It takes imagination to see a clean, net-zero future

04 Jul 2019
The CCC’s recommendations as a starting point

I became a member of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) in April and joined at a particularly important time when the Committee had been asked to assess and give advice on the potential for the UK to achieve net-zero emissions.

The Committee has made clear recommendations: the adoption of a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions target for 2050, including international aviation and shipping and to be achieved domestically without recourse to international offsetting. That would put the UK at the forefront of the global effort to combat climate change. However, the Committee has highlighted some major policy, societal and engineering challenges. It has also spelled out that action to get there needs to start now, and that achieving net zero depends on widespread commitment, not just from Government but from every sector of society. So, how will this be achieved?

It all comes down to imagination

For me, it all comes down to imagination. We all need to imagine a particular future, one quite – but not totally – different from life today, and not to be unduly put off by fear of the challenges involved in getting from here to there.

My own background is in the electricity sector. Much of what the electricity industry does is focused on a traditional planning horizon of 5 to 10 years ahead. There are serious issues to address during this period, as well as opportunities; the work I and the researchers and students in my group have done on the energy system transition over the last few years has tried to tackle them. As an engineer, I’m by nature rather conservative. In the energy sector in particular, much of our effort goes into making sure things work safely and reliably; our biggest fear is system failure.

An electrified, flexible system

The CCC’s net-zero report points towards a much more electrified energy system in future (though not an exclusively electrified one). It highlights the need for flexibility, low-carbon ‘baseload’ and ‘mid-merit’ plant, and timely network investment but doesn’t go into detail about the challenges. That’s not because there are no challenges but because, relative to those in some other sectors, in the electricity sector we are starting to understand how to meet many of them.

Britain’s Electricity System Operator recently published a raft of documents relating to system operation in the not too distant future. Although it may have first appeared that their message was along the lines of “relax, we’ve got everything under control: a zero-carbon electricity system in 2025 is going to be fine”, they have not hidden the fact that there are challenges.

Addressing the intermittency criticism

The issues around planning and operation of an electricity system with a high dependency on variable, intermittent renewables, supplemented by plant that is relatively or totally inflexible, are far from solved. However, we know enough from modelling and analysis to date to be able to imagine a future in which these issues are solved.

Anti-renewables lobbyists blamed the South Australian blackout in 2016 on wind power, but they were wrong: it was caused by a range of factors admittedly not helped by some features of wind turbines that the system operator hadn’t thought to ask about. As far as I could tell, some decisions taken by the regulator – let’s call them ‘unfortunate’ – were among the most pertinent but the regulator and the utilities have learned from the experience and now realise that you need to get the engineering right and to invest in the associated people and tools.

Supporting the next generation of academics

In the UK, in large part, it’s up to some of the younger academics, in concert with, in particular, the network licensees, to address the engineering challenges associated with a very low-carbon electricity system. They have built up their theoretical understanding and have done quite detailed work in particular areas during their training. But they will depend on good mentoring from old lags like me in academia and the more experienced people in industry, whichever of them are left after repeated reorganisations. It will be a challenge for each of us in academia and in industry, both in the utilities and in the consultancies, and we need to work together. We have to pool our knowledge and commit quality time to thinking and mentoring.

Universities depend on PhD students and, when they graduate, so will the electricity industry. In the course of learning how to pose and answer research questions, PhD students can develop and run the models to understand potential problems and test possible answers. However, this has been made more difficult by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s decision not to support any Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) concerned with the energy system or, within it, the electricity system among the 75 announced in February.

Conclusion: there is no time to waste

It takes imagination to see the strife that frequent extreme weather and sea level rise will cause but those narratives are not made-up stories; the science is clear. However, the future doesn’t have to be like that. The alternative – a future with clean air, a greener landscape and better balanced diets – is one I enjoy imagining.

I am learning to imagine a future that is quite different from the present, to be less fearful, still serious but more optimistic. Then again, I have to; we all do. However, that vision for the future can only be realised through our efforts now. There is no time to waste.
Keith Bell is a Theme Leader and co-Director of UKERC and a member of the Committee on Climate Change. He is based at the University of Strathclyde and has written this blog in a personal capacity.