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UK Energy Research Centre energy scenarios

By Dave Elliott

The UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) has published a new study – The UK Energy System in 2050: Comparing low-carbon, resilient scenarios – which reports on new scenario projections for the UK energy system to 2050, comparing them with earlier projections, using the UK MARKAL energy system model.

The existing “official” scenarios chosen (from the DECC, CCC, AEA, etc) and the new ones developed by the UKERC, are all pretty gloomy – they all contain large nuclear elements, up to 55 GW by 2050! In terms of generation, fossil-based carbon capture and storage takes second place, and wind and marine energy (wave and tidal) come third, with little biomass or solar use. Most also only have demand cut by 9–12% by 2050.

It’s hard to reconcile these scenarios with the plans emerging elsewhere in the EU, in Germany and Denmark for example, which avoid nuclear entirely. The UKERC seems to ignore the many zero/low-nuclear, near-100% renewables scenarios that have emerged in recent years in the UK and the EU. The most ambitious of the UKERC’s own new scenarios has 23 GW of nuclear, 23 GW of wind plus 12 GW of marine energy by 2050.

More positively, the UKERC uses the exercises to highlight the more immediate issues of new gas expansion and carbon targets, arguing that their analysis reveals “a strong case for including a maximum carbon intensity target of electricity of 100 g CO2/kWh for 2030 in the 2012 Energy Bill”. It says that that it is vital to include a 2030 carbon intensity target in the Energy Bill, because “without radical decarbonization of the electricity system by then there is no chance of meeting the 2050 carbon target cost effectively”. It adds ‘There is considerable gas electricity capacity in both 2030 and 2050 in all scenarios. But in the absence of carbon capture and storage (CCS) this can only be used as back-up for low-carbon sources if the carbon targets are to be met.”

To some extent the high nuclear contribution in the scenarios might be seen as acting as a wake up call, reminding us that a lot needs to be done if we want to avoid that. The UKERC says that the UK needs develop and seek to deploy all of the major low-carbon technologies, including nuclear, but they also makes clear ‘the absolute importance of energy efficiency and conservation’. pointing out that ‘producing low-carbon energy is a costly and politically controversial endeavour, whatever technologies are deployed. The more efficiently it can be used, and the less that is required to satisfy the desired level of energy services, the easier it will be to deliver the necessary low-carbon supply’

They also note that ‘there is still considerable uncertainty about the relative current or future costs of the main low-carbon electricity supply technologies – renewables, nuclear, and CCS,’ While they claim that ‘nuclear appears to be the most economically attractive low-carbon option, ‘ they admit that is not guaranteed and that ‘even the current costs of nuclear in the model are uncertain,’ By contrast they say that ‘Wind has the present advantage over CCS and nuclear that it can be delivered at scale now, at a known cost, and with known power outputs and carbon emission reductions. Moreover, onshore wind in the best sites is already competitive, or close to competitive, with power generation from fossil fuels. This is currently the lowest cost large-scale low-carbon source of electricity.’ Reflecting an earlier UKERC report they add that ‘Faster cost reduction of offshore wind than currently assumed in the model could greatly increase its contribution to the 2050 electricity’. Otherwise however, in at least some scenarios, marine renewables (wave and tidal) actually do better than wind long term.

Interestingly they claim that ‘new gas-fired stations will be required before 2030 to replace closing coal and nuclear stations…new back-up capacity is unlikely to be required before 2030’.However, they say ‘there should be substantial efforts to develop electricity storage technologies, in order to reduce the level of back-up gas capacity required’. Well maybe. How much of a role storage can and should play is debatable. As a report on storage from the Energy Futures Lab at Imperial College noted, other balancing options may have the edge. (See my earlier blog post:

Most of the scenarios the UKERC looks at seem to focus mainly on electricity supply, including for heating e.g. via heat pumps, although this is seen as being ‘supplemented by biomass and solar thermal,’ and Combined Heat and Power gets a mention. In one of the Climate Change Committee’s scenarios, CHP supplies about 15% of electricity from 2025 onwards and 20-30% of annual residential heating requirement between 2020 and 2050. The possibility of using the gas grid to carry biomethane or hydrogen is also flagged up, as is the possibility of obtaining ‘negative’ emissions ‘by taking carbon from the atmosphere (through growing the biomass) and then storing this underground when the biomass is burnt’.

Overall however this review of official very conservative scenarios is dominated by the big electricity supply options, with nuclear clearly at the top of the pile and PV at the bottom!

For a very different prognosis, quite apart from the recent Pugwash High Renewables Pathways ( see Shell’s new global scenario report, which suggests, in its Oceans scenario, that by 2060 solar could supply more energy than any other source, while nuclear’s contribution would be very small ( But that was global. Maybe the UK will buck the trend. That rather depends on the outcome of the current highly contentious negotiations over funding for EDF’s proposed new 3.2 GW EPR project at Hinkley. It’s apparently on knife edge. The recent Energy and Climate Change Select Committee’s report ‘Building New Nuclear: The Challenges Ahead noted that of this didn’t go smoothly, it could be ‘difficult (or impossible) to finance any subsequent attempts at nuclear new build’. We should know any day now (

After which it will be the renewables’ turn to seek CfD contracts. If the worst comes to the worst, it could be that the UKERC will have to develop some new scenarios with nuclear excluded and renewables leading. Perish the thought!

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