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Electrification – technology and people


8 min read Partner content

The drive to achieve Net Zero is underpinned by the principle that as a society we should ensure that we leave this planet better off, and indeed make it better for the next generation. Smart electrification is a key part of this. This is the combination of technology and human behaviour; it means electricity can’t just be seen as ‘this thing that happens when we put a plug in the wall-socket.’ Consumers must be strongly informed and included in planning. This means society needs to start making important decisions now, as part of an extended planning process. Industry and government have started thinking about this in detail. Now is the time to start with effective consumer engagement to make sure the UK population can make wise choices that support this process. Fundamentally we have to ask how are we going to live in the coming decades?

Professor Mike Barnes from The University of Manchester breaks down the issues around transition to a sustainable energy supply, the key role electrification will play in this, and makes policy recommendations to support a transition which doesn’t leave anyone behind.

Replacing fossil fuel, utilising technology

Electrification is important because it allows us to replace a lot of our fossil fuel consumption with low-carbon electricity, be it solar, off-shore wind or nuclear. This however means a lot more energy needs to go through the electricity network. If we electrify all transport, the amount of energy carried by the electrical network doubles compared with today. If we electrify heating, it doubles again to four times today’s amount. Obviously building a grid four times as big isn’t feasible – not only would a grid four times larger take up a lot of space, it would also be an expensive solution. So, we need to use our existing grid better through advanced technology and smarter use; as well as undertake some expansion where necessary.

Widespread computerised sensing and control (digitisation) has a key role to play here – for example by continuously measuring how we use our existing electrical infrastructure,  networks can be turned into into ‘smartgrids’, so that we can use their capacity to carry power better. We can also use new materials and advanced designs to make substations more compact and get more power through them. Advanced materials can be used to produce new ultra-high-power subsea power cables down the East and West coasts, reinforcing the existing network and avoiding overhead lines.

Cables are power lines buried in the ground, and are of course more expensive than overhead lines, so we need to make use of modern technology to get the most out of them. Here using high power semiconductors to convert electricity from alternating current to direct current allows more effective use of long cables. This even allows us to employ very long subsea cables and interconnect them, constructing an offshore power grid. Such a grid would be a cost-effective and reliable way to connect offshore wind to shore, would allow us to reduce the number of substation sites on land, and would even allow us to connect to other countries. This access to overseas electrical infrastructure and the ability to trade electricity could help reduce prices.

Including everyone in the conversation

In addition to technology development there need to be some important but more basic actions taken. For instance not everyone’s household connection at present would support vehicle charging – and sometimes reinforcing this will mean upgrading a connection on the neighbours’ property. Policymakers need to talk to, not just at, people. The planning documents provided by government and industry are on the whole very good, but are typically aimed at, unsurprisingly, government and industry. There needs to be a push to engage all of us in what should be a national conversation about how we want to live and how we use electricity and energy.

Guidance and policy should consider all electricity users. Guidance that we use public transport and cycle/walk to work is fine if you have good personal mobility and live in London, with access to a great tube network. But not so helpful if you’re a care worker in rural Cumbria with a large number of home visits to do each day. People might be forgiven for thinking much of the discussion has been aimed at young, fit suburban professionals, with a driveway for their electric car to sit charging, a large roof to put solar cells on, and a large garden for ground-source heat pumps. Arguably it’s important to address groups with the financial power and freedom to make independent changes quickly. But they are just one of many groups and everyone needs to be included, with particular care taken over vulnerable groups in society.

As well as transportation, heating needs to be considered and, as we’re seeing hot summers, cooling. How will the conversion of gas-powered appliances and heating work? The systems we need to be installing in new homes, or in refurbishments to older homes, vary depending on if we’re heating with electricity from offshore wind and nuclear; or if we decide to use hydrogen, or other carrier molecules to move energy. Technology and policies are still evolving. We need to be clear about this, and also when people can have an evidence-based set of government and industry plans, around which they can plan and build their lives.

Learning from the past, building a sustainable future

The solutions energy strategies and policy need to offer have to be affordable in the short and longer term – we can’t cut corners now, only to store up problems which lead to a future crisis. This means policymakers need to consider the benefits that diversity in the power supply can bring. The 1990s ‘dash for gas’, where lots of gas-fuelled power stations were built, may have kept prices down then, but we are now regretting the lack of longer term thinking. Policymakers should learn and realise that putting ‘too many eggs into one basket’ is a bad idea. We are unlikely ever to be able to choose a strategy which is continuously the best. A wind farm is typically built for 25 years, a power network for 50 years and more. The best placement, layout and strategy in one decade won’t necessarily be the best in the next. A portfolio approach, trying to avoid serious pitfalls, is a balanced way forward to try and navigate this.

We not only have to have a sustainable supply: we also have to have a sustainable supply chain. This requires substantial investment by industry and commerce, so a stable business environment needs to be created by a clear and sustained policy environment that supports such investment.

We need to make sure that we don’t create a system that is dependent on one resource that is beyond our control. This might be true for example of certain rare-earth elements, or specific battery component materials. Suitable R&D into potential risks, and ways to mitigate them, needs to be funded.

The switch to locally sourced generation, e.g. renewables helps move us towards energy independence, but this is not without complications. There is some excellent research and development in energy storage being undertaken to help manage the intermittent nature of renewables. Industry and academia need to ensure that this is translated to industrial impact, and a resilient supply chain. The support mechanisms for this need to be expanded, for example building on the best of the track record of the Catapults, the Carbon Trust and UKRI.

We must undertake an energy transition that is reliable, affordable and makes the UK economy robust in the face of future changes. This means policymakers, government and NGOs need to talk with people so the public, understand what is coming down the road towards us as consumers and can act appropriately. Likewise decision makers need to understand and act on the public’s real concerns. Government and industry need to keep investing in technology and people, to make sure that the UK has the skills and ability to upgrade the UK’s infrastructure. This will allow the UK to become the world-leading powerhouse in this field that we clearly have the potential to become.

This all translates to a lot of work at local policy and industrial level that is typically complex, difficult and doesn’t tend to grab the headlines. But it is vital ‘behind the scenes’ work that we can’t do without. Its role needs attention and recognition. Although we have to start on the process very quickly, electrification is not a sprint, it is a marathon. And we have to engage everyone to ensure that we can sustain that initial spark of innovation and enthusiasm.

Policy@Manchester aims to impact lives globally, nationally and locally through influencing and challenging policymakers with robust research-informed evidence and ideas. Visit our website to find out more, and sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date with our latest news.


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