UK Energy White Paper 2020

The UK government has just published its 2020 Energy White Paper titled ‘Powering Our Net Zero Future’, outlining its plans for decarbonizing the UK by 2050. In this post I will try and pull out the key highlights, and my take on them. This is really just a quick first read, and I will try and do a few follow up posts in more detail. For those of you feeling keen, you can find the main document here.

First of all, I am a power engineer first and foremost, and I spent a significant portion of my career in Oil & Gas, so I will focus more on those areas, than buildings and consumers, as I have a more detailed understanding of them. Secondly, it is very easy on all these issues to let politics get in the way of reality, so I will just focus on what the paper says, rather than let any personal feelings get in the way. Thirdly, I don’t have any specific vested interests, so I will try and be as fair and impartial as I can!

Overall, the Energy White Paper is very ambitious, and credit where its due the UK government and BEIS have set their sights high, and I can only applaud them for that. I am sure that plenty will moan its not ambitious enough, or its too ambitious, or their pet subject isn’t covered; but in my view it is an optimistic, ambitious, but reasonably credible approach to meeting the target goals. The issue will always be in the details though! One thing that is clear is that the government expects the market to pay for this through various regulatory mechanisms and incentives, with some government financial backing – it easy to be cynical here, but the UK is certainly cutting edge in terms of competitive markets for energy, so it seems like an approach that will work.

One of the most interesting bits in the Energy White Paper, are the reference to the Prime Minister’s 10 point plan, as this is the underpinning philosophy of the whole paper. The summary given on pages 12 and 13 of the PDF gives a pretty good overview, of the general approach. See below for my take on each of the key points.

  1. Green Public Transport, Cycling and Walking – the focus here is really going to be on green public transport, I think the cycling and walking goals will be hard to measure and challenging to deliver, as its part of an ingrained societal view that will be hard to budge.
  2. Hydrogen – a very ambitious goal of adding 5GW by 2030. Whilst I have some reservations about hydrogen, there is no doubt it is a relatively quick and easy interim solution that the Oil & Gas majors will be able to adapt to.
  3. Nuclear Power – always a contentious issue, but interesting to see they are still planning for more classical fusions reactors, as well as the Small Modular Reactors. I personally think Small Modular Reactors will be the way forward, as they are more robust and as the design is more compact it will make deploying them easier commercially and reduce the design and planning red tape. Hidden away in the main report, there is also reference to a commercial viable fusion reactor by 2040!
  4. Offshore Wind – this was the first big surprise, due really the scale. The UK government is aiming to add an additional 40GW of offshore wind. That is an enormous amount of power to add and will need a lot of infrastructure upgrades to achieve it. Is this achievable, I think so, but there is limited capacity in the world at the moment, so there will be a big push and outside pressures, if other countries follow the same strategy.
  5. Jet Zero and Green Ships – not really a specialism of mine, whilst I can see that green ships are achievable (there are quite a few all-electric ships around at the moment), I struggle to see how they will achieve it with aircraft, as batteries don’t have sufficient energy density. Interesting planes are not really discussed again in the paper.
  6. Greener Buildings – not really a specialism of mine, but some interesting ideas here. I think we all know gas fired central heating will be a thing of the past. There is no specific mention of this, but I would expect to see modular solar and small domestic batteries used and deployed more often.
  7. Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage – this was the other big surprise for me. This technology, has been around for longer than most people think (I worked on one back in 2001 – In Salah Gas Project), but has always lacked backing and the will to deploy at a large scale. Maybe this is a sell-out, but if the government supports it enough, it could be an achievable interim solution for keeping larger heavy industry and conventional thermal stations on line.
  8. Protecting Our Natural Environment – a commitment to protect the landscapes and environment. There is little to directly note here, except that is good to see that this is considered as a key point.
  9. Zero Emissions and Vehicles – a nice clear commitment to ban the sale of new diesel and petrol cars and vans by 2030. A few things here, first it’s interesting to note that vans are included in the goal now, and second that there will be a support package for manufacturers. The main concern here will be the making sure it is equitable, and that those without the money available to buy a new car, will not be too heavily penalized.
  10. Green Finance and Innovation – the third big surprise, was a commitment to 2.4% of GDP committed to R&D activities by 2037. This might be some careful wording here, but even so, that is a lot of money and investment coming. Interestingly, there is little direct mention of green banking and investment grants, but lets see.

The other interesting things about these sorts of papers is what they do not talk about! Large scale solar and onshore wind hardly get a mention, probably as they are much smaller modular systems. Demand side reduction isn’t mentioned in detail, but reading between the lines it is clear that it will be a significant component. Peaking plants, get a passing mention, but again not much detail, as I suspect the government want to remain agnostic between peaking plants vs battery storage. Wave and Tidal power barely get a mention, so I think the various tidal barrage schemes will be a non-starter.

There are a few other tidbits, hidden away in the report that I think are particularly interesting, I have summarized these below, along with some references to the relevant sections of the paper.

  1. Domestic batteries and cars with Vehicle 2 Grid (V2G) technology get a specific mention (p24 of the PDF)
  2. There will be a clear push for existing thermal power generation plants to be fitted with -Carbon Capture Use and Storage (CCUS) technology (p47-48 of the PDF).
  3. A commitment to build a commercially viable fusion reactor by 2040 (p51 of the PDF). Wow, this is a big statement, and clearly fusion has come on a long way!
  4. Biomass generation looks to be getting some investment (p53 of the PDF)
  5. There appears to be an push into technology to actively remover greenhouse gasses from the air (p54 of the PDF)
  6. Private electricity networks and iDNOs are going to be a new big thing, with a lot of deregulation coming (p76-77 of the PDF)
  7. 18GW of new interconnectors are coming by 2030 (p80 of the PDF)
  8. Ofgem and National Grid ESO look like they are in line for a shake up and splitting of roles and responsibilities (p86 of the PDF)
  9. Gas supplies to new homes look like the will be phased out, and there will be a renewed focus on heat pumps (p110 of the PDF)
  10. Hydrogen as a clean gas technology is to be formally trialed at a domestic village level (p112 of the PDF)
  11. Energy intensive industries look like they will be in line for some sort of supports, grants or finance (p122 of the PDF)
  12. Decarbonization of energy intensive areas, looks like it will be carried out sequentially at a regional scale, with specific ideas and concepts (p124 of the PDF).
  13. The UK is planning to introduce the worlds first zero caron cap and emissions trading scheme – very interesting, we will have to wait and see what this looks like (p129 of the PDF)
  14. The offshore Oil & Gas industry looks as if it will get some funding to adopt and integrate clean energy into their operations with possible integration into offshore wind and sub0sea cables (p138-139 of the PDF)
  15. The offshore Oil & Gas regulatory regime, will be given a major shake up (p140 of the PDF)

Overall, the Energy White Paper seems very ambitious and I think whilst difficult, in the main it is achievable if there is sufficient driving force and momentum put behind the rhetoric. I think perhaps my personal biggest concern, is that a lot of development will need to be driven by very big businesses and investment companies; and this could be open to abuse, but perhaps this is just a consequence of the recognizing the scale of work needed.