The road to clean energy

There is unprecedented consensus that we are headed for a world of extreme weather patterns with devastating consequences for hundreds of millions of people.

Can a climate catastrophe be avoided? The government wants the UK to cut carbon emissions to zero by 2050.

Is that possible and, if yes, how? 

The north Cornwall village of Delabole sits on a hillside which catches the wind - a lot of wind - all year round.

Countryside around Delabole, with wind farms on a hill

It was here, arguably, where the UK’s green revolution began, with an enterprising local farmer, Martin Edwards.

“It all started with a storm,” he says. “We lost the roof of the house and my mother said if only we could use the wind rather than be done in by it – that got me thinking.”

The next four years were spent shopping for wind turbines in Denmark, tense negotiations with the local council and overcoming a cautious rural community. In 1991, Edwards and his brother opened the UK’s first commercial wind farm.

“The locals thought we were fruitcakes,” says Edwards, “but they didn’t object too much – mostly because they didn’t really know what a wind farm would look like. No-one had ever seen one so they didn’t know what they were getting.”

Martin Edwards

Martin Edwards, Cornish farmer and wind power pioneer

Martin Edwards, Cornish farmer and wind power pioneer

The original 10 turbines have since been replaced by four bigger, better, more efficient generators of renewable energy.

Eerily beautiful to some, an eyesore to others, they emit a low hum audible only when close up. The turbines seem to turn slowly but Edwards assures me the tips of the blades are moving at over 100mph.

There are now more than 10,000 of these modern day white windmills in the UK - 8,000 of them onshore, and 2,000 much bigger versions offshore, and the price of wind energy has plummeted since Edwards installed his first turbines.

Wind power has made it possible for the UK to contemplate a zero carbon future. What was once a seemingly impossible dream is now a government commitment for the year 2050.  

The change in our supply of electricity is extraordinary, according to Emma Pinchbeck from RenewableUK, a not-for-profit renewable energy trade association.

“We're in the middle of basically an industrial revolution,” she says. “If you look back 10 years ago when we thought about renewables, we only thought about them as this kind of niche climate change technology and now they're the backbone of the energy system.”

In the past two years, the cost of large-scale renewables has halved. In May this year, Britain went just over a week without using electricity generated from burning coal - the first time this had happened since the 1880s.

“The first time we had no coal was for only half an hour in 2016, so it's a really rapid shift,” says Pinchbeck.

Technical advances, aggressive competition and government support all helped to contribute to the sharp fall in the cost of wind power and surprised many - including Baroness Brown of Cambridge - a member of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the body which recommended the 2050 target of net zero emissions.

“We're used to huge cost reductions in electronic devices and to some extent solar and batteries come into that kind of electronic spectrum. But actually offshore wind turbines are big bits of heavy engineering and we're seeing almost the same kind of scale of cost reduction.” 

Thanks in part to the growth in use and the reduction in cost of renewables - especially offshore wind - the UK has lowered its carbon emissions by 40% since 1990.

This game-changing progress in wind didn’t happen all by itself. It was a result of hefty subsidies over the past three decades (subsidies which still account for about 10% of our energy bills). It was a bet that paid off and kickstarted a low-carbon industry in which the UK is a world leader.


Some of the data in this article is drawn from BBC Briefing, a mini-series of downloadable in-depth guides to the big issues in the news, with input from academics, researchers and journalists. It is the BBC's response to audiences demanding better explanation of the facts behind the headlines.


However, you don’t need to be an energy expert to notice that the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine all the time.

As we electrify transport and heating we will need to generate a lot more low-carbon electricity. In fact, as we move away from petrol and from gas central heating, it’s estimated that we will need nearly three times as much electricity as we currently produce. 

Renewables can take us a long way – but not all the way to zero if we want an energy system that is reliable and resilient. 

So where will the rest of our energy come from?

A new nuclear age?

Hinkley Point C construction site, Somerset

Hinkley Point C construction site, Somerset

The green fields of Cornwall could not seem more remote from the epic scale of construction activity at Hinkley Point in Somerset. 

Visitors are collected at a park-and-ride stop a couple of miles from the site. Security is tight, safety clothing mandatory and behaviour protocols are strictly enforced – you must stick to the left on stairs and hold the handrail at all times. 

That would not be unusual for any building site of this magnitude and complexity. Hinkley is the biggest current construction project in Europe - there are 4,000 workers on site, and the project is expected to create 25,000 new jobs.

Although it feels much more modern than Martin Edward’s field in Cornwall, Hinkley’s is a much older technology. 

