How will energy look in 2030? My 10 predictions for the next 10 years!
Predictions are fun aren’t they? Deep down you know even your boldest shot will be wrong - but that doesn't stop us all from trying (and needing to try!). With energy decisions lasting decades attempting to predict the future is an essential art. Ten years ago Matt Cardle was Christmas number one (anyone remember Mr Cardle?) and David Cameron had just started his 6 years in office.....the UK Government predicted in its base case energy scenario that in 2020 electricity generation would be delivered with 75TWHr from Coal and 52TWHr from renewable sources… the reality today is more like one TWHr from Coal and 127TWHr from Renewables. This epic under-estimate demonstrates just how wildly wrong we can be over a decade! The pace of the demise of coal in the UK has been massively under forecast year on year as has the expectations of growth from renewable sources – in particular offshore wind. Looking back to our predictions a decade ago is important in forming our views on the next ten years as it shows just how quickly things can change when the mix of regulation, technology and market forces are right. If anything I believe this gives fire to making bolder predictions in terms of decarbonisation in the future rather relying in any way on the continuation of the status quo or only deployed technologies today. It does however make it a little difficult to pin down a view of the future! The one consistent in any future view is a drive to continued carbon reduction... and in all outcomes below the drive forward to reduce carbon is assumed rather than debated.
So here we go! I suspect this may open up to a significant amount of debate and challenge….
1. The decarbonisation of heat will gain speed with substantial consumer take up of air and ground source heat pumps.
Heat currently accounts for 50% of energy use and consequently a high share of emissions. Heat pump take-up remains sluggish however the recent ban on gas boilers is only the start in a number of regulatory interventions to drive changes in consumer behaviour around heat. I would predict that by 2030 at least one third of houses in the UK will be heated by heat pumps. This will be driven by regulatory intervention as well as changing consumer perception of methane gas as an environmentally damaging option over electricity.
In city centres something different will be needed as there won’t be enough space for ground loops and air source heat pumps will take up much needed roof space and caused localised cooling (see number 8!)
2. Enhanced insulation and improved efficiency will gain a sense of urgency and pace.
Currently 14 million properties in the UK have an energy efficiency rating of ‘D’ or less. That basically means they use twice as much energy as a ‘A’ rated property. These properties need better insulation (roof, wall and flow), new windows and lower temperature heating systems. To meet climate targets 500 thousand of these need a deep improvement every year between now and 2050. After a slow start getting our heads round this I’d expect at least 5m of the 14 million ‘D’ rated properties to have been fixed by 2030.
There will be however a stubborn core of properties on out dated technology – even with recent leaps forward I was amazed to see that in the EU there of 500 million radiators without a simple temperature control valve! That’s just incredible when you think of the energy saving potential of such a simple change…
3. Hydrogen will develop in pockets as well as for transport (trains and HGVs).
Regional projects like Hydeploy in the North West will see pockets of intense Hydrogen deployment. Whilst in these areas piped Hydrogen to properties will be a reality – the slow role-out will mean that lots of properties electrify with heat pumps before wide spread Hydrogen becomes a reality. Hydrogen will more likely be used for road haulage and trains where its high density energy storage enables it to be the leading low carbon option. Where and how the Hydrogen is made has the potential to become a political issue – with higher electricity costs, using green electricity to make hydrogen will become challenging – pushing producers towards ‘blue’ or ‘brown’ Hydrogen made from cracking methane with steam reformation (a not so carbon friendly process unless sequestration is available).
4. ‘Zombie’ Gas Grids increase – pushing costs on those unable to switch away.
As the electrification (and efficiency improvements) gathers pace the number of people disconnecting from the gas grids will increase. If you take the above numbers for Heat Pumps and efficiency, then by 2020 there are 7m less gas users and those who remain on are using substantially less. The network costs remain to be paid pushing up costs on those who can’t disconnect for economic or technical reasons. By 2030 I’d be expecting us to be making a call as to whether to switch off the gas networks in certain high cost regions.
5. Tidal Barrages – One or two will happen…. but the capital costs and local impacts will make further projects difficult.
The idea of generating electricity from capturing the tide remains tempting. These projects have the potential to deliver 20% of energy demand (government numbers). However the environmental impact of building one remains significant. With a number of projects in the pipeline I believe that one must get traction and take off! The lure of zero carbon energy forever must surely become too much to not do something?!?
6. Batteries – expansion will continue but will be stalled by resource availability.
Batteries are the ultimate cannibalising technology. The more batteries on the system the less profit any of them can make. However batteries also have a limiting factor in terms of the minerals used to make them. Already electric car manufacturers are struggling to source enough lithium and cobalt and these constraints will push up costs.
