The UK’s recovery from COVID-19 and its economic impact will be all the better if it is a green one, says Prem Mahi, Mott MacDonald innovation manager for energy.
Across the world, lockdowns to control the spread of COVID-19 have significantly reduced carbon emissions and improved air quality. The challenge is to replicate those benefits – and drive them further – while maintaining economic vibrancy and supporting wider social wellbeing.
Green recovery will involve investment in economy-boosting clean technology, including renewables, offshore electricity transmission systems, energy storage, carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS), production of hydrogen and ‘green’ liquid fuels, and a national electric vehicle charging system – the foundations for a decarbonised future.
In an earlier views piece, my colleague Monica Donaldson-Balan highlighted the importance of the chancellor’s £2bn funding to improve the energy efficiency of buildings. Such a national retrofit and renovation programme to improve the energy efficiency of existing buildings will reduce bills and carbon, save energy and provide employment, helping to offset post COVID-19 job losses elsewhere.
Indeed, investment in clean technologies would unlock opportunities in communities across the UK, maintaining and creating high-value jobs, and help to deliver the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda across the UK.
Offshore wind already provides employment in many coastal areas. Thousands more jobs would be created by government support for continuing investment in sector capability, including areas like floating wind, a technology that enables turbines to be sited in deeper waters and in which the UK is a world leader, as well as ‘green’ hydrogen, generated using electricity from offshore wind farms.
A national hydrogen strategy would signal the government’s support and speed up innovation and investment in demonstration projects. The strategy should cover hydrogen production, transmission and use in industry, for heating buildings and water, and for all forms of transport. It would need to cover commercial models, fuel subsidies, cross-connections with CCUS, and nuclear, wave, tidal, wind, solar and ‘green’ liquid fuels.
Fast-tracking the development of CCUS/hydrogen clusters would accelerate the decarbonisation of energy-intensive industries and support employment in our existing industrial heartlands. Continuing to invest in the development of cleaner and greener liquid fuels, chemically engineered from hydrogen, such as ammonia, e-diesel and e-kerosene for aviation, is also essential.
We need R&D investment to understand the technical and economic viability of direct air carbon capture and storage, and technologies to convert CO2 into solid carbon.
Structural shifts in motion before the pandemic, such as the decline of North Sea oil and gas, will gather speed as the economy decarbonises. Investment will be required in education and training to upskill and reskill displaced workers for the green jobs of the future.
Companies like ours, with breadth and depth of expertise in traditional and emerging technologies, can guide R&D spending for maximum effect. The skill is in understanding how existing assets and operating systems can be adapted to a green energy future, which new technologies to back, and how much support to give. We’re working with asset owners to evolve gas and electricity transmission networks to cope with new supply and demand regimes, new energy sources, and the need for greater storage. We’ve managed government programmes to identify, incubate and scale-up promising energy efficiency technologies for more than a decade. We have a wealth of real-world experience of renewables, including being owner’s engineer on some of the world’s largest offshore wind projects. And we have held integrator, project and programme management roles on all the UK’s CCUS projects to date – the only consultant to have done so.
Following the summer statement, the next opportunity to drive green recovery should be the national infrastructure strategy, which we hope to see in the autumn. It will reveal the government’s vision for Britain, and where the money will be channelled.