The four Cs of the energy transition

Carbon, Capacity, Cost and Co-operation

In case you’d missed it – the energy transition is massive – and we are moving from linear decision making in an age of energy abundance to a constantly evolving multi-angled challenge. I believe there are four lenses we should be making energy decisions through.

Carbon intensity – what’s my carbon footprint?

The carbon intensity of electricity can change every half hour, never mind five years into the future. Since 1990 the average carbon intensity has fallen by 38% and continues to reduce in all future energy scenarios I’ve seen. I do think a lot of these scenarios tend to understate the impact of a huge shift to electrification and the capability of renewable sources to respond to rapidly escalating demand. That said, gas networks have their own plan for reducing the carbon intensity of the gas in the pipes, through biomethane and hydrogen mixing, so the future may not be all electric.

Capacity – can I get to the energy I need?

Even if we can get an abundance of low carbon energy, the next challenge comes in getting it to the point of use. There are not insubstantial challenges with local and national grid capacity in a number of energy scenarios. These directly impact both individuals and companies seeking to make energy decisions. At the residential level, not everyone on a street can have a 20kW fast car charger. And if companies quickly electrify their fleets the grid connections needed to provide even overnight charging will be phenomenal.

Heating the UK’s homes at peak times requires about 360GW of instantaneous energy for heating. Any shift to electrification of heating will massively increase demand on both national and local grids. Even hydrogen may not present the perfect solution – ‘green’ hydrogen is generated using electricity and huge volumes of storage would be required for super cold days.

Cost – how much will it cost me?

Carbon and capacity both come at a cost, and resilient, zero carbon options don’t always come cheaply. With so many alternative options, delivering lowest instantaneous and lifetime cost presents a complex and diverse challenge.

Geography is also likely to become far more important. With hydrogen deploying locally and grid reinforcement relying on substantial infrastructure investment it may simply be that where you live or where a company is situated could influence the cost of energy. Just as at the moment, the two million properties in the UK without a gas supply have no choice but to opt for more costly LPG, we could see differences depending on hydrogen availability or even local electricity grid capacity.

Co-operation - how can I make this happen?

The answer to the three challenges above is co-operation - we must look to our neighbours to optimise. There are plenty of fantastic examples out there, though we are going to have to work harder and think differently. For example:

  • Whole system planning and local energy systems across zones to enable capacity to be managed at a more local level
  • Using neighbours’ waste heat to optimise performance of heat pumps provides a fantastic win-win for carbon, cost and capacity
  • Understanding local demands on networks (such as electric vehicle charging) prior to requesting giant grid connections
  • Shared storage through heat networks enabling reduced demands on the system and energy sharing

Energy saving and energy sharing often make sense, and finding ways to limit demand (and peak capacity requirements) reduces cost for everyone.

This type of thinking takes an unprecedented level of co-ordination at the local, regional and national level. Success comes in a constant open dialogue about future and current needs – and also perhaps giving up a little control for the greater good. The ultimate technology split is still a long way from being decided but what is clear is that carbon, capacity, cost and co-operation are the cornerstones of any decision making around energy systems.

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. 

Published May 2020