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UK energy independence is dependent on electricity

3 min read

Baroness Worthington, architect of the United Kingdom’s Climate Change Act and founder of the global energy think tank Ember, argues that the UK’s upcoming coal phase-out, driven by wind power, presents a unique opportunity for the nation to achieve full energy independence through a comprehensive strategy of electrification across all sectors

The UK coal phase-out will be complete in September. Gas is in terminal decline, pushed out by growing wind power. But in transport, heat and industry, fossil fuels still reign. There is now a new opportunity for the UK to become fully energy independent, with the whole economy driven by homegrown energy. The incoming government must recognise the economic prize of electrifying everything: our vehicles, our heating and cooling, and our manufacturing.

Electricity on a large scale came to the UK in 1882 with the Holborn Viaduct electric station in London. Powered by coal, it was the first of a series of power stations which would transform lives, providing first light, and then a series of labour-saving devices. Around a hundred years later, the commercial extraction of North Sea oil and gas bought a new energy source, alongside serious environmental ramifications. And now, as mature fields run dry, our dependence on imported fossil fuels is also affecting energy prices and our politics. 

As these risks have grown in seriousness, another energy transition of a much larger scale is now underway: economy-wide electrification. The power of electricity to modernise industry, transport, and how we heat and cool our homes offers a break from the polluting past. In some aspects of this electrical transition, emerging economies including China are already ahead of the UK, but they remain very coal-dependent. Our country, with plentiful wind resources in the North Sea, backed up by a domestic nuclear industry, can again leap-frog the emerging economies if electrification is embraced.

“It’s time to unite government departments in a clear common goal: a whole-economy electrification strategy"

This transition is made easier because the fossil fuel combustion system is hugely inefficient. Electrical processes are commonly three to four times more efficient than their fossil counterparts. A heat pump, for example, harnesses three to four units of energy from the environment from one unit of electricity input. This efficiency drives lower operating costs and higher productivity, and with it greater economic growth.

And electricity really can change every sector. Even so-called hard-to-transition processes like cement production. Scientists in the UK have recently discovered a way to produce this most-polluting of materials without the climate pollution. Abundant clean electricity produced from renewables can also be stored as heat and used to substitute for combustion in many manufacturing and industrial processes. Thermal electrical storage uses everyday storage media and is much more efficient at reusing the clean electrons than hydrogen, which suffers from dramatic conversion losses.

It’s time to unite government departments in a clear common goal: a whole-economy electrification strategy. The new government will be able to harness the momentum in heat pump deployment and electric vehicle roll-out, and add additional policies to give investors the confidence they need. 

It’s a huge prize. The energy system made vastly more efficient, every sector modernised, no longer polluting, and no longer reliant on imports from distant and unreliable states. Electricity really is the future for every sector, if the government can step up to help it accelerate.

This article was originally published in The Path To Net Zero supplement circulated alongside The House magazine. To find out more visit The Path To Net Zero hub.

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