British energy security strategy: Experts give their views

Academics from across the University of Sheffield are leading pioneering research to help the UK and the rest of the world switch to low-carbon energy. Energy experts from the University respond to the UK government's new energy security strategy.

Wind turbines offshore as the sun sets

The UK government has published a new British energy security strategy that aims to establish secure, clean and affordable energy for the long term. Energy research is a major priority for the University of Sheffield and academics from across the institution are leading both fundamental research and translational projects with industry to help the UK and rest of the world switch to low-carbon energy supplies. Energy experts from the University give their views on the new strategy.

Professor Dan Gladwin, Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Sheffield, comments on the energy strategy’s lack of focus on energy storage and the lack of incentives to reduce the demand for energy. 

Whilst the strategy offers medium to long term energy security in the form of generation there appears to be a missing focus on energy storage and a lack of investment and incentives for demand-reduction in the short term.

The introduction of the new Future System Operator yesterday is welcomed and acknowledges the requirement to take a holistic approach to develop the energy networks and the priority it deserves as a nationalised service. Investor-led decisions on location, sizing and type of assets that are connected to the grid are not going to achieve net-zero rapidly or efficiently. Moreover, without strategic oversight, there is a risk of not achieving reductions in carbon emissions or even increasing overall carbon emissions from local generation due to network congestion for example.

The current crisis relating to energy costs for families has yet to be addressed and without immediate direct financial help to both insulate and improve the efficiency of space heating in the home, there will be little improvement on the demand side. Whilst the strategy incorporates a mix of generation technologies there is a significant proportion of intermittent and non-dispatchable supply requiring storage. It is going to be necessary to rapidly ramp up the short-duration storage capability and invest in both the R&D and commercialisation of long-duration storage. Long-duration storage technologies can not only make a zero-carbon electricity system a reality faster, but they can also help it come at a lower cost for consumers. 

The government has potentially put in place, with the Future System Operator, the means to implement the strategy but it appears that there is not the necessary funding or actions to address the short-term crisis which will mean that many families will be choosing between food or heating/electricity this winter.”

Professor Dan Gladwin

Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Sheffield

Professor Alastair Buckley, an expert on solar and electrical energy from the University of Sheffield, comments solar and wind being the cheapest sources of electricity generation, how battery storage is needed to create a stable renewables market in the UK and how the future of energy is likely to be electric rather than hydrogen.

The energy strategy says in the future we'll be using more wind and solar energy. I hope everyone can agree that this isn't news. Wind and solar are the cheapest sources of electricity generation and they are only going to get cheaper. There are already 10's of GW of extra wind and solar capacity in the planning system so a reinforcement of government support for them is good news as it will stabilise the renewables market and ensure timely delivery. 

A stable renewables market should also include battery storage because batteries maximise the sales price and sales volume of renewable electricity and make sense to install alongside generators. Battery storage helps to balance out variation in supply from renewables and demand from customers. We need more than 100 GW of additional renewable capacity in the short term to really make a difference - but this could be added within five years given the right political conditions.

The strategy says more hydrogen - possibly produced from North Sea gas using a process called steam methane reforming. The hydrogen gas would be used to heat homes and provide energy for industrial processes.

Hydrogen as an alternative to natural gas has been spoken about for decades, but unlike wind and solar, has made very little progress at scale. It seems unlikely that its inclusion in this current incarnation of an energy strategy will change that through direct government intervention and funding.

However, if natural gas prices are projected to stay high then maybe the cost of a hydrogen energy infrastructure will make an attractive proposition for private investment. It's difficult though as this hydrogen infrastructure includes production (a small number of large industrial plants), distribution and importantly conversion (ie. hydrogen boilers) in individual buildings. It's the last part that is very difficult, if not impossible to coordinate.

When hydrogen has to compete with electrical solutions (heat pumps and other electric heaters), even if hydrogen might make technical, carbon and economic sense, what we know of energy is that if a simpler, more convenient and lower risk solution also exists it will tend to take precedence. I imagine that the future of heat is more likely to be electric than hydrogen regardless of government strategy.

The strategy says more nuclear. This is the tough one. It's clearly going to take decades to plan and build enough nuclear power to make a difference. I just can't help wondering what the world will be like by the time it comes to make the decision to switch them on? Will wind, solar and batteries be so cheap and so widely accepted that it simply doesn't make sense to have nuclear? Will another nuclear accident turn UK public opinion against them as it has done in Germany? I can't help thinking the risk of an investment in nuclear is too big to handle and we should simply walk away and find an alternative option. We'll need to be operating virtually at net zero before any more new nuclear gets switched on anyway.”

