Renewable energy concept

Why the path to net-zero has to be a whole-system approach

Image credit: Vaclav Volrab/Dreamstime

With ambitious targets for decarbonisation making time of the essence, the energy sector needs to adopt a more coordinated strategy.

There’s a tidal wave on the way for electricity networks. Electric vehicles, electrified heating and renewables will be key factors in taking us on the path toward a net-zero carbon future. But these new demands and sources of energy will have a huge impact on networks.

An obvious solution to decarbonising energy is to use more of what we’re already very familiar with: electricity. But electrifying everything would create an enormous additional load on an already burdened network. As distribution network operators transition into distribution system operators, they need to apply a collaborative approach with gas networks to ensure they can cope with the upswing and avoid blackouts.

A whole-system approach, whereby behaviours and interactions between different parts of the system are combined effectively to produce a desired outcome, is necessary if we are to mitigate the costs of updating electricity network capacity. The UK Council for Science and Technology recently advised the government on how to use a whole-system approach inside government to deliver a better transition to net-zero – similar thinking now needs to be applied to the energy sector more widely.

For example, it will be possible to balance demands on the network if we integrate low-carbon gas, such as hydrogen, into the mix. Hydrogen is an alternative to natural gas, which, when burnt, does not emit carbon emissions. If we can use hydrogen gas as a replacement energy source for a number of applications, it will reduce the huge electricity upgrades that would otherwise be required, supporting the green recovery that is so needed in the 2020s and beyond.

There are a few ways in which we could start. For example, although electric vehicles have been leading the way in the transformation of domestic transport, hydrogen could still have a part to play. Chief among the advantages are faster refuelling times compared with battery recharging. Hydrogen will also play a significant role in decarbonising other segments of the transport sector, especially heavy goods vehicles, which would require impractically large batteries if electrified.

The most effective way hydrogen can support electricity networks is to provide inter-seasonal storage. Gas is already stored in the UK to be used during the colder months when heating demand is high. Some of this storage – specifically salt caverns – can be repurposed to store hydrogen. This would provide an alternative to battery storage of excess renewable generation during the summer period.

A more radical application would be to install domestic hydrogen fuel cells, which, when teamed with rooftop solar panels to power the electrolysis, could have the potential to flexibly generate all of a home’s required energy and take it off the grid by storing clean solar energy as hydrogen without the need for lithium-based battery technology. This solution may not work in all applications, but the energy system of the future certainly won’t be one size fits all, and we need a multitude of options to combat the unique decarbonisation challenges that will emerge in different situations.

One of the biggest barriers to a whole-system approach, however, is regulation. The UK’s current regime doesn’t work for multiple energy vectors working together and regulator Ofgem needs to take swift action. Additionally, as the Council for Science and Technology has noted, the wider regulatory framework needs to be aligned to net zero, with all sector regulators required to develop an explicit first-order objective to support the transition by 2050.

Many technical roles will need retraining and upskilling, from heating technicians learning how to install hydrogen boilers and heat pumps, to system planners. A new breed of ‘whole-system engineers’ will be required who understand both the electricity and gas networks and how they can work together. With a skills gap already in evidence, and unemployment likely to rise steeply, the UK has an opportunity to upskill the population in the wake of Covid-19.

This holistic approach is already being proven through projects like Zero2050 and E-Port Energy, which are taking a whole-system approach to planning the multi-vector energy systems and networks of the future.

Transforming the energy system will take investment, and time is of the essence. We can no longer delay making a decision on which technology is going to win out. We have to progress both options of electrification and a switch to hydrogen.

Polly Osborne is an electrical engineer with Burns & McDonnell.


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