After taking the electricity grid by storm, is clean energy set to race ahead on Britain’s roads?

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Malcolm Brinded CBE FREng FEI, President of the Energy Institute

Malcolm Brinded CBE FREng FEI, President of the Energy Institute, on why Parliament’s sight should now be fixed on road transport fuels.

Something extraordinary happened in the UK energy system last year.

To understand its significance, a little time travel is needed – back to 1950 when coal accounted for 97% of electricity generated in the UK. In what was a recently nationalised industry, coal was the dominant source of power, lighting homes and sparking the era of consumer gadgets and household appliances we’re familiar with today.

Fast forward 67 years. Coal last year plummeted to less than 7% of electricity. On some days, coal is entirely absent from the mix – in April this year, we went more than 3 days continuously without burning any coal. Waving goodbye to coal has helped keep us in step with our carbon targets so far – the UK is expected to outdo the carbon reductions required during the first fifteen years of the Climate Change Act – as well as made a huge impact on improving air quality.

In its place, at least in part, we’ve seen a surge in renewables – principally wind and solar – which last year pushed low carbon sources (including nuclear) to beyond half of our electricity mix for the first time. The dramatic cost reductions that have led to this could not have been imagined even five years ago.

Now, in a twist of fate, professionals working across the UK energy sector, and surveyed for the Energy Institute’s Energy Barometer 2018, have predicted similarly dramatic fortunes for clean fuels on Britain’s roads.

Just like coal on the grid in 1950, petroleum today dominates our roads, making up 98% of the fuel used. Knowing what we do about the Earth’s climate and the impact of air pollution on premature deaths, this can’t continue.

Breaking with more than a century of automotive convention, the EI’s members predict that a low carbon mix of electricity, hydrogen and bioliquids will account for more than half of the fuels we use to get around by 2040 – sooner than many other projections have predicted.

If this were to be the case, it would imply the number of vehicles using low carbon alternatives would significantly outnumber conventional combustion engines on the road – even before the Government’s 2040 ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars takes effect.

And our survey respondents aren’t environmental idealists – they’re engineers, scientists and economists well-versed in the day-to-day realities of the energy system, many of them working in oil and gas. And it complements last year’s Barometer finding, that the UK’s heat mix will also see a rebalancing away from natural gas to alternative sources.

The parallels with coal don’t extend to foreseeing the imminent end of the petroleum era – it will still play an important role in road transport for some decades, alongside the new kids on the block.  And petroleum will continue to have a major role in shipping, aviation and chemicals.

Nor will the shift be without its challenges. Concerns are raised in the Energy Barometer about the capacity of the grid to accommodate demand and the lack of incentives to install the necessary recharging network, in particular outside major cities.

It’s not out of step with what is needed to meet the UK’s carbon targets. Transport accounted for 26% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2016, making it the highest emitting sector in the UK and overtaking energy generation for the first time. The Committee on Climate Change, which advises ministers, indicates the UK will need to reach near zero emissions from road transport by 2050.

But on meeting those overall targets, the picture painted by the Barometer is much less rosy. It finds energy professionals now less confident than they were a year ago that the UK will deliver on its targets for 2032 and through to 2050, despite the Government having brought forward its Clean Growth Strategy designed to do so. Indeed 5 times as many Barometer respondents expect us to fall short of the fifth carbon budget than expect us to meet it. A third of respondents don’t appear to be aware of the content of the Clean Growth or Industrial Strategies, reflecting the fact that further work is needed to bring them to fruition and communicate them.

Policy shortcomings are exacerbated by unprecedented political risk, notably in the form of Brexit, which has risen from fifth to second in Barometer respondents’ top concerns since last year. Despite ministers being a year further into negotiations with Brussels, the fog of uncertainty around skilled workforce availability and around our future relationship with the EU’s single energy market has not lifted.

But all that said, after well over a century, many energy professionals do seem to be calling time on the dominance of the internal combustion engine on our roads, for cars in particular.

The big question is whether one of the alternative fuels will dominate – and which that might be – or whether a broad mix of competing options will prevail, making visiting the forecourt a very different experience for the driving public.

The Energy Institute’s Energy Barometer is an insightful tool for those shaping the UK’s energy future. It is precisely because energy professionals are best qualified to understand the complexities and trade-offs involved, that policy makers should heed the picture painted in its pages.

This blog post first appeared as an article in Energy Focus, the magazine of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Energy Studies on 14 August 2018.

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