New technologies, rather than nuclear, could offer a faster and cheap route to net zero.
According to a new report by the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) entitled Net Zero: Opportunities for the power sector, increased investment in alternatives such as hydrogen and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) could help the UK to reach its net zero by 2050 target, in collaboration with a high penetration of renewables.
Increasing the amount of renewables on the UK electricity system will not materially increase consumer costs, according to the report, as the costs have come down so substantially, stating that "it is clear that ruling out the highest penetrations of renewables now would be counterproductive".
But investing in hydrogen, generated using electrolysis powered by curtailed renewables, could play “a major role in future power systems”. This could help reduce consumer bills by as much as 30%.
The report states that hydrogen gas turbines could act “as a natural complement to renewables,” but that further action would be needed to demonstrate the technology would work at scale.
A further finding in the report centered around the role of nuclear in the energy network, claiming that BECCS could offer a more economical alternative. This is largely due to the continued high price of nuclear, which hasn’t fallen consistently, even in countries that have committed to multiple reactors with the same or similar designs.
Due to the long time frames and high cost of a nuclear fleet, it would reduce the UK’s ability to react and develop with technology.
“Making decisions now, such as committing to a fleet of nuclear power plants, rules out a more diverse future generation mix and the potential this has to reduce costs to consumers,” the Commission’s report notes.
“Policy decisions that lock the UK consumer into paying for large scale programmes with long construction times risk missing opportunities that may emerge.”
As such, flexibility appears to be key, both in utilising hydrogen together with the baseload power from BECSS to balance renewables and in long term planning. This follows claims made in the NIC’s annual report published in February, which called on government, Ofgem and National Grid ESO to place flexibility at the core of its actions.
NIC’s Net Zero report welcomed the news that the government would be holding a pot 1 contracts for difference auction, the first since 2015. This was widely welcomed by the industry, as many had been critical of the governments limiting of pot 1 technologies, onshore wind and solar, and the reintroduction of the auction formed part of the NIC’s previous suggestions for government.
“The additional challenge of a net zero target makes it even more crucial that government levels the playing field to enable all cost competitive renewable technologies to come forward,” states the report. “The modelling discussed in this paper shows that a significant increase in onshore capacity would support the least cost generation mix.”
Overall the report praises the progress made, particularly in the wind sector in the UK, calling the government target of 40GW of offshore wind by 2030 a "welcome step".
But "this positive progress must continue," the NIC states.
RenewableUK's director of future electricity systems Barnaby Wharton said: "This report highlights the central role that low-cost wind will play in the UK's clean energy system in the decades ahead, so that consumers reap the full benefits of cheap electricity, as well as the importance of developing new technologies like renewable hydrogen, wave and tidal power.
"The NIC is right to urge the government to continue with the positive progress they've made so far and to be ambitious in its vision to reach net zero emissions using a wide range of clean sources."
Net Zero: Opportunities for the power sector has been published just days before the National Infrastructure Strategy was due to be published, to coincide with the Budget. However recent reports now claim that it will be further delayed, to allow the new chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to refocus the strategy for net zero.