The current trend is away from decentralised batteries towards larger units at key nodes in the system…I’d expect this to continue as local demands increase to support the network.
7. The system will get smarter (and more local)
Quietly the system is getting smarter. If you’d have said ten years ago we’d be asking ‘Alexa’ to pop the heating on in the office – we’d have said that was something out of star trek! But here we are… connected devices are everywhere and quietly our energy systems are getting smarter. These little bits of inter-connectivity slowly work to improve the system one small step at a time. It may feel slow but as each device inter connects the ability of the system to make smart choices increases. Consumer demand for smarter systems has the potential to enable a smart energy system as a by product to other much more fun functionality (such as asking Alexa jokes over breakfast!)
I’d expect by 2030 domestic energy to be smart in some form in most properties. Heat pumps will come internet connected already and replacement gas boilers will be smart in some form. To meet demand the electricity network will need to get much better at limiting peak demands… and through linked devices much of this is achievable.
That said resilience remains a concern with system failures becoming more common due to increasingly poor weather... Local Energy Systems become more prevalent as a way for communities and organisations to take control of their own energy destiny... moving away from central grids and to locally managed electricity and heat networks. Potentially disconnecting from the centralised systems completely!
8. Heat Networks will become sharing networks – driving collaboration.
Heat networks are predicted to supply 18% of the UKs heat…. My prediction is that they could actually do more. High density areas such as city centres have the potential to share energy much more than they do now… taking ‘low grade’ heat from sewers, trains tunnels, data centres and cooling systems to use in heating. Future fifth generation heat networks will use a mixture of technology and lower temperature systems to enable users to feed in and take out energy from the system. Once these systems are established the benefits to connect will be significant resulting in a rapid take-up of the technology as networks expand.
By 2030 I believe all city centres will have some form of sharing '5th generation' network or be working towards installing one.
9. Transport – 50% electric vehicles by 2030.
I’m going to go big…. I genuinely believe by 2030 50% of vehicles will be electric and non-electric cars will be banned from city centres. Recent campaigns by the likes of The Times have highlighted the impact on health from particulates and NOx in particular. Recently the number of cities tightening controls on vehicles has hugely increased with Bath, Bristol and the City of London taking substantial steps to reduce polluting vehicles in city centres. I think this will continue an the take-up of electric vehicles will be driven not by concerns over carbon emissions but more from local air quality driving polluting vehicles away from our urban areas.
I also believe that with autonomous vehicles, the rise of the likes of uber and an increasingly ‘rental’ based economy, car ownership will drop significantly. Once you can hail a cab reliably for the same cost why do you need to own your own vehicle (and have the hassle of parking it!)… in turn this means that electric vehicles increase in potential as they can take themselves off to charge. I'm going to make a call at a 50% reduction in vehicle ownership.
10. Air travel will be less common (50% Less!)
Air travel remains a significant challenge. I just don’t see a technology yet that can get a lump of an aeroplane into the sky without using a significant amount of hydrocarbons. I can see a world where frequent flyer is no longer a badge of honour and instead frequent flyers are increasingly penalised. I’d expect air travel to at least half by 2030 with increasing regulatory intervention to penalise those who pollute the most.
How about a Black Swan?
Finally all of the above is written from a current view of the world. What's the black swan event that derails this completely? (to some degree was offshore wind in 2010 a black swan that was hiding in plain sight?). Nuclear Fusion , deep geothermal or exponential development of Hydrogen all have the potential to significantly change the playing field…. changing everything I’ve said above.
Only time will tell if in 2030 whether we will have:
- 5 million properties moved from ‘D’ to ‘A’ energy performance through deep retrofit.
- 10 million domestic heat pumps installed (ground and air source)
- All city centres with a low temperature 5th generation heat network.
- Hydrogen in the pipes for one or two regions (2 Million Houses).
- 50% electric vehicles on the roads. With a 50% reduction in car ownership.
- One or two large tidal lagoons.
- A declining number of gas grids or an increasing zombie effect hitting costs for the remaining few connected.
- Half as much flying as we do now!
So what do you think? How will energy look in 2030? My 10 predictions for the next 10 years!
For more discussion and background take a look at the book The Future of Energy at amazon.
About John Armstrong
John Armstrong is an engineer whose career has spanned the extremes of the energy industry. He began his career constructing oil refineries before moving to work across fossil and renewable electricity generation. John has lead the growth of decentralised energy and district heating in the UK and is a seasoned energy infrastructure executive. John is a Fellow of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, a member of the Energy Institute and has an MBA n Global Energy from Warwick Business School.