The UK built 19 nuclear power stations from 1956 onwards and nuclear now contributes 20% of all the UK’s electricity. However, all but one of the present stock of reactors are due to be phased out by 2035. 

In 2008, the UK government announced the dawn of a new nuclear age and in 2010 it identified eight sites suitable for future nuclear power stations, on existing sites including Hinkley Point, Sizewell, Bradwell, Moorside, Wylfa and Oldbury. Of these, only Hinkley is under construction. 

In November 2018, Toshiba pulled out of the Moorside project and two months later, Hitachi announced it was abandoning its plans to develop Wylfa and Oldbury. 

French energy giant EDF says Hinkley is proceeding on time and within budget, and it is lobbying hard to replicate the Hinkley project at Sizewell, at lower cost. EDF is also involved with efforts by the Chinese energy company CGN to develop the site at Bradwell in Essex.

The attractions of nuclear seem obvious - it is a potentially limitless source of low-carbon electricity. 

If you compare the UK’s electricity generation with France - EDF’s home country - the difference in carbon dependency is dramatic. 

You want low carbon at scale – you need nuclear, according to Julia Pyke, head of power at EDF.

“We need something reliable to sit alongside the wind power, and what we say is that can be nuclear.”

When (and if) commissioned in 2025, the two reactors at Hinkley Point C alone will produce 7% of the UK’s current requirements. 

However, the epic scale of production at Hinkley is precisely the problem for its detractors. 

It’s massive, it’s slow and at a cost of £20bn it seems eye-wateringly expensive. So does the electricity it will one day produce. 

In 2013, the UK government agreed to buy power from Hinkley Point C for a price of £92.50/MWh (megawatt hour). That was more than double the average price of electricity at the time and the price was guaranteed for the next 35 years. Offshore wind power can now be produced for as little as £57/MWh and is headed lower. 

White dome of pressurized water reactor PWR of Sizewell A nuclear power station, near Leiston, Suffolk, England.

Sizewell B nuclear power station in Suffolk

Sizewell B nuclear power station in Suffolk

Making bets on the future is hard when technology is changing rapidly. 

Sir Ed Davey was energy secretary in the coalition government when he agreed that price. 

“At the time offshore wind and most renewables were more expensive than nuclear power. And while I was determined to get the price of offshore wind down - and by the way we have dramatically - one couldn't be sure. And yet one was faced with the absolute urgency of tackling climate change.”

It’s not all about money, of course. 

Nuclear is perceived by both governments and the public to be risky – in different ways. Nuclear projects in recent years have been beset by timetable and budget overruns.

The Olkiluoto station in Finland and the Flamanville plant in France - which both use the same technology as Hinkley Point C - have overrun by years and many billions of pounds. 

However, any cost overruns at Hinkley will not hit UK consumers or the government, as it was agreed that EDF would shoulder all the development risk (one of the reasons the electricity price was set so high). 

Public perceptions of nuclear power have inevitable associations with disasters like Chernobyl and, more recently, Fukushima in Japan.

A Greenpeace boat approaches Flamanville power station in France - nuclear energy is distrusted by many environmental activists

A Greenpeace boat approaches Flamanville power station in France - nuclear energy is distrusted by many environmental activists

The waste products from nuclear energy remain highly toxic for thousands of years. Sellafield in Cumbria is home to more than 100 tonnes of plutonium and the clean-up operation costs the UK government nearly £2bn per year. 

EDF says that the mistakes of the past have been learnt in design, production, waste management and decommissioning.

Nevertheless when you say “low carbon” everyone cheers. When you say nuclear, the response is often mixed. 

One of the things that almost everyone agrees on is that decarbonising the power supply will need a mix of technologies. Wind, solar, biomass, nuclear, hydro will all play their part - as will increased storage and a smarter energy grid that matches demand and supply more efficiently. 

The good news is that, according to the CCC, all the technologies we need to decarbonise the energy system currently exist. Eureka breakthroughs may occur but we don’t need them to get there. 

The renewables revolution happened relatively quietly. 

When we flick a switch the light comes on just the same as it ever did, with consumers largely unaware of the turbines spinning out in the North Sea and elsewhere. 

But while carbon emissions from power generation have fallen 64% since 1990, we should remember that the production of electricity only makes up 15% of the UK’s carbon emissions. 

The next phase will be very different. To get to zero by 2050 will affect what we eat, what we buy, how we travel and how we heat our homes. 

Oh, and it will cost one trillion pounds, according to former Chancellor Philip Hammond. 

