Today’s stories of electricity system transformation – dominated with new renewable and distributed generation and the rise of smart grids, peer-to-peer trading, battery storage and demand response programmes – are dramatic enough. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with developments. So how about a view from the future?
In the UK, consultant Arup has released its Energy systems: A view from 2035 report, which suggests that all these trends towards a smarter, decentralized energy system will continue. Electricity is (by 2035) low carbon and local, says Arup, with many consumers no longer relying on the grid; and the UK is a nation of energy (self) producers, with small-scale generation at the distribution level and ‘behind the meter’ providing nearly half the country’s generation.
As trade association Energy UK’s Lawrence Slade points out in his (2108) foreword to the report, these are the likely results of ‘the next few decades [being] among the most transformative the energy sector has ever seen.’ Looking to the past for the moment, Slade cites dramatic examples of change that had already taken place – carbon emissions from UK energy supply having fallen by 57% since 1990; and low carbon generation rising from 19% to 53% of total UK power in a decade.
The 2035 report continues – demand-side response and batteries are widespread in commercial and residential properties; while industrial parks, universities etc operate their own microgrids, though usually retaining a connection to the national grid.
On generation, with new nuclear capacity and even more offshore wind generation, plus lots of decentralized energy solutions, most of the generation mix is now low carbon. A few gas-fired power stations persist to help with system balancing, although intermittency has largely been overcome by battery storage at points of generation, on the grid, and in homes and businesses. In the age of distributed generation, local power networks are more important than ever.
There has been less change with heat. The predominantly gas-fuelled system of 2018 has been replaced by heat distribution networks in dense inner cities, electrification in rural areas and hydrogen replacing some gas networks in the suburbs. Yet, overall, gas is still the dominant fuel used for heating.
Dramatic stuff – over-dramatic? Well, even the Arup team can’t actually see into the future. But these are the kinds of places that today’s energy system transformation is taking the UK energy scene – and perhaps that of other countries too.