The report sets out a wide-ranging vision of how the UK’s energy system is set to change between now and 2050, which is the government’s target date to reach net zero emissions.
RenewableUK, which represents more than 400 companies in the renewables sector from large multinationals to smaller companies in the supply chain, says renewables could provide 76% of the UK’s energy needs by 2050.
The report particularly highlights the massive potential for green hydrogen, which is produced using renewable electricity, as a zero-carbon alternative to fossil fuels like gas or petroleum.
RenewableUK forecasts that renewable hydrogen is likely to become cost-effective in the UK much faster than in other parts of the world, and that it could be used in heavy industries, such as steel, which have been slow to decarbonise, and for heating in homes.
The report also forecasts:
- Wind energy capacity is forecast to grow six-fold to over 120GW by 2050, alongside other renewable sources like solar and innovative floating wind and marine energy.
- Energy storage to grow exponentially as batteries and other forms of storage will scale up to ensure the UK’s power supply remain balanced at all times.
There are also a series of recommendations for government to ensure the successful transition and to safeguard the UK’s long-term energy security.
These include holding annual auctions for contracts for large-scale renewable generators to provide low-cost power, rather than every two years, and greater support for innovative technologies, which are not yet able to compete with more established power sources in these auctions.
The report's author, Marina Valls, RenewableUK’s chief economist, kindly agreed to answer some questions about “Powering the Future: RenewableUK’s Vision of the Transition” for Prospect.
How much work and time did it take to put the report together?
Writing this report was a major project, working with our innovative member companies and our in-house Project Intelligence team which gathers information about every aspect of the renewable energy sector.
I used a raw data from real projects for economic modelling to produce scenarios to show what could be possible with a high level of deployment, not just of well-established technologies like wind but also new ones like batteries or renewable hydrogen which can be produced using electricity generated by wind farms.
It took of a year to produce, not least because although this was my main project, my regular work as RenewableUK's Chief Economist providing up to the minute analysis day by day continued apace too!
What is the purpose of this project?
The main purpose was to look at how the UK's energy system will change between now and 2050 - the date which the Government has set as its legally binding target to reach net zero emissions.
We know that will mean a massive expansion of renewable energy, not only to generate electricity for millions of electric vehicles (EVs) in the future, but also to decarbonise the heating and transport sectors which are still too dependent on fossil fuels.
So the report looks at things like using renewable hydrogen as a gas for heating in energy-intensive industries like steel-making, as well as in hydrogen boilers in homes, and using hydrogen fuel cells to power heavy goods vehicles and shipping.
We also looked at how consumers are going to become much more involved in playing a pro-active part in our energy system, choosing to use electricity when the rate is cheapest and storing it in their batteries in their EVs for example.
What do you hope to achieve with it?
I wanted to make people aware what an exciting time this is in the energy sector - the speed of the transformation is breath-taking.
Renewables are already generating 37% of the UK electricity a year. Wind alone is already providing 20% of our power, as the dominant renewable source. Coal is being phased out completely by 2024.
But to reach net zero as quickly as possible and at the lowest cost, we need to see a wider range of renewable technologies competing against each other on a much larger scale, including floating offshore wind farms, wave and tidal power and much more battery storage capacity.
All this technology exists and is well proven - but we need to ramp up deployment fast if we're serious about taking effective action against climate change, which is still the biggest long-term threat to our planet.
The benefits are enormous not just in environmental terms, but also in creating tens of thousands of highly skilled green-collar jobs and attracting billions in investment in large infrastructure projects and in our innovative supply chain which extends all over the country.
We're already exporting our renewable goods and services, and our highly-valued expertise, to the rest of Europe, North and South America, the Middle East, Asia and Australia, and we have the potential to increase our exports exponentially in the decades ahead.
Right now people are wondering which sectors will boost our economic recovery after the Coronavirus pandemic - the renewable energy sector is well-placed to play a leading role in our economic recovery.
What feedback have you had for this report?
It's been universally positive and very enthusiastic! Our member companies are really pleased to see their innovative work being highlighted, and we've had strong support from politicians, trade unions, green groups, academics and the media too.
I hope the report inspires students at secondary school and higher education to come and work in this industry, especially women as we still have to make progress on gender balance at the most senior level here like in every other sector.
We need people of all ages and from a variety of different backgrounds to fill the new jobs on offer at every level, from apprentices to experienced people with transferable skills in the oil and gas sector for example.
The report's title is “Powering the Future: RenewableUK’s Vision of the Transition” and some of the most touching comments I've had are from people saying the report really does live up to that title by setting out a clear, wide, long-term vision of the future of the energy sector.
If it helps to get people as excited about the possibilities that lie ahead as I am, and to join us in the massive amount of transformational work we'll be undertaking in the decades ahead, then it's definitely "mission accomplished" from my perspective!