Boris Johnson’s promise to make Britain’s electricity system ‘zero carbon’ by 2035 would be ‘extremely challenging’ in 14 years and is likely to be a ‘ continued role for natural gas, according to energy analysts.
The warning came when environmental groups welcomed the prime minister’s commitment, which was announced during a speech by Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng at the Conservative party conference in Manchester on Monday.
However, energy specialists said reducing Britain’s dependence on natural gas in the power sector would be difficult and expensive. The country’s dependence on fossil fuels, the UK’s largest source of electricity, which accounts for almost 40 per cent of production, has eased sharply in recent months wholesale prices for gas reached record highs.
Kwarteng said the crisis showed the need to step up efforts to end the country’s vulnerability to international gas prices. “The only way to strengthen Britain’s energy security is carbon – free power generated in this country,” he said.
But he acknowledges that he has achieved the goal of 2035, which reflects a similar promise by US President Joe Biden, will still include some gas stations, although they are equipped with carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) to reduce their emissions.
The 2035 target is a milestone in achieving the UK Government’s target of achieving net zero emissions for the whole economy by 2050.
Richard Howard, research director at Aurora Energy Research, a consultant in Oxford, said the difficulty in achieving a zero-carbon power system lay in “what to do if the wind stops blowing and the sun does not shine”, referring to renewables energy weather-dependent.
Ministers hope that CCS technology – which captures CO2 from fossil fuel plants and stores it permanently underground – will be widely used by 2035 to help with the question of when renewable energy does not generate energy.
“Technological change is coming, remember the iPhone was not 14 years ago,” said a Conservative assistant. Some power companies are also planning to build plants that can run on carbon-free hydrogen.
However, Howard warned that CCS and other low-carbon technologies that could displace gas, such as nuclear power, would take a long “time”. Despite the fact that CCS has been under investigation for almost two decades, the UK has not yet deployed it on a large scale.
All of Britain’s operational nuclear power plants are due to retire by 2035, with only one replacement plant, the 3.2GW Hinkley Point C in Somerset, under construction.
“Even if the government pushes the button in the next wave of nuclear projects, I’m not sure how many of these projects can be realistic on the network by 2035,” Howard added.
Other specialists in the energy sector expressed dismay that Kwarteng did not mention the urgent need to reduce the demand for electricity through measures such as better insulation.
“The UK needs to make a significant commitment to insulate homes and reduce overall use, with enough money, to avoid even greater public spending on electricity generation and distribution infrastructure,” he said. Marie Claire Brisbois, energy lecturer at the University of Sussex Business School.
The target of 2035 will also require a significant further expansion of sea wind. Johnson set a goal last year to quadruple Britain’s current wind power capacity to 40GW by the end of this decade, but said it could potentially go further to 60GW over the weekend.
Dan McGrail, CEO of RenewableUK, the commercial body, welcomes the 2035 target, but warns that the government will have to proceed “immediately” with further wind and foreign wind projects. Wind developers often complain it is delayed by planning processes and insufficient investment in network infrastructure.
Figures from the British Chamber of Commerce show only a modest increase of 1.4 percent in renewable generation capacity between 2020 and 2021.
Johnson is concerned about a small group of Tory MPs in the back seat that the net zero target will lead to an increase in household costs.