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Is the UK's energy infrastructure resilient to the power of nature?

Jon Swan | 05 Dec 2014 | Comments

The Guardian recently published the write up from a round table debate: Nature’s power: a problem and a solution. The discussion concentrated on what, in my opinion, is an increasingly important topic – the resilience of our energy system to a changing climate now and in the future.

We know that between now and 2050 the way we generate and distribute energy is going to change dramatically in the UK and globally. Many of the major energy generation and transmission companies produce forecasts of our energy future, and it would be fair to say that there is some difference of opinion. However, what they all agree is that in a world where decarbonising our economies is no longer an option, change is inevitable and this change is estimated to cost in the region of $26 trillion globally over the next 25 years.

But the big question for me is what we need to do now for our energy infrastructure to be resilient to whatever nature throws at us. Many believe that what we regarded last year as a one in 100 year environmental event could soon be a one in 30 year event. This will inevitably lead to shifts in what our assets need to withstand with short term increases in flood levels, longer term water shortage due to drought or nature regularly subjecting our infrastructure to 200mph winds. Our understanding of the impact space weather has on generation and distribution systems, heavily reliant on data and telemetry, is also improving, thanks to work Atkins has been undertaking with Shell and the Department for Transport. But in reality we just don’t know how severe some of these global environmental challenges could be. Clearly though, it is important that we start to make decisions about the future and develop a better understanding of the potential environmental challenges and opportunities, including what our future energy mix will be and where it will be built.

A general consensus from the debate was the need to diversify our energy supply, by increasing the number of smaller scale sources of energy as well as rethinking how the network is structured to enable more flexible and effective distribution. A decentralised energy option could provide an opportunity to manage future environmental risks in a more dynamic way. However, the need to understand this change in energy systems and the knock-on effect on our wider economy, where a reliable energy supply is taken for granted, is fundamentally important.

Water also found its way into the heart of this debate, being used in the majority of thermal generation systems as well as being a source of energy in its own right. With a growing population and changing weather patterns the competition for water for food production, health and sanitation and energy generation will only increase making the choice and location of energy assets ever more important.

Leadership was also scrutinised during the debate and many experts from the discussion believe the UK’s or indeed global cities were best placed to take a lead if they “allow localised control and decision-making, energy supply becomes increasingly resilient.” Cities are competing for inward investment and need to embed energy resilience over longer timescales than the typical UK political cycle. The London Infrastructure Plan, which presents a 2050 vision, is one example, but Atkins has worked on this challenge in other parts of the world including Lagos, Nigeria where we worked with DFID and Lagos State Electricity Board to produce a report Future Proofing Lagos – the Energy Sector (PDF) identifying opportunities for policy intervention to help deal with their particular challenges of a rapidly growing population and change in energy intensity alongside competition for resources and a changing climate. This is a good start, but fundamentally needs a wider global discussion and policy frameworks to make it happen.