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Can Great Britain's electricity future work?

How does GB supply and demand work? What needs to change? How will it work in 2050?

The UK Government has set out the goal of being Net Zero by 2050.

Various agencies and organisations - including the Government's own Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy - are responsible for realising this goal.

We're going to take an independent look at the steps being taken to achieve this in relation to electricity. Will these steps be enough? Can they work?

On this page we're going to:

  • Outline the way that supply & demand currently work for GB electricity. This describes what happens now.
  • We'll then identify the changes that have been selected to achieve net zero by 2050. These are the changes that are considered to be necessary and sufficient.
  • Finally, we'll describe the effect. What does this mean for GB electricity supply & demand in 2050?

On other pages we look at specific years as examples of the current situation and the effects of the changes. We also look at some of the most specific and problematic issues that will arise.

(Note that Northern Ireland's electricity infrastructure is part of the Irish "system", so we're actually going to look at Great Britain (GB) where electricity and gas supply and distribution are managed by the National Grid.)

What happens now?

Take a look at a typical week in 2020 and step through how supply and demand worked.

What happens now?

GB's electricity demand follows a predictable pattern each week, although peaks are higher in the winter. Demand is greatest in the evenings and generally lower at the weekend.

Some sources - such as nuclear and biomass - are relatively steady and help to satisfy almost half of the "base demand". The total of these for our sample week is shown in black in the graph.

Wind can help with supply, but only when it's windy enough and not too windy. It can't be relied on to deal with either base load or the peaks as we can't control it. The total now includes the contribution from wind. There is still a big gap between demand and supply!

To deal with the peaks we have controllable sources, notably gas and coal. We may also be able to use storage and interconnectors. These were used during our sample week to fill the gaps and supply now meets demand.

What needs to change?

In order to meet net zero we need to reduce the production of greenhouse gases to zero or less.

What needs to change?

The amount of greenhouse gases being emitted in measured in millions of tonnes of CO2 equivalent (MtCO2e).

This chart shows the National Grid's alternative scenarios, three of which achieve net zero by 2050. We're going to look at Leading the Way.

This table shows GB's emissions in MtCO2e by category in 2019.

Road transport and heating buildings will no longer emit greenhouse gases in 2050.

In other categories emissions will be significantly reduced.

Enough hydrogen is produced for our needs without generating emissions. BioEnergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) deals with any remaining emissions and we'll be below zero.

What does this mean for electricity in 2050?

In order to see what this would mean for electricity supply and demand in 2050, let's project the week we've been looking at forward to w/c 21 November 2050 and assume the wind and weather pattern is the same. How would GB cope?.

What will happen in 2050?

This is not a particularly difficult or unusual week as far as wind is concerned.

According to Leading the Way demand will increase by 40%.

Nuclear capacity will have been reduced by almost half, whilst biomass will have been replaced by a larger generation from CCS biomass. Hydro will be about the same.

Total onshore and offshore wind capacity will have increased by a factor of 6. For part of the week we now have more than enough electricity. In fact, the approach is to use some of the excess to create hydrogen by electrolysis.

With none of the fossil fuel sources (CCGT Gas, coal, etc.) available, we need more electricity. Let's assume we can import maximum power from interconnectors when we need it, which in 2050 will be 27.2GW.

That leaves us with only 203GWh of storage to fall back on. Ignoring the maximum power available, that would get us through Thursday but not far into Friday.

The Leading the Way scenario would certainly leave us with extended power cuts in 2050.