Striking a balance on clean energy solutions

Panellists at a special Infrastructure Intelligence webinar on 2 November 2021 highlighted the challenges involved in securing ‘clean’ energy solutions and the UK’s continuing addiction to hydrocarbons.

The webinar, The future of UK energy policy, was organised in association with Atkins, and brought together a knowledgeable panel of speakers drawn from industry, government and the environmental sectors. The event was chaired by Paul Monks, chief scientific adviser at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and he was joined on the panel by Doug Parr, chief scientist and policy director at Greenpeace UK, Declan Burke, director, nuclear projects and development at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Sarah Long, strategy lead - nuclear and power at SNC-Lavalin/Atkins.

Kicking off the discussion, Declan Burke, who had worked on the government’s recent energy white paper, said that it was critical to think about a resilient energy system but also “to take people with us on that journey”. 

Greenpeace UK’s Doug Parr highlighted the need to frame the debate correctly. “As far as possible we want to make the challenges into engineering challenges rather than political challenges, but the policy and the politics needs to be right,” he said. He also said that the energy agenda needed to have fairness as a central challenge. “There is the international dimension and that’s why the UK needs to move now. People’s livelihoods are at risk now because of what the UK is doing. Turning to the UK, fairness is also important. What we are trying to achieve will be impossible if fairness is not considered,” said Parr.

Sarah Long from Atkins focused on the opportunities for the construction sector. “SNC-Lavalin and Atkins have been talking about engineering net zero for years, but the enormity of the challenge we face has not been grasped. This is an enormous engineering challenge but also an enormous engineering opportunity. BEIS have made a good start with the energy strategy – we just need to keep up to speed,” she said.

Declan Burke said that the energy system of the future would be renewables based and would include carbon capture and storage and long-duration storage. “Given the amount of time we have got,  we have got to get on with what we know we can build while looking to the future. Using a mix of technologies will help us share the burden,” he said.

Doug Parr called for more investment where it was needed most. “The perfect UK energy system will be zero carbon and 100% renewables. Batteries are no answer to the long-term and the UK needs to solve its buildings issue. There isn’t the same kind of investment that is going into electric vehicles that is going into nuclear and carbon capture and storage and that is not good enough. We also need to capitalise on what is going on internationally,” he said.

The panel also discussed the future role of nuclear energy and webinar chair Paul Monks highlighted the ‘Idealism versus pragmatism’ debate, asking “Where does the balance between idealism and pragmatism lie?”

Sarah Long spoke about the example of Germany where they had tried to move away from nuclear and towards renewables. “This led to an increase in electricity prices, showing that the costs of a renewable system are not as cheap as people would have you believe,” she said. Declan Burke said he was at the more pragmatic end of the argument. “Use all the tools you have in the toolbox today – nuclear and CCS will play a key role - but the future is going to be based around renewables,” he said.

Doug Parr said that nuclear was a side issue. “Nuclear is a bit-part player in this. If we are not scaling up renewables, then we won’t achieve a net zero future. Nuclear is not where the action is. The big picture is scaling up renewables because that is how we will meet the climate commitments we have made,” he said.

The panellists discussed the engineering challenge ahead, with Sarah Long highlighting that the UK’s electricity needs will double by 2050. “We have 12GW in renewables on the grid currently and we will need that every year from now on”. She also made the point that wind energy was not produced without input from hydrocarbons. “There are 900 tons of steel in each wind turbine and there is no way yet of producing steel without hydrocarbon use. We can’t produce turbines without steel,” said Long.

Doug Parr said that it was important to stress that “we don’t have answers for everything”. He said that it was impossible to currently replace all plastic in daily life and highlighted instead being more efficient in the way that materials were used. Sarah Long said that decarbonising the gas supply remained a massive challenge as the whole economy was built around people being able to switch on their boilers, while Doug Parr bemoaned the fact that “no one else has got building stock as rubbish as ours across Europe and we have to solve this problem on our own!” 

Summing up the discussion, Paul Monks said that his take-aways were that it was important to take the positive challenges around energy and turn them into an engineering challenge. Declan Burke highlighted the need for innovation around energy transition “but we have to bring people with us and transfer jobs over”. Burke also pointed to the clusters of clean jobs in the UK in places like Teesside as a source of encouragement for the future.

Doug Parr said that solutions had to be attractive to the consumer. “We need investment in kickstarting the green solutions now. Innovation is important, but getting to 2030 is about doing the stuff that we know how to do and balancing innovation with the urgent task now,” he said.

Ending on an upbeat and optimistic note, Sarah Long said that given the innovation and investment in green energy solutions and the global need to meet net zero targets, “there has never been a more exciting time to be in engineering. It is a fantastic time to be an engineer,” Long said.

Click here to watch The future of UK energy policy webinar in full

This webinar is brought to you in association with Atkins

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