I’ve always been struck on how the public take safe and ‘on tap’ electricity for granted. Electricity is an essential service, as important to our modern lives as water. Its contribution to UK energy supply continues to increase. In Yorkshire on 29 October, 44.3% of our electricity came from renewable sources. So, when it comes to reducing UK carbon emissions, installing clean electricity will make more difference than any other tactic. Other low-carbon fuels, such as green hydrogen, are decades away from safe, at-scale, distribution.
Making the transition to low-carbon energy is the biggest change in how we use electricity since Victorian times. But the transition is far from simple. It is said we already have most of the technology we need. Yet, it is complex to adapt to new ways of working and new modes of living.
To meet the demands of a safe, electrified society and decarbonised grid, we need the people with the professional skills to deliver solutions. A workforce with skills not traditionally associated with the trades, such as collaboration, agility and problem solving. We’ll need a combination of upskilling, specialist apprenticeships and a more diverse recruitment pool. This requires a change of tack from policy makers, careers advisers, teachers and parents.
By 2030, the sale of new petrol and diesel cars is set to end, and by 2035 the UK may be powered entirely by clean electricity. With these goals in mind, the electrotechnical industry will, arguably, be one of the key players in realising the UK’s 2050 net zero target.
The country is already seeing the economic benefits of its environmental ambitions. In 2020 alone, businesses in the low carbon and renewable energy sectors generated £41.2bn in turnover, providing 207,800 full-time equivalent jobs and rising to half a million when supply chains are included.
In 2021 the University of Bath found 60% of young people aged 16–25 were concerned about climate change. Training for a career in the burgeoning green energy market seems like a sure bet in terms of future employment, as well as making a practical contribution to saving the planet.
Many of the low-carbon technologies designed to reduce our collective emissions, including electric vehicles and heat pumps, rely on electricity. Further substantial changes to infrastructure are needed to support a clean, safe, electrified future.
National Grid are already investing nearly £7bn to modernise our power distribution networks to meet the increased demand. Our current grid was designed for centralised fossil fuel power generation. In the future the grid must become more agile to exploit renewable energy.
You’ll be forgiven for missing the government’s review of the electricity market, a consultation slipped in between chancellors. It didn’t ask whether more local energy generation should happen, it asked about the mechanisms for making this work. Behind the headlines, preparations are speeding up to increase grid capacity. If these proposals come to pass, they offer huge potential for rural areas and communities to manage their own energy security.
We are all too aware of the energy price shock. But, sometimes forgotten in the current crisis is the contribution low-carbon technologies make to lowering energy bills. While upfront costs are often pricey, the outlook for fuel prices make them increasingly attractive. Investing now could reduce your lighting, heating and transport costs. And as energy costs soar, the payback time on investments such as LED lighting can sometimes be measured in months.
Adopting net zero solutions also means breaking our own habits. In this country we flick a switch and are amazed if the response isn’t immediate. Low-carbon solutions work differently. For example, an energy efficient building will reach and maintain ambient temperatures over hours, rather than produce instantaneous heat.
With demand and costs rising, planning how and when we use electricity will become the norm. Digital tools can switch devices on and off remotely. They can also check the cheapest time to charge your car or do your laundry. Incentives for using off peak electricity are making a comeback. And we are all going to learn a new word: ‘prosumer’. This is when we sell back electricity to the grid, for example from a fully charged car battery.
Leading the Charge
Leading the Charge is a new series, produced in partnership with the Electrical Contractors’ Association and Content With Purpose. It shines a spotlight on the opportunities and challenges of a safe, electrified society and decarbonised grid. From Harewood House in North Yorkshire to a carpark in Swansea, watch what it takes to install clean electricity.
Throughout the series, industry leaders tell us collaboration and a safe transition must be underpinned by more robust guidance from government. The churn in ministers responsible for the sector has averaged one a year for the last 11 years. A government serious about achieving its net zero goals needs to inspire confidence and provide consistency for business and consumers. Joined up regulation and a framework to enable collective action is a must.
Regardless of the lack of political clarity, industry and consumers are driving the dial towards net zero and greater energy efficiency. Harnessing clean electricity is the single most important factor in reaching net zero in the UK by 2050. We simply cannot achieve our emissions targets without it.