Net Zero Carbon and Electricity Demand – Binding Targets, Barriers and Bonuses

10.6.24 2024

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By 2035 the UK has a target to decarbonise the whole electricity system for Great Britain (GB), whilst also increasing demand for electricity by 50% over the same period.

The UK also has a legally binding target to reach net zero by 2050. To achieve that target, overall energy demand will need to reduce by one third (compared to 2019 levels), however, within the overall energy mix, electricity supply will need to double.

The magnitude of the urgent action needed to meet these targets, cannot be underestimated.

The Barriers

The scale and pace of the change that’s needed presents challenges caused by barriers ranging from a lack of availability of electricity grid connections through to UK government policy positions and from a clogged planning system to 
a lack of skilled workers needed to implement the changes.

There is generally an energy sector consensus that the outdated electricity grid is the number 1 issue to address. The electricity System Operator for GB (NGESO) certainly has a mammoth task. In the short term, NGESO will need to oversee 
infrastructure reforms and upgrades at a scale not seen since GB’s high voltage super grid was first energised in the 1950s

Our congested planning system affects the speed of delivery of projects by slowing down consenting for both the renewable energy generation projects themselves and the infrastructure projects needed to connect that generation to the grid.

A number of plans are already in place such as the Holistic Network Design (which targets reforms needed to connect anticipated generation by 2030) and “Beyond 2030”, which seeks to get generation connected to succeed in reaching the 2035 target. However, all eyes are on the emerging Strategic Spatial Energy Plan (SSEP). SSEP will consider what infrastructure needs to be bult and where and will crucially have a standing in planning law. Our planning system is another major hurdle to achieving the pace of change needed.

Our congested planning system affects the speed of delivery of projects by slowing down consenting for both the renewable energy generation projects themselves and the infrastructure projects needed to connect that generation to the grid. A longer consenting process will affect the development timeline adversely and will delay financial investment decisions which will potentially cause further delays.

Accordingly, streamlining the planning process, across England, Scotland and Wales, needs to be a top priority. This can be achieved from a combination of regulatory alignment, shortening decision timescales and increased resourcing 
for both statutory consultees and planning authorities.

Resourcing is not just an issue hampering the planning process. NGESO and Distribution Network Operators also have skilled workforce shortages. This is sometimes inadvertently exacerbated by consultants and developers in the renewables sector because they try to bring in expertise to navigate the complicated grid challenges – inevitably taking experienced professionals from the organisations working on delivering faster connections. 

Those developers and consultants have similar challenges around retention of professionals themselves. Resourcing issues are endemic - there is a worldwide skills gap across the sector. Critical investment in training and skills is needed to address the issue. Increasing diversity in the sector, upskilling workers, attractive career development opportunities and UK Government action are all needed urgently. Without a bigger and skilled workforce, there simply will not be an 
effective transition to net zero.

The UK government also needs to curb policy uncertainty. Recent U-turns on green policies, the delays to put onshore wind development on an even footing with other development in England and conflicting planning decisions based on the same provisions in the National Planning Policy Framework (particularly for Solar projects), are all areas that create uncertainty. The UK’s imminent general election is also a source of policy uncertainty.

Uncertainty knocks investor confidence which causes hesitation and inevitably delays. The scale of capital needed to be invested to reach our targets, means that we cannot afford the slow down created by policy uncertainty.

The Bonuses

Overcoming the barriers comes with the clear and obvious benefit of contributing to the cause of averting climate breakdown, the greatest challenge of our times. However, there are additional benefits, particularly under the remit of a just transition. They include the UK’s energy security, sustainable economic growth and green jobs. Aligning the solutions to multiple crises like the climate crisis and the cost-of-living crisis is another clear benefit.

A recent (2023) report by Oxford Economics, ‘GB Networks Investment Impact Analysis’ put forward that transitioning to a decarbonised electricity grid could add £18.4billion to GDP and support over 220,000 jobs each year between 2024 and 2035.

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