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To deliver Net Zero, we need to start thinking like engineers

Credit: Adobe

Dr David Cole, Market Director, Power

Dr David Cole, Market Director, Power | Atkins

4 min read Partner content

Achieving Net Zero will be the biggest challenge modern society has ever faced. To make it a success, we need to stop modelling and start building

2020 was one of the hottest years on record and produced some climatic extremes including wildfires, record low Arctic ice, the highest reliable temperature recorded and the most active hurricane season to date.

Along with the global pandemic, many governments face the challenge of addressing the climate emergency and reaching Net Zero – or even negative emissions – while replacing ageing infrastructure and building from scratch.

The Net Zero by 2050 target set out by UK Climate Change Committee requires fundamental analysis and basic questions: Can you build it? Can you build it in time? Will it work? Through extensive analysis in our Engineering Net Zero report, there are some crucial considerations and conclusions for the UK.

The build rate of new energy infrastructure will need to be higher than ever before and at least three times its current size to power the electrification of heat and transport. The power sector must replace almost all the current ageing generating capacity and build as much again – at an estimated build rate of 9-12 GW every year, for 29 years.

However, the potential make-up of this capacity continues to change (e.g. the suggested increase of 75 to 95GW in offshore wind), and these ever-shifting long term goals will hinder the ability to track progress, start planning and building.

It’s also vital to apply whole systems thinking to deliver the right balance of new infrastructure, energy supply and technology. The system can’t easily be split up into separate parts, and energy supply and demand systems must be developed together to determine how to best work together effectively. For instance, electrification of transport cannot be planned or scheduled without considering the impact on the electricity generated to power it.

Furthermore, up to eighty percent of today’s infrastructure will still exist in 2050. These must be retrofitted to be energy efficient, and new infrastructure developments should follow material and construction standards according to climate measures.

It’s a complicated and expensive task, but one which is to be expected with the largest challenge modern society has ever had to overcome. While there is a lot of vested interest, nationally and internationally – the UK needs a plan and an Energy System Architect to set the right pace immediately and get Net Zero delivered.

Currently there are ideas, enthusiasm, regional targets as cities set route maps and checklists – but these alone won’t get the UK to Net Zero. We must move from producing thousand-page reports about a potential 2050 system, and focus instead on getting to 2025, 2030, etc. This is why engineering leadership is essential in reducing risk and creating successful projects that can be invested in and built now.  

Achieving such huge tasks has historically been separated from Government policy departments, and Net Zero is no exception. The strategy and programme should be separated out to an accountable body answerable to Parliament in order to deliver a comprehensive nationwide programme that reaches into almost every home and continues UK industries and employment opportunities. 

The UK’s opportunity to create highly skilled jobs and exports should not be missed, and could learn from the £10bn per annum current investment in renewable generation.

The UK has the opportunity to lead in: 

  • Nuclear generation of all sizes
  • Carbon capture and storage and Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage
  • The generation, transport and storage of hydrogen
  • Floating offshore wind
  • The integration and operation of complex systems such as nuclear & renewables & hydrogen
  • The opportunity to build and sell energy through interconnection (with significant amount of firm power coming off the bars across Europe this decade)
  • The design and build of industrial clusters and energy hubs

The task requires using the technologies available today to build the Net Zero system at scale, now. New technologies to create more options for the future and increase the pace of decarbonisation need to be encouraged and developed simultaneously.

The way the UK manages data and complex systems must also be improved, as well as how the country manages and pays for waste and decommissioned materials in operation and construction such as solar panels, turbines and batteries. 

Global decarbonisation and achieving Net Zero is the biggest engineering challenge humanity has ever faced. There’s a lot to do, and while the checklist may appear to be overwhelming, there isn’t the luxury of not doing it. 2050 is just 29 years away. 

To make it work, governments and investors need engineering - it’s time to stop modelling Net Zero and start building it.

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