Atkins is warning that the pace of new electricity generation build and the complexity of the challenge means a dash to decarbonise power by 2035 may no longer be a credible ambition for the UK.
The news comes as the independent Climate Change Committee has also warned that current UK programmes will not deliver net zero.
Atkins new analysis shows the UK will need to build 12-16GW of new generation capacity each year between now and 2035 to hit decarbonisation targets – the equivalent of building Ireland’s entire energy system each year.
The annual build rate – how much new generation comes online each year – is a useful benchmark to check whether the UK is building enough to maintain security of supply and meet net zero targets says Atkins, a member of the SNC-Lavalin Group.
According to its analysis the average rate for the last five years was just 3.2GW/year - a fifth of the required rate Atkins now estimates is required to replace the 49GW of operational power stations forecast to close by 2035 and build enough supply to meet future energy demand.
Atkins’s research has found up to 16GW of new generation is now required each year, every year, to meet the latest 2035 target.
It added that the highest ever annual build rate in the UK was recorded in 2017, with 6.5GWof gas and renewable generation brought online - less than half of what must now be built each year.
To replace ageing power plants and ensure enough generation is built to meet peak demand requirements, the UK needs to build 159GW–203GW of new generating assets by 2035: the equivalent of building the UK’s entire energy system twice over in less than 13 years.
David Cole, market director for Net Zero Energy, Atkins, said: “This is an unprecedented build rate to meet an unprecedented challenge: in just over 12 years, we need to build a net zero power system potentially twice the size of the UK’s current capacity, including not only generation but also grid infrastructure, energy storage and the data management capabilities to facilitate the ‘smart grid’.
“This is an incredibly ambitious target that pushes the boundaries of feasibility. We must review delivery in terms of credible ambition.”
Chris Ball, managing director Nuclear and Power – Europe & Middle East, SNC-Lavalin, added: “The UK needs a clear plan to achieve such a large-scale infrastructure programme. The delivery of such a high volume of projects concurrently, in such a short timeframe, requires coordination: we need to determine what new generating capacity and infrastructure is required at a system level.
“Creating a blueprint to transition to net zero energy will also require a delicate balance between incentivising investment in different technologies, protecting consumer interests, and ensuring security of supply: a whole system strategy to deliver net zero energy is vital if we are to achieve the ambitious targets ahead of us and position the UK as a global exporter of energy and technology.”
Atkins says the scale of this transformation, even at a lesser pace, means that every year the UK delays or delivers a reduced rate of new projects, it piles on further pressure and stretches the resources, materials and supply chains required to deliver the immense scale of construction – all of which are in global demand.
Alongside its build rate analysis, Atkins is reiterating actions that could help speed up the current build rate and achieve a decarbonised electricity system to ensure the delivery of net zero targets and security of supply in the most efficient and cost-effective way for industry and consumers alike.
Atkins’ keys actions are:
1. Review the UK’s current generating assets and infrastructure and take urgent action to maximise the potential of life extension and operational performance, alongside demand side management and energy efficiency actions to ensure security of supply and affordability are of equal importance as reaching net zero.
2. Create a more efficient planning process to accelerate the rate of projects moving to the construction phase, including grid connection efficiency.
3. Swiftly move to a large-scale programme of delivery on a fleet approach for proven technologies such as offshore wind and nuclear generation to speed up build rate and maintain security of supply.
4. Accelerate the development and testing of new technologies to quickly commercialise viable options that could be implemented at the scale required.
Above all, the creation of a strategic plan based on sound engineering and operational analysis is needed.
Atkins says it has long called for an Energy System Architect to oversee the creation and delivery of this strategy: the proposed Future System Operator (FSO) should have the remit to create this plan, but it must be implemented rapidly and be adequately resourced with the capability for the challenge.