Net zero power: more capacity, negative emissions
National Grid ESO released its Future Energy Scenarios (FES) for 2019 today, providing an updated outlook for a range of energy sector variables. Its four scenarios continue to be benchmarked against the 80% emissions reduction target on 1990 levels by 2050, but the publication has introduced a net zero sensitivity to highlight the additional system requirements needed to meet the more ambitious target now enshrined in law.
The net zero scenario sees widespread uptake of electric vehicles and electric heating as well as greater use of electrolysis to produce hydrogen for fuel. As a consequence, this scenario suggests electricity generation capacity needs to increase to 263GW—around two and a half times current capacity and 21% more than the Two Degrees scenario suggests would be needed to meet the previous 80% reduction target.
As challenging as this sounds, the changing composition of the generation fleet provides an even starker contrast to today. To accommodate this growth in electricity demand for net zero would require all biomass and gas-powered power stations (totalling just under 50GW of capacity in this scenario – which compares to 47GW of thermal plant currently operational) are fitted with carbon capture usage and storage technology (CCUS) by 2050. This is 38GW higher than under the Two Degrees scenario and would mean the power sector is a negative carbon emitter.
CCUS also featured prominently in the Climate Change Committee’s Net Zero report in May, stating that the technology is, “crucial to the delivery of net-zero GHG emissions and strategically important to the UK economy.” But as yet, it only exists in trial programmes in GB, so the net zero FES sensitivity represents a significant escalation on current CCUS uptake and reliance on the technology to be scalable, deployable and investable.
Further still, the net zero scenario assumes double the nuclear capacity to today, which may be partially met by installs of new small modular reactors.
In line with changes across all scenarios, wind provides the biggest share of generation capacity by 2050, with the focus shifting predominantly to offshore wind in particular.
Although just a scenario, the reliance on unproven technologies to get to net zero – putting aside how they are financed and deployed – reinforces the scale of the challenge ahead.