimated,” said Baroness Brown, chair of the Adaptation Committee.

“These risks will not disappear as the world moves to net zero; many of them are already locked in. By better understanding and preparing for the coming changes, the UK can prosper, protecting its people, its economy, and its natural environment. A detailed, effective action plan that prepares the UK for climate change is now essential and needed urgently.”

Of the risks assessed by the CCC, nearly 60% were given the highest urgency score. Beyond the risk of the failure of the power system, it identified the risks to; the viability and diversity of terrestrial and freshwater habitats and species; soil health; natural carbon stores and sequestration; crops, livestock and commercial trees; food, goods and vital services supply; human health, wellbeing and productivity; and multiple risks to the UK from climate change impacts overseas.

For each, the CCC has identified a range of steps driven by ten key principles that can be taken over the next five years, stating the government has an important role to play in delivering a much better action plan to support adaptation.

However, “the government has not heeded our past advice on the importance of setting this framework and resourcing it adequately,” the report states.

“Adaptation governance has weakened over the past ten years at the same time as the evidence of climate risk has grown. This must change.”

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