“Rapid adoption of existing technology and accelerated innovation can deliver Net Zero by 2050”

A report by Energy Systems Catapult has found that accelerating deployment of key technologies such as offshore wind and solar, large-scale nuclear, and the electrification of heating in our homes and buildings is vital to propelling the UK to a Net Zero future.

The report – Innovating to Net Zero 2024 – looked at four future scenarios to explore 3,600 different Net Zero-compliant energy system pathways. The analysis revealed that while there remains significant uncertainty about the pathway to a future energy system, the options are narrowing.

The report said that these existing technologies need to be delivered alongside an accelerated programme of innovation in novel technologies such as small modular reactors (SMRs), long duration energy storage, and bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). However, the report concludes that there hydrogen will ‘not play a significant role’ in home heating, apart from in communities near industrial clusters.

It also finds that the cost of meeting Net Zero is still within 1% of GDP by 2050, including £16bn per year in capital investment from the public and private sectors, part of £600bn in total system costs over the next 25 years.

But the Catapult stresses that deploying clean technologies at pace and scale on its own will not be enough and so integrating all these technologies into a whole systems approach will be essential.

Guy Newey, chief executive at Energy Systems Catapult, said:

2050 is just 308 months away and while the path to Net Zero has narrowed, innovations in mature and novel clean tech gives us cause for optimism. Our modelling has demonstrated that we have credible pathways to Net Zero available to us. But we need to accelerate the pace and scale of deployment to levels not yet seen.

He added that consumer-facing products were an essential element in the mix:

We are seeing huge innovations in consumer-facing products and services that will make low carbon options a desirable choice for households and businesses. If we fail to take consumers along the journey with us, Net Zero will not happen.

The analysis highlights three areas that require the most urgent focus on innovation: power, heat, and transport.

The report emphasises that the ‘peak heat’ challenge – meeting the need for electricity at times of low renewables and peak demand – is the biggest system innovation challenge for Net Zero.

Among its key conclusions for heating are:

  • The electrification of heating and hot water will account for around 77% (150-176TWh) of total electricity supplies by 2050, which is a 500% increase in electricity demand compared to 2024.
  • In all scenarios, most domestic heating will be supplied by electric heat pumps. The roll out of heat pumps needs to be twinned with improvements to building efficiency and integrated control systems to manage peak heat demands.
  • District heat networks at town and city-scale will contribute to lower whole system costs, providing between 9% and 29% of space heating and hot water demand by 2050,
  • There is value in the use of hybrid heating systems – combining heat pumps and natural gas – during the transitional phase to Net Zero to avoid stifling the roll out of low carbon technologies while we upgrade the electricity network.
  • Hybrid heating technologies provide resilience and security of supply in the event of a one in 20 weather event.
  • Hydrogen is unlikely to play a significant role in heating buildings in the future except in communities located close to industrial clusters.

The report concludes that natural gas will be needed in a transitional role, providing back-up power generation and heat in homes and buildings over the coming decades. It is also likely be a significant source of energy for hydrogen production technologies and DACCS, the Catapult adds, but this will lead to a ‘significant overall reduction in gas use compared to today, which will have implications for gas network use’. The authors stress:

A transition away from natural gas must be actively planned and managed over the coming decades.

In the Power sector, the report notes that decarbonising the UK’s energy system will depend in large part on electrification, with final energy consumption across all scenarios ranging from 525TWh/yr to 619TWh/yr by 2050. This is double the size of the power system in 2024.

The report finds:

  • There will be a key role for offshore wind generation, with between 33GW and 76GW installed, providing up to 53% of all UK electricity production by 2050.
  • Solar PV will provide up to 11% of all UK electricity production with between 19GW and 70GW installed.
  • With between 23GW and 31GW installed, nuclear power generation will remain a crucial contributor to UK electricity production in all energy system designs.
  • There is an urgent need to accelerate development of small modular reactors (SMRs). Up to 16GW of installed generation capacity comes from SMRs in the modelling.
  • The UK will remain heavily dependent on negative emissions technologies, such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) – deployed from 2030. BECCS provides ‘emissions headroom’ for ‘hard-to-decarbonise sectors’.
  • Modelling suggests biomass consumption of between 108TWh/yr to 174TWh/yr by 2050 for hydrogen production, industry, power generation, and synthetic fuel production. A step-change in our biomass feedstock and bioenergy value chains is required by 2035.
  • As-yet-unproven systems such as direct air carbon capture and storage (DACCS) are required from 2040 in all scenarios to help abate residual emissions, with between 128 and 178Mt per year of CO2 being captured including through DACCS across the whole energy system by 2050.

In the transport sector, the report that electrifying cars and light duty vehicles will be low-regret options to pursue for 2050 and that hybrid vehicles can help to manage peak demands faced by the electricity system. However, it notes that alternatives such as the widespread adoption of hydrogen in transport only become valuable to the energy system in ‘highly implausible scenarios’ and without further innovation and funding for the marine and aviation industries, the Net Zero target will be missed.

Significantly, the report finds that low-carbon hydrogen has a key role to play in the decarbonisation of UK industry, transport and power as industrial decarbonisation must be accelerated. It says:

While we are seeing the emergence of many new promising technologies, more needs to be done to incentivise industrial clusters and the co-location of energy and carbon capture assets to optimise the use of waste heat, local energy storage and minimise infrastructure costs associated with CO2 and hydrogen transmission, distribution and storage.

The catapult adds that investment in UK supply chains and skills is ‘vital to ensure the successful delivery of Net Zero.’ The report concludes:

The UK must ensure that deployment rates are not constrained further for key technologies; that manufacturing of key components (from batteries and semi-conductors to hydrogen storage and conversion technologies) is anchored in the UK; that domestic biomass feedstocks are available; and that a massive scale-up of home decarbonisation can be achieved.

Guy Newey is speaking in the elemental Arena at InstallerSHOW 2024, running 25 to 27 June at the NEC. It is free to attend, including parking. Register for FREE tickets here: installer-2024-splash.reg.buzz