What might energy systems look like in a net zero world?

Solar panel power plant from above

We are facing a monumental challenge to deliver a fully decarbonised energy system by 2035, as outlined by the UK’s Climate Change Committee.

But where are we going to get all that energy?

And how will we supply it when the country needs it?

Supergen programme

I am the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) engagement lead at the UK’s flagship Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Supergen programme.

I have been working with the six Supergen hubs to showcase how the UK’s net zero ambitions are being supported, by developing the latest technologies and approaches for net zero energy systems.

By collaborating with industry, academia and policymakers, we are working to further the development of sustainable power generation and supply in the areas of:

  • offshore renewables
  • hydrogen
  • bioenergy
  • solar
  • energy networks
  • energy storage.

Vision for a UK net zero energy system

Together, our research helps to create a vision for a UK net zero energy system.

The Supergen programme is a key initiative in sustainable power generation and supply, from:

  • exploring renewable resources including hydrogen and solar
  • ensuring infrastructure is in place to store and deliver energy.

Below is a flavour of the vast research being undertaken through the programme:

Offshore renewable energy

The UK is at the forefront of the development, adoption and export of offshore renewable energy (ORE) technologies.

The Supergen ORE Hub programme of research has established three aspirational ORE systems as beacons for step-change:

  • a large-scale floating ORE systems future
  • scaled-up and safe exploitation of tidal stream energy
  • farm-scale wave energy.

Through the hub’s research in these areas, and additional UK research commissioned through our flexible funding, UK researchers are able to respond to wider research challenges in the ORE sector. It will drive towards challenging net zero emission targets.

Hydrogen and fuel cells

Hydrogen will play a key role in a net zero world in decarbonising sectors where emissions remain hard to abate, for example in:

  • industry (steelmaking)
  • transport (heavy-duty vehicles, marine, aviation)
  • utilities (heating).

The Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Supergen Hub addresses the key challenges facing the hydrogen and fuel cell sector as it strives to provide cost competitive, low carbon technologies in a more secure UK energy landscape. We do this through:

  • conducting multidisciplinary research
  • linking academia to industry
  • informing policy
  • building networks.

Bioenergy

Biomass is the only renewable source of carbon on our planet and so it is critical that we use it to deliver net zero by ensuring that we extract maximum value from every carbon atom.

That could be to deliver energy, for example, as low carbon aviation fuel or materials such as renewable, biodegradable plastics.

Research at the Supergen Bioenergy Hub confirms the viability and sustainability of the different bioenergy and bioproduct options, delivering performance metrics that support policy and investment decisions.

Solar

Solar electricity is now cost-competitive with conventional electricity generation, especially for utility scale solar.

However, next generation photovoltaic technologies are required to realise the full potential of solar power generation across the globe.

Research at the Supergen SuperSolar Hub focuses on unlocking the true potential of mainstream silicon solar modules whilst:

  • lowering their cost
  • exploring game-changing new materials for building integrated and electrified transportation (among other applications)
  • underpinning the use of solar power through better understanding of performance, testing, durability and systems.

Energy networks

The energy networks sector is a key infrastructure for our society.

To achieve targets such as 40GW of offshore wind by 2030, and installation of 600,000 heat pumps by 2028, requires energy networks fit for a decarbonised and digital future.

Research at the Supergen Energy Networks Hub is identifying the shape of future networks that meet these needs, and which are resilient to challenges such as:

  • climate change
  • change in society’s energy needs
  • new energy technologies.

Energy storage

Energy storage is key to a reliable operation of the future net zero energy systems by:

  • providing flexibility
  • enhancing affordability
  • addressing supply-demand mismatch
  • increasing security, reliability and resilience against intermittency and fluctuation of renewable generation.

Supergen Energy Storage Network+ research is creating a vision for the UK’s net zero energy future.

It is developing technologies and approaches that meet increasing demands for sustainable energy, whilst increasing the flexibility and adaptability of the overall energy system.

There is no silver bullet for decarbonising energy, but together the six Supergen hubs are delivering energy research that is catalysing the UK’s just transition to net zero.

Ahead of COP26

Ahead of COP26 taking place in November, the Supergen hubs are coming together at the Supergen Net Zero Conference taking place online between 1 to 3 September 2021.

The hubs will explore their research and communicate their vision for a net zero energy future.

Please follow and use #COP26Supergen on social media to share your thoughts on how energy research is delivering net zero.

Top image: Credit: Liam Matter/GettyImages

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