Generating the Future A report on UK energy systems fit for 2050

Fundamental restructuring of the UK’s entire energy system is unavoidable if it is to meet future energy demand while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, even assuming that energy demand in all sectors can be substantially reduced, according to a report published today by the Royal Academy of Engineering. If we are to achieve this, the scale of the undertaking will require the biggest peacetime programme of investment and social change the UK has ever seen, says the Academy.

Generating the Future: UK energy systems fit for 2050 considers four possible energy scenarios that could meet the 2050 emissions reduction target, each of which demonstrate that there is no single ‘silver bullet’ solution that will deliver the required 80 per cent emissions cut. Demand reductions through a combination of increased efficiencies and behavioural change will be essential. The scale of the engineering challenge is massive – the country will need to exploit its renewable energy resources to the maximum and supplement this with other low-carbon sources including nuclear power and coal- or gas-fired generation fitted with carbon capture and storage (CCS).

“There is no more time left for further consultations or detailed optimisation and no time to wait for new technical innovations. Infrastructure on this scale doesn’t happen on political timescales,” says Dame Sue Ion, chair of the Academy’s energy scenarios working group. “It takes decades to prove and roll out large-scale major infrastructure so only those low-carbon technologies we already know of can help us to meet the 2050 targets.”

The Academy created four possible scenarios for the UK’s 2050 energy demand, all presented using energy flow diagrams – simplified versions of those used by DECC:

  1. Level demand with fossil fuel prioritised for transport
    “Level demand” is still substantially lower than currently predicted for 2050 and is by no means business as usual. It would require over 80 new nuclear or CCS-equipped coal power plants before 2050, along with vast increases in all types of renewables, to meet a huge increase in electricity demand from about 42 GW to 127 GW, largely to replace fossil fuels used for low-grade heating. “Building new power stations on this scale is probably only achievable by monopolising most of the national wealth and resources,” says the report.
  2. Medium demand reduction with fossil fuel prioritised for low grade heat and electrification of transport .
  3. Medium demand reduction with fossil fuel prioritised for transport and electrification of low-grade heat.

    Scenarios 2 and 3 both assume a demand reduction of around 28 per cent, mostly by reducing heat loss from buildings and hence the demand for space heating. Scenario 2 requires transport to be 80 per cent electrified while scenario 3 does the opposite, channelling all the available fossil fuel into transport and electrifying heating systems using heat pumps and resistive heating. There would still not be enough fossil fuel to meet demand and significant electrification of transport would still be needed. However, both these scenarios are more practical than scenario 1, needing around 40 new nuclear or CCS-equipped power plants to be built (these could be fuelled by coal, biomass or gas).  
  4. High demand reduction with fossil fuel prioritised for transport
    This scenario reduces overall demand by 46 per cent, again by improving buildings to reduce the need for low grade heating, which is almost completely electrified to conserve fossil fuels for transport. This would enable the electricity system to remain about the same size as it is today with about 20 new nuclear or CCS-equipped power stations being required. However, nearly 58 per cent of this scenario’s electricity would be supplied by intermittent sources, well beyond the limits of what has been achieved before.

“The scale of the challenge is obvious when you look at DECC’s UK energy flow chart for 2007,” says Dr Ion. “Most of our energy is still supplied by fossil fuels. If we are to cut emissions by 80 per cent most of the fossil fuels will have to be replaced by nuclear power and renewables such as wind, solar, marine or biomass. We compared the 2007 chart with its equivalent for 1974 and it is almost identical – remarkably little has changed in the proportion of fossil fuels we use during 33 years. We are looking at a completely different paradigm over the next 40 years and beyond.

“Whatever happens in the future, we need to recognise that the changes required to the UK energy system required in order to meet the 2050 emissions reduction targets are so substantial that they will inevitably involve significant rises in energy cost to end users.”

View the report

Notes for editors

  1. The Academy’s report, Generating the Future: UK energy systems fit for 2050 a hard copy is available on request from Dr Alan Walker at the Academy on tel. 020 7766 0678.
  2. Generating the Future: UK energy systems fit for 2050 was prepared by a working group consisting of the following group of Academy Fellows, commenting in a personal capacity and not as representatives of their respective organisations:

    Dr Sue Ion DBE FREng (Chair) Visiting Professor of Materials, Imperial College London
    Professor Roland Clift CBE FREng Emeritus Professor of Environmental Technology, University of Surrey    
    Professor Nick Cumpsty FREng Emeritus Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Imperial College London
    Professor David Fisk CB FREng BP/RAEng Prof Engineering for Sustainable Development, Imperial College London
    Professor Nick Jenkins FREng Institute leader - Institute of Energy, Cardiff University
    Professor Michael Kelly FRS FREng
    Prince Philip Professor of Technology, University of Cambridge
    Professor Roger Kemp FREng Professorial Fellow, Lancaster University
    John Loughhead FREng Executive Director, UK Energy Research Centre
    Professor Roger Kemp FREng Professorial Fellow, Lancaster University
    Dr John Roberts CBE FREng Chairman, Royal Bank of Canada (Europe) Ltd
  3. In June 2000, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution as the first organisation to call for sweeping cuts in carbon emissions – 60 per cent reductions of carbon dioxide by 2050. The Commission’s report described four scenarios that illustrated what such a future energy system might be like. Today’s Academy report uses the same basic approach but updates the scenarios to the new target of 80 per cent emissions reduction. Like the Commission, the Academy has only addressed reductions in carbon dioxide as these account for the vast majority of emissions from the energy sector and are the most amenable to large scale reduction.
  4. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Jane Sutton at The Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel. 020 7766 0636; email: Jane Sutton