With less than five weeks to run until voters go to the polls, energy has become a predictable battle ground.

Labour’s electricity decarbonisation target of 2030, five years sooner than current plans, has come under fire, with the Conservatives saying it would be impossible to hit. Former head of the CCC Chris Stark is among those supporting the target, saying it would take a ‘Herculean effort’ but could be done.

But amid all the politicking, it’s useful to take a step back and ask what anyone actually means when they talk about clean power.

What counts as a ‘low-carbon’ grid?

The carbon intensity of our power has fallen from around 500 gCO2/kWh to 150 gCO2/kWh in the last decade. The ESO’s live dashboard shows emissions today hovering around 50 gCO2/kWh. On 19 April this year it dropped as low as 19g.

The aim of a clean power sector by 2030 or 2035 should be to reduce the level of carbon emissions from electricity generation down to a ‘very low’ level, such that the power sector can support and accelerate the decarbonisation of other sectors, including transport, heat and industry.

The CCC’s ‘Balanced Net Zero Pathway’ sets targets of 46 gCO2/kWh in 2030 and 10 gCO2/kWh in 2035, so broadly anything below 50 gCO2/kWh by 2030 is in line with our carbon budgets and net zero targets.

None of the models of a clean power system envisage decommissioning all gas power stations by 2030 or 2035. The aim is to reduce the use of gas power to a point where it is rarely used and provides an energy security service, e.g. through a Strategic Reserve.

What are the key areas of reform required to achieve this?

The pipeline of clean energy projects shows that developers and investors are ready to put billions of investment into critical aspects of the decarbonised system, including high levels of flexibility, low-carbon dispatchable generation, storage and interconnectors to neighbouring markets.

The central role of government is to remove barriers and ensure the right signals to the market as to the investment required. Governance of our electricity network infrastructure, planning system and electricity markets have all evolved over time and reform can be complex and slow. Whilst progress is being made in all the key areas of the system, few would disagree that it needs to be faster and more joined up.

  • Electricity grids. Long-term, anticipatory investment is needed to prepare the network for new renewable and low-carbon generation and demand, ensuring network upgrades are deliverable ahead of need. For more on this, read our latest grid paper on the distribution network.
  • Reform of the planning system is needed to prioritise net zero and renewable energy and to address persistent resourcing challenges. For more on this, read our latest paper on the issues facing the planning system.
  • Energy markets. Incentivising flexibility and unlocking investments are key elements of an attractive market that need to be prioritised in the government’s REMA programme. See our response to the second REMA consultation for a detailed analysis of what’s needed.
  • System operability. With increased renewables and greater levels of domestic demand, balancing the whole energy system on a minute-by-minute basis to ensure reliability and customer service becomes trickier. We explore how a net-zero system could operate in A Day in the Life of 2035.
  • Consumer engagement and a just transition. Enabling full participation in demand flexibility is becoming increasingly important to ensure that we create a flexible and reliable system and that everyone is able to benefit from net zero.

But is it achievable?

There is clearly the appetite to invest in clean energy projects. The real challenge is in the speed at which our network infrastructure, planning system, electricity markets and system operation can adapt to unlock this investment and enable a radically different power system.

In our view change of this speed and scale in such a critical part of the economy as our power system requires strong leadership, a clear plan and a new delivery model.

Yesterday, Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s former chief scientific adviser, argued that the race to net zero power must be treated with the same urgency as the search for a Covid vaccine. We agree. As Sir Patrick says time to “roll up our sleeves and give it everything we’ve got”.


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