Keeping the lights on at a reasonable price and meeting decarbonisation targets is a complex business and not without controversy.
The Future Energy Scenarios (FES), launched today, is National Grid's view of plausible and credible pathways to 2050. This drives planning and investment decisions in the system. It's also probably the best look at where the energy industry is going in the foreseeable future.
FES uses four scenarios to model changes to the edgy system. They start with the optimistic 'Gone Green' which assumes high prosperity and high green ambition, with carbon targets met through investment and innovation. Then 'Slow Progression' which assumes a still ambitious, but a less prosperous economy, with compromises on carbon targets and less investment. Next is 'Consumer Power', still a prosperous economy but one driven by consumer desire for innovation, with high levels of distributed generation and storage. The worst scenario is 'No Progression' in which business as usual prevails with low growth and limited innovation.
Scenarios are not about predicting the future. Just as well, because the track record of energy scenarios since the 1970's is not great. They are about giving us some numbers under different economic and policy circumstances. More a planning tool than a crystal ball.
Given past forecasts, it is surprising that all the scenarios now assume a continued reduction in electricity demand until around 2025. Partly due to the slow climb out of recession, but also due to more efficient appliances and the collapse of heavy industry. However, demand starts to rise again under the more prosperous scenarios. Gas demand, after an initial fall, looks likely to maintain a significant part of the mix. The prosperous scenarios assume moving away from carbon intensive sources and/or more local generation.
There is a little more regional analysis this year, something National Grid is weak on. They map the regional sources of generation and identify some regional differences in demand.
The key message for me from this year's FES is that energy supply is becoming increasingly diverse. Fossil fuels will continue to decline with an extra 5GW closing by 2016. Potentially 18GW of additional storage could be available by 2040. The constraints appear to be more market and regulatory than technological, although this is still more about short term storage than addressing seasonal imbalances. They assume a big increase in imported electricity and gas, from 4GW at present to 23GW by 2040. 54% of gas could come from alternative sources by 2040, including shale, biomethane and bio-substitute natural gas.
More action is needed in the next decade if the UK is too achieve the 2050 carbon reduction target. None of the scenarios indicate that the UK will meet the 2020 target of 15% of energy coming from renewable sources. Progress is reliant on key technologies, nuclear, renewables and CCS. It can be done without one of these, but becomes more challenging. In practice two of them are looking dodgy and renewables suffer from investor uncertainty. However, it is heating and transport that needs to do much more.
Gas is seen as vital to facilitate decarbonisation. It's flexibility can be used to balance the system and they assume there will be 11GW of CCS enabled gas plant by 2040. It will still be important in heating homes, with 70% of households still using gas in 2030. Hopefully district heating will play a bigger role, although heat pump take up so far is slower than anticipated. While shale gas has been delayed, they are still assuming it will play an important role, in particular under the consumer power scenario. The was some scepticism about this amongst today's audience, many of whom doubt the economic viability, never mind political and environmental factors.
With the greatest minds in the energy industry present at the conference, only a handful, on a show of hands, thought we would meet 2050 decarbonisation targets! That doesn't mean it isn't desirable, but it does reflect scepticism about government taking the necessary actions. It certainly looks challenging. National Grid are rightly also concerned about security of supply and keeping energy bills down, so balancing objectives is an additional complexity.
The external speaker, Professor Jim Watson, emphasised the importance of doing more on energy efficiency, something we should be aware of in Scotland as we will miss the statutory fuel poverty elimination target this year. He was also not convinced that shale gas will be economically viable or the case for gas bridging the gap on carbon reduction. Relying on CCS when the UK government has pulled the plug on funding seems pretty optimistic as well. He also made the important point that we need to look more carefully at the distributional impact of scenarios on different income groups. National Grid can be a bit fixated on technology rather than people.
Some wonder if there is a disconnect between the scenarios and the market mechanisms that will be needed to deliver them - my own view is that they never will. National Grid take the view that they will change to meet demand. Unsurprisingly, they are not keen on an independent system operator as recommended by the Commons Energy Committee. They don't think there is a significant conflict of interest, or if there is, they can manage them. They claim their scenarios are not driven by commercial interest of National Grid, but they do use them for their business planning.
The elephant in the room today was of course Brexit. How it will impact on the energy industry depends on your view of the economic and political impact of leaving the EU. If you think it will mean lower/higher growth and less/more green ambition, then this will impact on the energy scenarios. In particular, the big assumptions of additional electricity import capacity may depend on staying in the EU energy system. With the U.K. voice gone from the table, it remains to be seen what impact that will have on EU policy. Maybe less market oriented?
While some of the assumptions made in FES may be controversial, it remains the the most comprehensive study of future energy planning for the UK. There is lots of detail in the documents that can downloaded. Perhaps one to dip into, rather than a bedtime read!