The UK’s energy infrastructure is set to come under increasing strain under from the twin pressures of climate change mitigation and impacts. Even while the UK struggles to transition its energy system away from high-carbon fossil fuels to low-carbon energy sources such as renewables and nuclear, an expanding role for electrical energy is widely regarded as the best prospect for reducing carbon-intensive end uses of energy in transport, heating and industrial applications. While electrifying this currently non-electric energy demand depends largely on technology take-up rates and end-user confidence, the quantity of emissions saved by this transition depends entirely on the build rate of low-carbon generation. Given that the British national grid in 2050 would need to more than double in capacity to meet the needs of newly electrified end-uses, the principal challenge is likely to be bringing new low-carbon capacity online with sufficient rapidity.
Increasing the quantity of embedded and micro-generation capacity also presents resilience challenges for the electricity grid – the low voltage distribution network is not designed to cope with bi-directional flow. Thus grid flexibility presents obstacles for a robust network.
In addition to coping with changes in the relative contribution of different energy vectors to the UK’s energy supply, infrastructure must also be resilient to the impacts of climate change itself, including increased frequency and severity of heatwaves, storms, flooding, droughts and sea-level rise. These impacts place different characteristic stresses on energy supply, transmission and distribution networks, as well as potentially causing an increase in total demand. Obvious examples of the latter include air conditioning during warmer summers, water desalination during summer droughts, heating and ventilation to dry agricultural crops, water pumps to clear areas flooded by increased winter rainfall. Cooling demand in particular tends to be downplayed or omitted in many future energy scenarios, whereas air conditioning is today a significant component of electricity demand in countries with climates analogous to the UK’s under UKCP09 weather projections for the 2030s onwards.