Ambitious climate targets are welcome, but achieving this ambition requires a deeper look at our energy system
The Committee on Climate Change has published its report with the headline recommendation that the UK adopts a new emissions target of net-zero by 2050. This target is welcome. In reducing our carbon emissions we should be nothing short of bold and ambitious. However, the report fails to tackle a crucial issue which is undermining our progress on reducing carbon emissions: energy losses.
The omission of losses in the Committee’s report is not surprising. Energy losses simply do not feature prominently in the debate about how best to reduce our carbon footprint. Instead, policymakers focus on the more ‘glamorous’ policies and big picture infrastructure projects – electrification of transport, decarbonising heat, and shifting toward renewables feeding a smart, flexible grid. Yet waste and losses undermine all these policy initiatives. By all but ignoring losses; policymakers, regulators, and industry risk prejudicing the delivery of a carbon free future, to the detriment of both consumers and the environment.
Focusing on generation and end-point efficiency means our transmission and distribution system is often overlooked. However, today, as we transfer energy around this sprawling grid 26.5 TWh of energy is simply lost. Generated and then simply wasted. This is not an abstract number:
- Losses make up 7.5 per cent of total electricity demand;
- 1.5 per cent of our carbon emissions are a result of losses;
- Every year, we lose enough energy to power almost seven million homes;
- This totals a ‘societal cost’ of £1.3 billion a year.
The Committee’s report says the foundations and policies to achieve a net-zero economy are already active or in development, including the supply of low-carbon electricity and electric vehicles (EVs). Whilst this strikes an upbeat tone, to meet our existing targets (never mind the new proposal) the Committee urges that these policies must be strengthened – urgently. Tackling waste and losses would go a long way in achieving this.
But why are losses relevant? The case of electric vehicles
The rise of EVs is set to put an enormous amount of pressure on our grid. This is evident in the National Grid’s Future Energy Scenarios which models the future of our energy system. Comparing the 2017 with the 2018 predictions is stark, EV uptake caused expected peak demand to rise exponentially. More ambitious electrification as set out by the Committee would cause this demand to rise further.
Losses make up a significant amount of the extra demand needed to power EVs. If losses continue at today’s rate (realistically, increased demand means losses would increase as a percentage) and we use the 2018 predictions, losses in 2040 will make up between 50 and 200 per cent of the energy needed to peak EV demand. Tackling losses could power the EV revolution.
And what about the shift to low-carbon, renewable generation?
In the simplest of terms, losing energy means more energy must be generated to service demand. Increased generation limits the share of the energy mix made up by renewables.
Losses are not inevitable – solutions exist
Our cable infrastructure is outdated, some sections were laid in the Victorian era. It is not fit for purpose. As distribution network operators (DNOs) carry out replacement programmes and build new infrastructure, they must ensure new cable is efficient and able to stand the test of time. Innovative solutions exist.
Take our breakthrough CTS technology. As the UK moves towards a green, carbon-free future, our CTS cable technology can help to dramatically reduce losses.
It reimagines the core of cabling and disrupt the cable industry as we know it, yet it can be manufactured on existing machinery with minimal adaptation and can be laid alongside conventional cabling.
The CTS is a solution for the here and now, yet can underpin an ambitious future energy system as envisaged by the Committee on Climate Change.
To rise to the climate change challenge, government, the regulator and industry must give losses – and the solutions – the attention they deserve.