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The smart energy revolution

The path to a carbon-neutral Britain

Eliminating carbon emissions by 2050 won’t be easy – but it isn’t impossible

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

The UK government has committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The target, one of the most ambitious set by a major polluting nation, positions the UK at the forefront of the global drive towards a carbon-neutral future. But what does this mean in practice — and is it achievable?

The UN body responsible for climate change — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — has published a special report assessing what the UK will have to do to reach its goal. It identifies a number of significant challenges. These include replacing gas boilers in homes with low carbon systems; eliminating petrol and diesels cars and replacing them with vehicles that run on electricity or synthetic renewable fuels; and ensuring that power generation no longer emits carbon dioxide into the air.

But is it doable? Climate change experts sound a note of cautious optimism. On the whole they believe decarbonisation is possible — provided that the UK appreciates the scale of the challenge. ‘We’re going to need to turn the dial up to ten on everything that we know in terms of reducing emissions,’ says Dr David Joffe, team leader at the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the body that recommended the target.

In practice, this is likely to mean the complete transformation of the UK’s energy system, and enormous changes to sectors such as transport. As for households, the CCC is keen to stress that the changes won’t necessarily cause major disruption to ‘end users’ (i.e. you and me). There are, though, changes we can make at home to help the country on its trajectory towards a greener future — and one of those is installing a smart meter.

Independent research by the energy consultancy Delta-EE has shown the importance of smart meters in hitting our climate change targets. Smart meters aren’t just helping households to better understand their energy use and reduce demand — they are also part of a flexible energy system that allows for more renewable generation and less reliance on fossil fuels.

The research suggests that smart meters will contribute to a 25 per cent CO2 saving by 2035 in their own right, and that they will also play a critical role in helping switch high-carbon sectors of our economy on to using electricity from renewables (in turn delivering additional CO2 savings). The Delta-EE research states that, without a national rollout of smart meters, any carbon reduction in the UK will entail more expense, be less reliant on renewables and be less well co-ordinated.

So how will this work in practice? Take transport, for example, which is currently the largest source of greenhouse gases in Britain today, making up 28 per cent of the UK’s total emissions. The government is already working on major policy change, and has said it will end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2040 (although the CCC says that, if we are to reach net zero by 2050, this target will need to be moved forward by around a decade). But how do we manage the changes that come with replacing tens of millions of fossil-fuel vehicles with electric vehicles?

This is where smart meters come in. They help facilitate the creation of a smart energy infrastructure — a digitised and much more renewable-friendly energy system which can better manage the increased electricity demand that comes with wider usage of electric vehicles (as James O’Malley explains in his article Taking the high road).

The smart energy system will also help to decarbonise another major source of emissions: our heating. Natural gas, a fossil fuel, is responsible for heating 80 per cent of the UK’s 25 million homes, according to British Gas. Again, the government has a policy approach in place: it has said that no new homes will be fitted with gas boilers after 2025. But there is a significant challenge around integrating renewable energies into the system — the lack of flexibility in our current one makes it difficult to ensure consistent and reliable supply from renewables, meaning they’re often supported by burning fossil fuels. The smart energy system, by contrast, has the potential to store surplus energy from renewables in batteries, and incentivise householders to make use of the cheaper energy when renewable supply is high.

All these changes are beginning to add up. Nationally, the UK has made strides in phasing out coal — making headlines earlier this year when the country underwent its first week without using coal to create electricity for over a century. More of our energy is coming from renewable sources, such as Hornsea One, the world’s biggest offshore wind farm, and the government plans to phase out the last coal-fired power stations by 2025.

So what else can households do to help the UK reach its ambitious climate targets? Beyond getting a smart meter and switching to an electric car — which Dr Joffe says will be no more expensive than a petrol one by the 2020s — we can also cut our carbon footprint by flying less and reducing our meat intake. He hopes that people will continue to adopt new carbon-reducing habits, even suggesting it may become a case of keeping up with the Joneses: ‘Maybe we can get to a point where it’s a big societal push and people, in a healthy way, are being slightly competitive about how far they can go to reduce their own carbon footprint.’

But reducing our emissions will only go so far in the push to make the UK carbon neutral. The CCC accepts that some industries, such as aviation and agriculture, can not be fully decarbonised. ‘Realistically, we’re going to end up with some sectors that are significantly above zero — even though overall we’re talking about net zero,’ says Dr Joffe.

As another summer of record-breaking temperatures draws to a close, it’s clear that something needs to be done – and fast — to avoid the worst effects of climate change. And from Greta Thunberg to Extinction Rebellion, it seems that more of us are itching to do our bit in bringing down Britain’s carbon footprint.

The IPCC has warned that the world must reach net zero by around 2050 to avoid the most severe consequences of global warming. If the UK can continue to keep up the pace of decarbonisation, we may well achieve a carbon-free future – minimising the devastation of climate change. But the clock is ticking.


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