Blog post

Is the UK net zero energy policy by 2030 even possible?

28 June 2024

In the current vitriolic election in the UK, two words, net zero, come up often. However, the route to this specific Eden is lined with lots of questions. How would the UK be if we relied on the intermittent wind plus the sun for energy? How would we keep hot on those winter evenings when the wind is not blowing? How would our industries get enough energy to run 24 hours? Does the energy mix work if we omit 100% of fossil fueled energy from our thinking?

Now, I will be the first to admit that the preceding paragraph was not the most eloquent introduction I have ever written. However, the eagle-eyed readers among you will have also spotted that I restricted myself from using the letter A in any of the 100 words, so I only had 80% of the vowels available.* And that’s what happens when you impose arbitrary limits on things—it gets much harder to do them. The answer to the four questions posed above is probably the little three-letter word, gas, but if we say we won’t use any fossil fuels, including gas, by 2030, then creating a sensible policy for an industrialized country of 67 million people is inevitably much harder to do.

The simple fact is that both the UK and our Western European cousins use a lot of gas. If we count all energy sources and all energy uses, gas is the second-biggest energy source after oil. In Europe, we cheerfully burned about 400 billion m³ of gas last year, contributing to over 25% of total European CO2 emissions. Most of this, of course, was imported from either the Americans, Qatar, or, until recently, the Russians. This has significant implications for both emissions and energy security.

While we understand how to decarbonize electricity and are now stuck in the dreary weeds of planning and grid applications, we haven’t really made any progress with heating, heavy transport, or aviation. These sectors aren’t the Cinderellas of renewables, as Cinderella actually went to the ball (although she was technically a ticketless gatecrasher). Heating and transport are stuck at home in the kitchen, waiting for a renewable fairy godmother and a glass carriage that never comes.

The answer, of course, is twofold: reduce our gas consumption by electrifying as much of these sectors as possible and then try to make some of the residual gas from homegrown organic waste, such as manure or food waste. Europe has made tiny steps down this latter road so far, and about 1% of all European gas consumption comes from locally sourced biogenic materials. The big attraction, of course, is that biomethane is carbon-neutral, as the source feedstock drew down the CO2 about six months ago when the original crop was grown. There can be further benefits, as converting manure into biomethane stops it from releasing methane through uncontrolled decomposition. So, you can see that increasing biomethane is an all-around good idea, and the European Union has somewhat belatedly recognized this by setting a target of 10% biogas by 2030. However, that still leaves 360 billion m³ coming from fossil fuels, and creating the capacity to supply even 10% is already a huge commitment.

A quick calculation: to increase the share of biogas from 1% to 10% (of the 400 billion m³ total gas consumption), you need to build 36 billion m³ of biogas capacity. A really big biomethane plant making 6,000 m³ of gas per hour will make about 50 million m³ a year. So simple math says another 720 really big plants in six years to meet the 2030 target, or about ten a month. That’s just not happening on the ground at the moment, so it seems very unlikely the 2030 biomethane target will be met, and we will still be burning a lot of fossil fuel gas both here in the UK and in Europe. As a quick aside, the 26th of June 2024 was a gloriously hot sunny day here in the UK, but at 3 pm in the afternoon, 35% of our electricity generation was coming from gas and only 10% from solar. This one-day snapshot illustrates how far we have to go.

The other big idea on the supply side of the generation equation is to legislate the addition of carbon capture technology to existing gas-fired power stations and industrial processes. Although you are still creating CO2, it is not being released, and hence this generation counts as net zero. My very much ‘man in the street’ understanding of this is that gas-fired power stations create flue gas, which is why they have those big chimneys attached. Flue gas is mainly nitrogen and CO2, and if you bubble this through a solvent, it captures the CO2. This is then released and captured by heating the solvent. So far, so good, but what to do then with the captured CO2? Some of it is used in the food industry, and an interesting fact is that supermarket bags of salad are pumped full of CO2 to stop it from going moldy. Every time you open a bag of prepared salad, a little puff of CO2 is released, which, as I have found to my cost, is not a popular fact with the more liberal sorts in my office who eat a lot of Marks and Spencer prepared salads for lunch.

Some more of the CO2 can be used to make methanol, but the demand for prepared salad and methanol is finite, so a lot of the captured CO2 has to be stored underground, and this bit of the process is very much in its infancy. As I write, there are a few exploratory projects in the North Sea and the Nordics but very little of any scale elsewhere.

For heating, carbon capture is unlikely to work economically at the domestic scale, so the decarbonization of domestic heating has to involve electricity running heat pumps, and again this is another market still in its early years. At the last count, there were about 239,000 heat pumps in the UK, and although this number is growing quickly, it isn’t that many compared to 28.2 million households, and people are loath to change their boilers unless they absolutely have to.

Taking us back to my badly worded letter A-free introduction, it is obvious that burning gas is going to play a part in both the UK and wider European energy mix for way beyond 2030, despite many of our politicians promising otherwise. Shifting 10% of this to biogas is a great step in the right direction, but it’s only a little step, and we need to make much bigger strides if we are to make meaningful progress. It may be easy to proclaim an arbitrary limit such as net zero by 2030, but until we start to make inroads into fossil-fueled gas production and consumption, it is always likely to remain just an aspiration. This begs a couple of final questions: is it better to set arbitrary targets and then fail to meet them, or should we be more upfront about how hard it is to achieve net zero in an industrialized continent? Does the act of setting finite, but unlikely to achieve targets act as some sort of catalyst for progress, or does it just undermine public confidence in the whole renewable energy industry? I don’t know the answers, but this election in the UK and the next six years leading up to 2030 will go a long way to giving us some clues.

*With special thanks to the sports journalist Jonathan Liew who gave me this idea