How will energy look in 2030?
Ten predictions for the next 10 years
With the impacts of energy decisions lasting decades, attempting to predict the future is an essential art. Ten years ago the UK Government predicted that in 2020 electricity generation would be delivered with 75 TWh from coal (that’s about 19 million tonnes of coal) and 52 TWh from renewable sources - the reality today is nearer just one TWh from coal (about 250,000 tonnes) and 127 TWh from renewables. This demonstrates just how wildly wrong we can be over a decade and how quickly things can change when the mix of regulation, technology and market forces is right.
The one consistent factor in any future view is a drive to continued carbon reduction, and in each of my predictions below the drive forward to reduce carbon is assumed rather than debated.
1. The decarbonisation of heat will gain speed with substantial consumer take up of heat pumps
Heat currently accounts for 50% of energy use and consequently a high share of emissions. Take up of heat pumps remains sluggish and the recent ban on gas boilers is only the start of the regulatory interventions needed to drive changes in consumer behaviour around heat. I predict that by 2030 at least one third of houses in the UK will be heated by heat pumps.
2. Enhanced insulation and improved efficiency will gain a sense of urgency and pace
Currently 14 million properties in the UK have an energy efficiency rating of D or worse. That basically means they use twice as much energy as an A-rated property, and need better insulation, new windows and lower temperature heating systems. To meet climate targets 500,000 of these need a deep improvement every year between now and 2050. After a slow start I expect at least five million of the 14 million D-rated properties to have been fixed by 2030.
3. Hydrogen use in homes will develop in pockets, as well as for transport
We will see pockets of intense hydrogen deployment as regional projects like Hydeploy commence. Whilst hydrogen will be piped to properties in these areas, the slow rollout will mean lots of properties electrify with heat pumps before hydrogen use is widespread. Hydrogen will more likely be used for road haulage and trains where its high-density energy storage makes it the leading low carbon option.
4. ‘Zombie’ Gas Grids increase, pushing costs onto those unable to switch away
As electrification and efficiency improvements gather pace, the number of people disconnecting from gas grids will increase. Based on my figures above for heat pumps and efficiency, by 2030 there will be seven million fewer gas users. The network costs will remain to be paid, pushing up costs for those who cannot disconnect for economic or technical reasons. By 2030 I expect a decision will need to be made on whether to switch off the gas networks in certain high cost regions.
5. One or two tidal barrages will be built, but capital costs and local impacts will make further projects difficult
The idea of generating electricity by capturing the tide remains tempting. According to government figures, these projects have the potential to deliver twenty percent of energy demand, though the environmental impact of building one remains significant.
6. Battery use will continue to expand but will be stalled by resource availability
Batteries are the ultimate cannibalising technology. The more batteries on the system the less profit any of them can make. Their availability is also limited by supply of the minerals used to make them. Already electric car manufacturers are struggling to source enough lithium and cobalt and these constraints will push up costs.
7. The system will get smarter and more local
Quietly the system is getting smarter. Connected devices are everywhere and these little bits of interconnectivity work to improve the system one step at a time. As each device interconnects the ability of the system to make smart choices increases. Consumer demand for smarter systems has the potential to enable a smart energy system as a by-product to other, much more fun, functionality.
I expect by 2030 domestic energy to be smart in some form in most properties. Heat pumps will come already connected to the internet and replacement gas boilers will be smart in some form.
Local Energy Systems will become more prevalent as communities and organisations take control of their own energy, moving away from central grids and to locally managed electricity and heat networks.
8. Heat Networks will become sharing networks and drive collaboration
High density areas like city centres have the potential to share energy much more than they do now, taking low grade heat from sewers, trains tunnels, data centres and cooling systems to use in heating. Future fifth generation heat networks will use a mixture of technology and lower temperature systems to enable users to feed in and take out energy from the system. Once these systems are established, the benefits of connecting will be significant, resulting in a rapid take-up of the technology as networks expand.
By 2030 I believe all city centres will have some form of sharing 5th generation network or be working towards installing one.
9. Half of all vehicles to be electric by 2030
I believe by 2030 fifty percent of vehicles will be electric, with non-electric cars banned from city centres. The number of cities tightening controls on vehicles has hugely increased with Bath, Bristol and the City of London taking substantial steps to reduce the numbers of polluting vehicles in city centres.
The take up of electric vehicles will be driven by concerns over local air quality rather than carbon emissions.
10. Air travel will become less common
Air travel remains a significant challenge, with no technology yet that can get an aeroplane into the sky without using a significant amount of hydrocarbons. I can see a world in which frequent flyers no longer carry a badge of honour and are increasingly penalised. I expect air travel to fall by at least half by 2030 with increasing regulatory intervention to penalise those who pollute the most.
How about a Black Swan?
All of the above is written from a current view of the world. What is the black swan event that derails this completely? Nuclear fusion, deep geothermal energy or exponential development of hydrogen all have the potential to significantly change the playing field, affecting all ten of my predictions.
Written by John Armstrong
John Armstrong is a Chartered Engineer and Fellow of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and a global energy MBA. He worked at E.ON for 15 years until June 2020, including roles in engineering governance, asset risk and safety, and most recently as Head of Operations for E.ON’s decentralised city energy systems.
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