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Cyflawni trosglwyddiad ynni llewyrchus trwy feddwl system

Delivering a prosperous energy transition through system thinking

As we emerge from the global Covid-19 pandemic attention once again turns to the environment and the global climate emergency which has been described as the ‘globally defining challenge of our time’.

The South Wales Zero2050 initiative maps out the decarbonisation of South Wales in a way which securely delivers the UK Government 2050 “net zero” target. The key to a successful decarbonisation journey is transition of the energy system as an integral part of the broader built environment, particularly including industry and mobility and one that takes into account the concurrent changes which will also happen in other regions in the UK and beyond.

This viewpoint is essential to ensuring that as South Wales decarbonises, no part of society is left behind and that all areas prosper and that the enormous opportunities that decarbonisation offers are fully captured. This is strengthened when you understand that energy doesn’t understand societal or infra-structure boundaries and a truly integrated approach is needed to ensure South Wales is a leading light in decarbonisation.

To understand this viewpoint, it’s vital we have a ‘whole systems thinking’ approach, not just a myopic energy perspective.

The next few decades are widely expected to be the most transformative the energy sector has seen and collectively billions are being invested. That investment carries with it a clear vision that ensures  that the transition towards “net zero” is achieved, yet to achieve it you have to equitably balance the needs of society, while also accounting for what is going on beyond your own borders to ensure that the energy you need is plentiful and not choked due to demand.

Take electric vehicles as a theoretical example. You can produce an electric vehicle that has a battery that will last forever and will charge in several minutes. That might be good for the pockets of the people of South Wales and the environment, but it’s not necessarily so good for the electricity network and where that decarbonised electricity is coming from in the first place.

To aid in ensuring demand is met UK wide, it should be considered that electricity shouldn’t be used for certain transport modes and that hydrogen should also be an option. For example, hydrogen is an increasingly credible alternative for heavy goods vehicles and vehicles over a certain size, leaving electricity for smaller vehicles and motorbikes. The different types of energy must be deployed in a complementary manner which capitalises on their respective strengths and recognises their weaknesses, resulting in a stronger overall approach.

This view then needs to be carried over into other aspects of everyday life. For example, office blocks should be powered by a combination of grid-based supply and private supply, generated through solar panels and rooftop wind turbines with buildings independently able to store energy so that it can be used when clean energy is limited or fed back into the network to support other users.

Then you have high-energy usage industries such as the steel industry. The problem of transitioning over to a more carbon-neutral form of energy isn’t a simple one. In a simplistic world you could just shut everything down, but the negative effect on the people and the economy would be huge, so you have to find a pathway that enables the continuation of the old whilst still transitioning to the new. And this problem appears in all aspects of society, and not just in South Wales.

This is where it’s vital to look beyond our borders and share lessons with other regions in the UK and other countries in the world. It’s also vital that an agreed vision be in place, one such vision is the illustration in this article titled ‘Energy Systems: A view from 2035’.

The diagram above highlights the importance of the ‘whole system thinking approach’ and the need for urban, transport and digital systems to be compatible with, and complement, the energy system.  The diagram ultimately shows how the energy systems of 2035 should be more decentralised, disaggregated and multi-vector.

It also highlights that there isn’t just one solution and that there are many solutions out there that will

be essential to achieving decarbonisation, security and affordability. To discover more detail about this vision, we recommend reading the Future of Energy 2035 document.

Steps are underway to ensure a decarbonised future benefits everyone

The emergence of decentralised energy and microgrids is already ensuring that the direction of travel regarding a decarbonised South Wales and wider UK is heading in the right direction. Between 2020 and 2030, small scale generation at the distribution level and behind the meter is expected to provide close to half the country’s generation capacity, working in synchrony with centralised systems, which is good news as the country relies more and more on electricity moving forward. In addition, newer technologies such as hydrogen and solar are already scaling up, displacing natural gas as a source for heating for many people in rural areas.

It’s not just in electricity, heating and cooling that we’re seeing transformation take place. With personal ownership of vehicles set to decline and the emergence of companies such as Tesla, providing a viable alternative to traditional diesel and petrol cars, the mindset is already changing in a way that suits decarbonisation. In addition, public and heavy goods transport is also moving toward hybrid engine and electric vehicles with no tailpipe emissions.

This integrated approach to decarbonisation and a considered view of how we effective match supply and changing demand is vital to the success of initiatives such as South Wales Zero2050. It’s important to remember, though, that the real world does not take account of boundaries between energy and the rest of the built environment, nor should our evaluation or solutions that take us to Zero2050.

Article by: Alan Thomson, Global Leader, Energy Systems, Arup

Alan leads the global Energy Systems business stream at Arup, working closely with colleagues around the world to deliver complex integrated energy solutions spanning supply, network and demand applications. Delivering successful high value outcomes requires integrated commercial, behavioral and technical solutions; with this in mind Alan links together Arup exponents of energy economics, behavioral psychology, engineering and digitalization. He is particularly engaged in emerging energy vectors such as hydrogen, as well as the integration of energy into the broader built environment.  He works on the management of legacy assets, including nuclear, coal, oil & gas decommissioning, recognizing that their careful transition has a significant part to play in the delivery of societally responsible, affordable and environmentally  conscious energy solutions. He also sits on the UK Government Prospering from the Energy Revolution (PFER) Advisory Group and is Industrial Chair of the Energy Research Partnership (ERP). Alan is a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London.

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