UK needs 100GW more wind and solar to reach zero emissions grid

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A new report has concluded that the United Kingdom will require at least 100 GW of new wind and solar capacity by 2050.

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Wind turbines in Cornwall, in the United Kingdom.
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A new report by Aurora Energy Research has concluded that the United Kingdom will require at least 100GW of new wind and solar capacity by 2050 as well as 30GW of short-duration energy storage to balance the output.

The Oxford-based Aurora Energy Research published its findings this week to coincide with a discussion amongst leaders from across the energy industry held at its Battery Storage and Flexibility Conference.

The company – which bills itself as “the leading independent European energy market analytics company” – concludes in its latest analysis that delivering a net-zero power system will necessitate a significant expansion of low-carbon generation capacity.

The scenario laid out in Aurora’s analysis which would deliver net-zero emissions for the UK’s power sector requires wind and solar capacity to increase by more than 100 GW by 2050 – from 33 GW today to more than 140 GW in 2050. In addition, the scenario – which is based on carbon-free energy sources and not renewables-only – would also require 20 GW of new nuclear power and 3 GW of Carbon Capture and Storage.

“The UK has set an ambitious target to deliver a net zero economy by 2050,” explained Ana Barillas, Principal at Aurora Energy Research. “We estimate that over 100 GWs of new wind and solar capacity will be required to deliver this in the power sector.

This poses significant changes for operation of the power system – ensuring that the lights stay on despite the fluctuations in renewables output. Achieving this will require up to 30 GW of short duration storage, and 20 GW of longer duration firm capacity.”

Aurora also highlighted three “significant challenges” that lay ahead for integrating such a large amount of renewable energy into a national power system, including the need for the power system to always match demand and supply, which becomes harder in a system which is increasingly reliant on variable generation. This necessitates the construction of more short-duration energy storage technologies such as batteries and pumped-hydro.

Additionally, backup capacities need to be able to quickly ramp up and down to compliment the variable output of renewables – with the biggest swings in residual demand quoted in the report by Aurora measuring up to 5.4 GW in one half hour. However, this is likely to grow, and by 2050 the authors of the report predict swings in residual demand of 8.5 GW.

Thirdly, the report highlights the need for a system – which is increasingly reliant upon wind – to be able to deliver reliable power even during prolonged cold windless spells, such as what is called a “Kalte Dunkelflaute” in German. Aurora’s research includes analysis of historical data which shows that extended windless periods happen for around 2 weeks each year, with weekly wind output falling to less than half of the average.

“Whilst Extinction Rebellion occupies London’s streets to highlight the climate and ecological emergency, Aurora Energy Research has released analysis which highlights the scale of the challenges in getting to net zero,” added Richard Howard, Research Director at Aurora Energy Research.

“Balancing a net zero power system will require low carbon forms of flexibility which are not yet commercially viable to be delivered at a large scale. Government will need to intervene to bring these options to fruition – through carbon pricing, and technology-agnostic flexibility markets to drive competition and innovation.”

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