The UK’s 2035 zero-carbon target roadmap is littered with obstacles

Responding to the energy crisis, the UK has fast-tracked a 2050 zero-carbon electricity pledge to 2035. That brings with it some very serious security-of-supply doubts.

When the UK government last week revealed plans to bring forward its zero-carbon electricity target from 2050 to 2035, it was unveiled with the type of ‘Rule Britannia’ bluster we’ve become accustomed to.

“Recent volatile gas prices have also demonstrated how the way to strengthen Britain’s energy security, ensure greater energy independence and protect household energy budgets in the long-term is through clean power that is generated in this country for the people of this country,” said business and energy secretary Kwasi Kwarteng.

Putting aside the home-grown bravado, the policy is a laudable one. It reinforces the importance of the climate goals, which need more urgency than the 2050 ambitions regularly spoken of. It also underlines the important lessons being learnt from Europe’s current energy crisis, in that there is a certain fragility in a system so reliant on gas imports from Russia.

However, the pats on the back must end here. It’s not so much that there’s a roadmap missing, more that this road is fraught with bumps, obstacles and, in true British fashion, potholes. Achieving zero-carbon electricity by 2035 is a target that requires a transformation of the UK’s energy market that it shows little sign of being able to achieve.

At the outset of the issue is the fact that gas supplied 38 percent of the UK’s electricity in 2020. And in September 2021, when wind generation failed to match its expected output, this rose to 42 percent. For its part, coal contributed to 1.8 percent of the mix in 2020. That’s 40 percent of annual electricity – coal by 2024 and gas by 2035 – to be phased out

Nuclear supplied 18.9 percent of Britain’s mix last year, although all of the country’s existing nuclear plants, accounting for about 9GW, are due to come offline by 2030. The latest delay announced this year to the infamous Hinkley Point C nuclear development means the UK’s first new-build nuclear site in a generation won’t open until 2026. The next development, Sizewell C, is fraught with geopolitical tensions as the UK mulls what role it wants for China in its nuclear operations. Regardless, if Hinkley C’s 2026 construction deadline is final, that would constitute a 10-year runtime from final government approval to commissioning. By the time Sizewell C comes along, the existing nuclear plants would likely have disappeared and the deadline for gas will be looming.

That leaves quite the role for offshore wind, which along with onshore capacity, provided 27.3 percent of the mix last year. A 30GW capacity target by 2030 was increased to 40GW last October, although as seen recently, the intermittency of renewables remains an issue.

“There will be periods where you have wind lulls for a week or even two weeks, but we’re building out a system that’s very focused on wind. What we need to think really carefully about is how we make sure we have security of supply in a system so focused on wind,” Richard Howard, research director at Aurora Energy Research, told Infrastructure Investor.

While the market may be moving on beyond renewables to more energy transition-based strategies, the energy generation market still requires not only plenty of investment, but also innovation – of the kind seen over the previous 15 years – if the UK is to meet its ambitions. Otherwise, Christmas 2035 might be one spent in the dark.