The next step

Electric car at a charging point, somewhere in London

When we think of images of climate change, we usually picture belching power stations, queues of jets at an airport, or columns of HGVs rumbling down crowded motorways. 

These are all significant generators of carbon emissions but the biggest consumers of energy are you and me, driving the car to the supermarket, or simply switching on the central heating. 

Household domestic energy use and private cars account for 48% of the UK’s energy consumption. 

To get to zero will require significant changes to our transport and heating systems. 

Will electric cars ride to the climate rescue? 

There are some positive signs. In August this year the sales of alternative fuelled (electric or hybrid) vehicles, or EVs, rose five-fold compared with a year earlier. 

The government has announced its intention to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2040 while also committing to buy EVs for a quarter of its own fleet by 2022.

However, electric cars currently account for less than 1% of all vehicles on the road. And although take-up is accelerating, CO2 emissions from cars recently started to rise after a decade which saw them fall 15% across Europe.

Sign reads: Electric vehicle recharging point only

For most of the past decade, the UK government, in common with many other EU member states, decided the best way of meeting emissions targets was to push diesel - which emits less CO2 than petrol.

That strategy backfired when Volkswagen was found to have been cheating on the tests that measure how much pollution the engine produces. These revelations coincided with rising concerns about air quality, particularly in urban areas. Cities in the UK and around Europe are now moving to ban older diesels. 

Many consumers - particularly where there’s less off-street parking - are still unconvinced that sufficient charging infrastructure will be in place to make electric cars viable. That reticence has pushed many back to petrol - hence the rise in CO2 emissions. 

The CCC has been critical of the progress made on domestic transport. It says that 2040 is too late for the phase-out of petrol and diesel cars and vans, and that current plans for delivering this are “too vague”.

However, car manufacturers are spending hundreds of billions retooling their factories, in the biggest revolution in motor production since the internal combustion engine was invented. 

Ford recently announced it would produce more EVs than conventional cars by 2022. That is a massive change - and reflects the widely held view that we are close to a tipping point in electric transport, after which change will happen quickly. 

A future of electric cars using power generated by low carbon technologies gets us some of the way to zero emissions. Now the tough bit. 

The hardest part of getting to zero emissions is a result of something that happened in the 1960s and 1970s - the mass installation of central heating in UK homes. 

This accounts for the largest single use of energy in the UK.  More than 85% of homes with central heating are connected to the gas grid. 

Staged photo from 1965 of woman trying out her new gas central heating boiler

The 1960s saw mass adoption of gas central heating in the UK

The 1960s saw mass adoption of gas central heating in the UK

The CCC says the most expensive part of the transition to zero carbon will be the modification of 28 million home heating systems. 

Of the £1tn that getting to net zero may cost, half (£500bn) will go towards refitting domestic heating. 

While it may be possible to convert council and social housing with mandated government initiatives, it may take a powerful combination of stick and carrot to persuade owner-occupiers to replace their gas central heating.

So, if we are to say goodbye to our boilers what will replace them? 

Electric heat pumps offer one solution. They look like large air conditioning units, are usually sited outside the house and use electric compressors to control the heat inside. They are three times more efficient than gas central heating, and - as long as you are using zero-carbon electricity - there are no CO2 emissions. 

Electric heat pump

Electric heat pump

The downside is that they take longer to warm up, which makes them less effective in winter cold snaps. That is why hydrogen is seen as a substitute or supplementary technology. Burning hydrogen produces heat but its only by-product is water. 

The technology to fix this is out there according to Emma Pinchbeck from RenewableUK. 

“We have alternative gas heating systems, hybrid systems and indeed hydrogen systems coming in. We can do this.”

The CCC is less positive. Its report says that more than 10 years after the Climate Change Act 2008 was passed, there is still “no serious plan for decarbonising UK heating systems” and no large-scale trials for either heat pumps or hydrogen.

The CCC estimates that the change will also require a massive communication effort on the part of successive governments. But Jim Watson, director of the UK Energy Research Centre, says we only need to look to our own history for encouragement.

“The interesting comparison to make is if you go back in history to the 60s and 70s in the UK. We underwent another heating transformation from what was called then town gas from coal to natural gas. And that cost many billions of pounds over that period.

“So it's probably going to be of a similar order of cost fall for this time around. It can be done because we've done it before. It can be done because other countries have already done it.”

Exporting the problem?

Coal-fired power plant, Shanxi, China

Coal-fired power plant, Shanxi, China

So what have we learned? Decarbonising the electricity supply can be done with a mixture of renewables and maybe a dash of nuclear. Decarbonising domestic heating is the biggest challenge and will cost half a trillion pounds. 

