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Meeting the government’s 2050 net-zero greenhouse gas emissions commitment presents an unprecedented engineering challenge. Not only is it legally binding, but the existential threat of climate change provides one of the greatest imperatives for humanity, let alone the construction sector.
However, the sheer scale of what will be required is breathtaking. Stop for a moment and have a guess at what might be needed to decarbonise our energy sector by 2050. I’ll start you off by saying the UK’s current electricity generation capacity is about 110GW. While estimates vary, it’s commonly considered meeting likely 2050 green electricity requirements will entail something between a two to fourfold increase in today’s installed capacity. This accounts for electric vehicles and the high possibility that much of the UK’s heating is dependent on the national grid (there are other scenarios, but electricity currently has the momentum).
If we were to say, as per consultant Atkins’ technical report Engineering Net Zero that we’re looking at a target generation figure of 300GW, the ramifications are mind boggling. This would mean the engineering and construction sector installing an average 9-12GW of capacity each year all the way to 2050 (bearing in mind this figure will inevitably include wind capacity, the intermittency of which must be taken into consideration). Broken down into purely illustrative quantifiable terms, this would mean building the equivalent of two Hinkley Point Cs and all the current wind generation we have right now, every single year.
In reality, decarbonising our electricity generation will rely on other systems, notably proven technology like CCGT (combined cycle gas turbines) fitted with unproven at scale CCUS (carbon capture utilisation and storage). Consultant Mott MacDonald believes we might even require 400GW if we go down a mainly electricity-based heating route, according to its own report The Path to Zero Carbon Heat. Within this ‘electrification pathway’ it broadly agrees with the Atkins’ assessment that nuclear and/or CCGT (80GW) and wind power plus solar (200GW) would remain core components along with thermal plants using low-carbon fuel (100GW). Last in its mix is a hydrogen production capacity of 15GW.
Viewed from the perspective of either of these two reports, that’s a gigantic up-scaling of generation that depicts an equally vast opportunity for manufacturers, contractors and engineers. There are of course some sizable obstacles and one of these requires the government to recognise and come to terms with the scale of the challenge and arrive at a plan that the construction sector can begin working on.
But how to do this in an environment beset with political hesitation, a general lack of public comprehension to the scale of the challenge as well as disparate market forces that would be expected to foot construction costs in a liberalised energy market? It’s clearly a major hurdle, but without a plan the UK’s generative expansion is simply not going to hit anything like the estimated targets set by either Atkins or Mott MacDonald.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. On an optimistic note, the Energy Future System Operator Consultation that’s due to close on 28 September seeks to create a politically divorced body that’s also independent of market forces. Critically, it intends to include an engineering voice as a fundamental component in what has been likened to a much needed conductor to the orchestra. With strategy directed by such a body, the construction industry might actually be able to start delivering within a strategy which acknowledges what’s required in a system of systems that includes the heating and transport sectors to name just two. A body such as this offers some hope for a way forward and the unlocking of a gigantic market where UK firms could thrive.
One thing is certain though; even if we do everything we can to reduce demand and re-purpose existing infrastructure where possible, rather than just focussing on new build, to hit the UK’s 2050 net zero target requires firm government action so that the construction sector can get on with what it does best – solving problems.