We usually write a blog at the start of each year looking ahead to the New Year. This year is the start of a new decade and we decided to take out the long lens and peer further ahead to the next ten years. This seems especially apt as 2020 is the mid-point of the 60-year plan to decarbonise the economy.
The UK and the world have made progress in decarbonising the electricity sector, with renewables gaining a significant foothold. Yet it is clear that neither the UK, nor the world, is half way on its journey to decarbonising the economy. The 2020s is therefore shaping up to be the decade of truth. By 2030, it will be clear if a sustainable zero carbon economy is in prospect by 2050 – and a lot needs to happen in the 2020s if this prospect is to become a reality.
Here are some of the things we expect (or hope) to see.
1. A new invention in battery technology. Perhaps hope over expectation but a dispatchable, scalable (and cost-effective) low carbon technology is the missing piece of the jigsaw needed to achieve net zero in electricity.
2. The Age of Aquarius. Sunny days and windy nights will see free electricity as prices fall to zero (and below). Or at least wholesale prices fall to zero. The nuclear industry predicted electricity “too cheap to meter” in the 1950s – but it will be renewables that delivers the Age of Aquarius.
3. A slew of climate change legal challenges. On 20 December 2019, the Dutch Supreme Court held that the Dutch Government has a legal duty to reduce GHGs by 25% (from 1990 levels) by the end of 2020. This obligation arises from the right to life and a private family life under Articles 2 and 8 of the EHCR, which is directly applicable under Dutch law. The phrase ‘landmark decision’ is overused, but legal underpinning to the notion that climate change is an existential threat is truly a landmark. Expect many more climate related human rights cases to come before the courts.
4. The end of the gas boiler. In March 2019 the UK Government announced that ‘fossil fuel’ boilers can no longer be installed in new homes after 2025. Or maybe not – the Government has not introduced legislation to Parliament to implement this ban. Not to be outdone, the Scottish Government announced in December 2019 that it would introduce regulations to ensure all new homes must have renewable or low carbon heating from 2024.
5. Feeder 10 is reborn as the UK’s first CO2 transport pipeline. Feeder 10 is currently part of the national gas transmission network. However, it could be re-purposed to transport CO2 to the north east of Scotland for compression and ultimately storage in depleted oil and gas fields. The Acorn carbon capture and storage project is intended to realise this vision. It is being developed by Pale Blue Dot at St Fergus in north east Scotland to take CO2 transported to it via Feeder 10 (as well capturing locally generated CO2).
6. Blue vs Green. A new hydrogen rivalry beckons. Blue hydrogen is made by steam reformation of methane combined with CO2 capture, while green hydrogen is made by electrolysis using renewable electricity. Which will turn out to be cheaper?
7. A heat networks regulator. Ofgem regulates the electricity and gas sectors, but the supply of heat is not regulated (albeit most homes are heated by burning gas, the supply of which is regulated). The Scottish Government will introduce the Heat Networks Bill into the Scottish Parliament in 2020 which, among other things, will create the role of regulator for the heat networks sector.
8. Carbon border taxes. While most countries have a carbon tax or pricing policy (except notably Australia), the next decade may see the introduction of carbon border taxes designed to impose a tariff equal to the carbon tax differential between the importing and exporting countries. In turn this may enable carbon taxes or prices to be increased to more meaningful levels, perhaps from the late 2020s.
9. Wider use of CfDs. CfDs are a useful financing tool, as they limit investor’s exposure to market prices, thereby enabling operators to raise project finance debt. They are a useful policy tool, as they leave all operating risks with the private sector, and auctions enable pricing to fall progressively towards the market price. We could see their use to support gas-fired electricity projects fitted with CO2 capture technology or to support low carbon hydrogen production. The latter would need to be accompanied by a wider set of policies to create a new market for low carbon hydrogen, but we expect to see a wider use of CfDs.
10. A new CfD technology category for floating offshore wind. Floating offshore wind will not be able to achieve cost parity with fixed offshore for some time. Indeed, it may never achieve it without some initial support. In order to be entitled to a strike price different to fixed offshore (or to have capacity reserved for floating), floating offshore will need to be categorised as a separate technology in the CfD regulations (and receive state aid approval depending on Brexit deal terms. (Sorry, thought we were going to manage to write the blog without mentioning Brexit…) Finally, Glasgow is hosting COP26 in November this year where the aim is to agree each country’s NDCs (or Nationally Determined Contributions) for the first time since the Paris Agreement was signed. Of course, the US has a presidential election in the days before the event – which might just affect the tone of the debate. See you in Glasgow.