The technologies we need to do it already exist and there’s every chance that new better ones will emerge. As we move towards 2050, successive governments will have to back several horses to make sure it’s not locked into any one path. Some of those bets may fail. 

The task, then, is daunting but not impossible. But there are some inconvenient truths that this analysis and the targets the government has set ignores. 

Firstly, international aviation is not included in the net zero target. It’s estimated that the UK’s share of aviation may make up as much as 7% of the UK’s total emissions.

Airbus with BA logo landing at Heathrow

And secondly, the way we currently measure emissions does not include the environmental cost of the goods we import. 

If the UK were to close down a carbon-hungry steel plant, our emissions would go down. But we still need steel so we would import it - from China, say, where it’s made in a more carbon and energy-intensive way. 

So actually while the emissions produced on UK soil go down, the UK’s carbon footprint goes up. 

Dieter Helm, the author of a government cost-of-energy review argues we cannot ignore our overall consumption. 

“We have to be brutally honest,” he says. “This is one of the reasons why despite everything the people in Europe and the UK have been doing, we haven't made an iota of difference to climate change.”

Helm points out that even a relatively small country such as Denmark, with a population of 5.8 million, has increased its carbon consumption. The increase in the carbon intensity of its imports has far outweighed the reduction in emissions it made through uptake of renewable energy. 

Concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has continued to rise every single year since 1990 despite 30 years of low emissions targets in the West. 

“You have to address the incentives which lie in China, India and Africa,” says Helm. “These countries are doubling in size every 10 years in economic input. This is where climate change is going to be determined and we should not have a policy which positively incentivises them to substitute our home production with more carbon intensive output.”

That sounds like a counsel of despair. The UK is responsible for just 1% of global CO2 emissions. Even if we spend a trillion pounds getting our net emissions to zero it won’t make any difference – so why bother? 

Baroness Brown says the UK has a moral responsibility to lead, because it has profited so much from emitting CO2 over the years. 

“We like to claim that we are the cradle of the industrial revolution. So actually we have a huge responsibility for historic emissions. We should be prepared to make a strong statement now.”

But if, as Baroness Brown points out, we became rich the dirty way, can we really say with any authority that others should do things differently now? Helm says no.

“Preaching to developing countries how they should mend their ways when we've caused much of the problem… is never going to cut it. It's arrogant, it's morally unacceptable and it smacks of imperialism.”

worker looking on in front of a furnace in the Han-steel plant in Handan, in China's northern Hebei province

Instead, he suggests that the UK - and the West - should provide the means by which the world’s fastest growing economies can decarbonise. 

The biggest of these is China, whose $13tn economy is growing at 6% per year. It’s the world’s biggest burner of coal, but it’s also the biggest global investor in renewables. 

Emma Pinchbeck from RenewableUK is optimistic about China’s willingness to adopt low-carbon technology. She thinks that as the country’s “megacities” grow, poor air quality and poor quality of living will create political pressure to tackle the issue.

“The availability of low carbon technology means they may just go straight there. Do not underestimate the visible benefits of low carbon living in the industrial world skipping straight to industrialised economies.”

Panda-shaped solar panels, Datong power plant, China

Panda-shaped solar panels, Datong power plant, China

The UK has proved it is possible to grow your economy while reducing emissions. It’s also shown it can lead in green technology adoption. 

As well as its leading position in offshore wind, the UK’s particular history and geography means it is well placed to lead in carbon capture and storage (CCS), a process which extracts the carbon from fossil fuels the moment they're burned.

That carbon is then stored securely underground in depleted oil and gas fields. - which by happy coincidence we have right on our doorstep in the North Sea. Many think it is impossible to hit the zero carbon target without developing this technology. 

Being in the vanguard of these methods will create industries and expertise the rest of the world will need. It could be a massive export opportunity. 

Imagine a world in which renewable power is used to charge a small number of shared electric cars - which double as energy storage units - while also being used to make hydrogen to supplement electric heating systems for well-insulated homes of citizens who eat very little meat and have international travel rationed, with everything managed by optimised networks powered by artificial intelligence (while the humans plant a lot of trees). 

So what have we learned? Decarbonising the electricity supply can be done with a mixture of renewables and maybe a dash of nuclear. Decarbonising domestic heating is the biggest challenge and will cost half a trillion pounds. 

The technologies we need to do it already exist and there’s every chance that new better ones will emerge. As we move towards 2050, successive governments will have to back several horses to make sure it’s not locked into any one path. Some of those bets may fail. 

