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Our Future Energy Scenarios then & now: how Britain’s energy outlook has changed

Our annual Future Energy Scenarios (FES) insight is ten years old. Ahead of the publication of FES 2021, our expert Alex Haffner outlines some of the ways Britain’s energy outlook has evolved.

In 2011, when our Future Energy Scenarios were first shared with industry, zero carbon power was meeting only a quarter of Britain’s electricity needs. Over 70% of our electricity was being generated from fossil fuels, with almost a third from coal.

Fast forward a decade and Britain’s electricity is almost 50% carbon-free, with only 35% from fossil fuel sources and hardly any coal-fired generation.

We’ve decarbonised faster than anticipated

This incredible transition – which we charted in our recent COP26: Road to Zero Carbon report – has happened even more quickly than National Grid experts modelled in the ‘Gone Green’ scenario back in 2011.

In addition to meeting the then target of 80% emissions reduction by 20501, this scenario (see below) assumed all renewable and carbon emission targets for 2020 being met, chiefly those from the government’s Renewable Energy Strategy (RES), whose goal was 30% of Britain’s electricity from renewables.

While it included more offshore wind in 2020 than is actually connected today (17 GW compared to 10.5 GW2), Gone Green still envisaged almost half our electricity generation coming from fossil fuels in 2020, including a significant (albeit declining) proportion from coal.

This was due in part to the fact that total annual energy demand in 2020 was forecast to be 392 TWh – whereas it was actually 297 TWh owing largely to energy efficiency improvements.

View our COP26 graphic illustrating Britain’s generation mix through time

Gone Green’s model for Britain’s carbon intensity – the measure of emissions per unit of electricity consumed – suggested 222 gCO2/kWh for 2020, compared with the actual figure of 181 gCO2/kWh; the greenest year on record (see below).

 

There are still challenges ahead on Britain’s journey to net zero, but the rate of decarbonisation of the country’s electricity system has been strong compared with even the Gone Green model in the first FES.

How our view of the future has changed

In 2011, of course, the year 2021 was the future.

But FES has always had a far-reaching gaze, and even a decade ago it was modelling scenarios for 2030-2050 – something our energy insights team at National Grid Electricity System Operator (ESO) is still doing today.

In the fast-changing world of energy, the outlook is always evolving – and our view of major themes like heat and transport have changed over the years

A lot has changed since the original models, including the ESO becoming legally separate from National Grid which produced the first FES (though our analysis continues to consider the whole energy system).

The progress we’ve seen has driven the ambition the ESO has today to be able to operate Britain’s electricity system with zero carbon by 2025, a target that may have seemed unrealistic ten years ago.

In the fast-changing world of energy, the outlook is always evolving – and that’s reflected in how our view of major themes like the future of heat and transport have changed over the last decade.

Hydrogen for heat

Hydrogen has quickly become a feasible energy source to meet heat demand in Britain in the coming decades.

It had a limited role in any of our early scenarios modelled in 2011, but our latest analyses feature it prominently in all scenarios to 2050 – particularly those pathways with high uptake of hydrogen boilers and hybrid heat pumps, but also in relation to operating the electricity system.

Looking to the hydrogen horizon – find out more about hydrogen in our explainer

How we heat our homes will be key to Britain meeting its net zero target, and it’s interesting to see how our models for 2050 have evolved.

FES 2011 still included over 100 TWh of unabated natural gas use in 2050, whereas FES 2021 (which we publish next week) includes almost no unabated gas use by then in the net zero scenarios and a far bigger role for hydrogen and electric heat pumps.

The impact of electric vehicles

Our earliest FES scenarios modelled 13.5 million electric vehicles (EVs) on Britain’s roads by 2030, an estimate that hasn’t dramatically changed against our 2020 outlook, which suggests around 11 million by 2030 in our most stretching net zero scenarios.

What has changed is our view on just what a significant opportunity EVs will present in the coming years in helping us balance the grid and decarbonise Britain’s electricity.

Can electric vehicles help to decarbonise Britain's electricity system?

While FES 2011 recognised the effect new smart technologies and time of use tariffs would bring in moving demand away from peak periods, only in subsequent years have we fully understood and been able to model the positive role smart charging and vehicle-to-grid (V2G) tech will play.

Our latest future energy insight

This blog captures only a snapshot of how our energy outlook has changed over the last 10 years.

Our view on potential energy pathways for Britain is constantly evolving, and next week we’ll be updating it once again with the publication of our 2021 Future energy Scenarios – so watch this space.

 


1 This target was superseded by the net zero 2050 target in 2019.

2 FES 2011 also included a more ambitious scenario called Accelerated Growth which was largely the same as Gone Green but with faster development of offshore generation (it assumed an additional 16 GW of offshore wind).