Professor Alastair Buckley

Professor of Organic Electronics at the University of Sheffield

Dr Eleni Stathopoulou, Lecturer in Economics at the University of Sheffield, discusses how the energy strategy does not address two key aspects: regulatory barriers and citizens’ engagement.

“We live at a time where we not only face the urgency of climate change but also the economic repercussions from our dependence on fossil fuels. Hence it is time for bold actions and an opportunity for the UK Government to accelerate the shift towards climate neutrality. Although the published energy strategy can move us towards this direction, it does not address two key aspects: regulatory barriers and citizens’ engagement. 

In particular, while it acknowledges that energy generated from renewable sources such as wind is a quick and cost effective way towards decarbonisation, there are still regulatory barriers that hinder investment and reduce the potential energy generation capacity. At the same time, it is crucial to do more in terms of engaging citizens in the decision making. There is increasing evidence that human-centric policies, where individuals as well as communities do not just have a say but are active stakeholders in ventures, are key in the transition to net zero. Energy communities and shared ownership of renewable projects are just some of the best practice examples that can also help address important issues such as energy poverty as well as support a number of government objectives such as the hyper-flexibility goal to match energy supply and demand.”

Dr Eleni Stathopoulou

Lecturer in Economics at the University of Sheffield

Professor Claire Corkhill, Professor of Nuclear Material Degradation at the University of Sheffield, comments via Twitter on the nuclear targets in the energy strategy and the implications for radioactive waste disposal.

"By 2050 up to 24 GW of electricity will come from nuclear energy". The new UK energy strategy is completely unrealistic - that many GW is just not economically feasible. If it were, I'd be concerned about the implications for radioactive waste disposal."

Professor Claire Corkhill (via Twitter)

Professor of Nuclear Material Degradation at the University of Sheffield

The University of Sheffield Energy Institute welcomes the energy strategy’s recognition for a faster, larger and greener energy supply and the need for the UK to lead the world in net zero. It said:

The University of Sheffield Energy Institute welcomes the British Energy Security Strategy. The recognition of faster, larger and greener energy supply independence presents a transformative opportunity for the UK to lead the world in the net zero direction. Here at our Energy Institute, we have world leading research and innovation capabilities, including hydrogen, nuclear, renewable, and all are important in the energy mix that forms the pathway to reach 95 per cent low carbon electricity by 2030.” 

Energy Institute

The University of Sheffield Energy Institute

Andrew Storer, CEO of the University of Sheffield Nuclear AMRC, welcomes the energy strategy's targets for building new nuclear capacity, discusses why the nuclear new build programme has struggled to get moving, how the Nuclear AMRC is helping UK manufacturers meet the needs of nuclear projects and the economic benefits of nuclear to the UK.

The new strategy’s targets for building new nuclear capacity are a welcome step in the right direction, and should help get the UK new build programme back on track. This week’s updated report from the IPCC emphasised the urgent need to decarbonise our energy system by deploying a host of technologies, and it’s increasingly clear that nuclear has to play a significant part in the energy mix over the coming decades. Recent crises in the energy market have also highlighted the importance of moving away from imported fossil fuels towards secure, sustainable and affordable alternatives.

The nuclear new build programme has struggled to get moving over the past decade, and the fact that the previous generation of AGR power stations are now ceasing operation means that we’re now losing reliable low-carbon generation capacity just when we need it most. The barriers to new build haven’t been technological – they’ve come from the costs and risks of securing upfront financing for these multi-billion pound long-term infrastructure projects. The RAB financing model, which has now passed into UK law, a financial commitment from government, and the introduction of more easily financed small modular reactors should remove some of the blockers and make nuclear a much more attractive place for institutional investors.

Nuclear remains the only source of proven, reliable low-carbon power generation which operates around the clock, whatever the weather. The new target of 24GW by 2050, up to 25 per cent of total generation, should be a minimum baseline – we can go further with nuclear to provide a truly sustainable and secure energy mix. Modelling by the Energy Systems Catapult has shown that the optimal pathway to net-zero includes up to 50 per cent of nuclear by 2050 – that’s potentially up to 40GW of capacity.

An intensive nuclear build programme will stretch the capabilities and capacity of the UK supply chain, but industry is ready to step up. We’ve already worked with hundreds of UK manufacturers to help them prepare for the opportunities and meet the needs of nuclear projects, and we’re working with Rolls-Royce SMR and other developers to make sure that new reactor technologies can be manufactured in the most cost-effective way with as much UK content as possible.

New nuclear power can bring the biggest economic benefits to the UK of any energy technology. And those benefits will be felt nationwide – around 90 per cent of jobs in the industry are based outside London and the South East, and the average value of jobs in nuclear is around twice the national average."

Andrew Storer

CEO of the University of Sheffield Nuclear AMRC


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