The task, then, is daunting but not impossible. But there are some inconvenient truths that this analysis and the targets the government has set ignores. 

Firstly, international aviation is not included in the net zero target. It’s estimated that the UK’s share of aviation may make up as much as 7% of the UK’s total emissions.

Airbus with BA logo landing at Heathrow

And secondly, the way we currently measure emissions does not include the environmental cost of the goods we import. 

If the UK were to close down a carbon-hungry steel plant, our emissions would go down. But we still need steel so we would import it - from China, say, where it’s made in a more carbon and energy-intensive way. 

So actually while the emissions produced on UK soil go down, the UK’s carbon footprint goes up. 

Dieter Helm, the author of a government cost-of-energy review argues we cannot ignore our overall consumption. 

“We have to be brutally honest,” he says. “This is one of the reasons why despite everything the people in Europe and the UK have been doing, we haven't made an iota of difference to climate change.”

Helm points out that even a relatively small country such as Denmark, with a population of 5.8 million, has increased its carbon consumption. The increase in the carbon intensity of its imports has far outweighed the reduction in emissions it made through uptake of renewable energy. 

Concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has continued to rise every single year since 1990 despite 30 years of low emissions targets in the West. 

“You have to address the incentives which lie in China, India and Africa,” says Helm. “These countries are doubling in size every 10 years in economic input. This is where climate change is going to be determined and we should not have a policy which positively incentivises them to substitute our home production with more carbon intensive output.”

That sounds like a counsel of despair. The UK is responsible for just 1% of global CO2 emissions. Even if we spend a trillion pounds getting our net emissions to zero it won’t make any difference – so why bother? 

Baroness Brown says the UK has a moral responsibility to lead, because it has profited so much from emitting CO2 over the years. 

“We like to claim that we are the cradle of the industrial revolution. So actually we have a huge responsibility for historic emissions. We should be prepared to make a strong statement now.”

But if, as Baroness Brown points out, we became rich the dirty way, can we really say with any authority that others should do things differently now? Helm says no.

“Preaching to developing countries how they should mend their ways when we've caused much of the problem… is never going to cut it. It's arrogant, it's morally unacceptable and it smacks of imperialism.”

worker looking on in front of a furnace in the Han-steel plant in Handan, in China's northern Hebei province

Instead, he suggests that the UK - and the West - should provide the means by which the world’s fastest growing economies can decarbonise. 

The biggest of these is China, whose $13tn economy is growing at 6% per year. It’s the world’s biggest burner of coal, but it’s also the biggest global investor in renewables. 

Emma Pinchbeck from Renewables UK is optimistic about China’s willingness to adopt low-carbon technology. She thinks that as the country’s “megacities” grow, poor air quality and poor quality of living will create political pressure to tackle the issue.

“The availability of low carbon technology means they may just go straight there. Do not underestimate the visible benefits of low carbon living in the industrial world skipping straight to industrialised economies.”

Panda-shaped solar panels, Datong power plant, China

Panda-shaped solar panels, Datong power plant, China

The UK has proved it is possible to grow your economy while reducing emissions. It’s also shown it can lead in green technology adoption. 

As well as its leading position in offshore wind, the UK’s particular history and geography means it is well placed to lead in carbon capture and storage (CCS), a process which extracts the carbon from fossil fuels the moment they're burned.

That carbon is then stored securely underground in depleted oil and gas fields. - which by happy coincidence we have right on our doorstep in the North Sea. Many think it is impossible to hit the zero carbon target without developing this technology. 

Being in the vanguard of these methods will create industries and expertise the rest of the world will need. It could be a massive export opportunity. 

Imagine a world in which renewable power is used to charge a small number of shared electric cars - which double as energy storage units - while also being used to make hydrogen to supplement electric heating systems for well-insulated homes of citizens who eat very little meat and have international travel rationed, with everything managed by optimised networks powered by artificial intelligence (while the humans plant a lot of trees). 

It’s a massive environmental, economic, societal and moral journey - and it may be a lonely one. 

We need to get moving – down several paths – some of which will turn out to be less successful than others.

It will be very very expensive.

But not as expensive as a climate catastrophe. 

It’s a massive environmental, economic, societal and moral journey - and it may be a lonely one. 

We need to get moving – down several paths – some of which will turn out to be less successful than others.

It will be very very expensive.

But not as expensive as a climate catastrophe. 

Credits

Author: Simon Jack

Additional reporting: Lora Jones

Graphics: Sana Jasemi

Photography: Getty Images, Alamy, EDF

Editor: Ben Milne