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Disruptive change: Net zero requires government to keep all options open

Image: Getty

Image: Getty

The UK Energy Research Centre’s (UKERC) latest report launched earlier this week, detailing potential future pathways of the UK’s energy system and government's role in a net zero transition.

Speaking at the launch of the report, UKERC director Jim Watson said that it’s “hard to conclude that disruption is not going to happen”. With transport, electricity and heat now more integrated than ever, if changes are made to one, it will disrupt another.

However, evidence from the report suggests that the extent of disruption is uncertain, with results from a survey of 130 stakeholders and researchers showing a split of opinion between whether a highly disruptive transition, or a continuity-based transition, is most likely.

Survey results show a divide in whether change will be disruptive or continuity-based. Image: UKERC
Survey results show a divide in whether change will be disruptive or continuity-based. Image: UKERC

Under a continuity-based approach, the transition will occur mainly through adapting and repurposing existing organisations and infrastructures. Under a disruptive approach, policies, technology, business models and behaviours will all provoke fundamental remodelling of the energy system.

Achieving net zero by 2050 could be highly disruptive, Watson said, but the specifics of that disruption are unclear. As such, the government should be keeping its options open and treating policy as a hypothesis as opposed to setting out a single policy pathway for achieving net zero.

The phrase ‘policy as a hypothesis’ cropped up more than once during the launch, with Matthew Bilson, head of strategy for energy innovation at BEIS, saying that policy needs to become more adaptive, with models and systems in place that allow government to adapt.

“Government is starting to recognise it can’t plan everything,” Bilson said, continuing to say that reaching net zero is not only about energy policy and that he is “optimistic” that there will be a greater integration of cross-department policy.

Chris Stark, chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change, agreed that options should be kept open and that the CCC’s net zero recommendations are “not a plan, merely a guide”.

Greater localisation of policy was also suggested in the report, as well as the coordination of policy across systems and scale and the creation of more iterative policy.

There was also discussion of the strategies of the Big Six and their changing strategies towards decarbonisation, with Watson saying that the power sector is different to any of the other sectors examined in the report due to the disruption already occurring.

Strategies across the Big Six are varied, with those like Centrica focusing more on a decentralised model compared to SSE and ScottishPower more focused on a traditional centralised approach with portfolios of large scale renewables.

Digitisation amongst some is presented as a priority, with Centrica’s Hive products and innogy, whereas others such as EDF appear to not consider it a priority.

Likewise, the various strategies towards decarbonisation of heat were a hot topic. However, Stark said that whilst “we do need to focus on heat”, there is uncertainty over whether some of the options will work at scale, and that scale trials may need to be conducted over the next decade.

Stark continued to say that there will be a “really big disruption” over the next five to ten years, but that what this disruption will be – or how it will happen – is not easy to predict.

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