"Net Zero" – what does it mean?

Calum Crighton Flat

The UK has committed to reach “net zero” by 2050 (with Scotland committing to a 2045 target).  What does “net zero” actually mean?

The Institute for Government describes it as “achieving a balance between the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced and the amount removed from the atmosphere.”  This is different from a “gross zero” target which would mean reducing all emissions to zero.  When the amount of carbon emissions produced are cancelled out by the amount removed, net zero will have been secured.

How will this be done in practice?

The UK Government’s 10 point plan sets out the vision for securing net-zero, via a combination of renewable energy sources, advances in technology and removing carbon from the atmosphere.

Offshore Wind

Advancing offshore wind is point 1 on the plan.  The UK already generates more electricity from offshore wind than any other country – we are “blessed” with high winds and good access to the continental shelf all around our island, so the Government has put large emphasis on this point.  The plan is to quadruple offshore wind capacity by 2030, which translates to 40GW of offshore wind, to include 1GW of “innovative floating offshore wind”.  The 10 point plan suggests this could “encourage £20 billion of private investment into the UK and could double jobs in the sector over the next decade”.

Hydrogen

Driving growth of “low carbon” hydrogen features as point 2 on the plan.  This is more unproven and controversial than offshore wind, but is argued to have massive potential.  This is the game changer in the eyes of many in the industry.  It is important to understand the hydrogen colour spectrum:

  • GREEN HYDROGEN is produced by using clean electricity from surplus renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind power to electrolyse water. Electrolysers split water into hydrogen and oxygen with zero carbon emissions.
  • BLUE HYDROGEN is where the controversy begins. Hydrogen is produced from predominantly natural gas using a process called steam reforming.  Natural gas and heated water are brought together, producing hydrogen but also carbon dioxide as a by-product.  Carbon capture and storage is then required to trap and store the carbon.  Some argue that we should by-pass blue hydrogen to eliminate producing excess carbon.
  • PINK HYDROGEN is produced through electrolysis powered by nuclear energy.
  • Relative newbies on the scene are TURQUOISE and YELLOW HYDROGEN. Turquoise hydrogen is made using a process called methane pyrolysis to produce hydrogen and solid carbon.  Yellow hydrogen is produced using solar power.
  • GREY, BLACK and BROWN HYDROGEN won’t feature in the net zero drive as they involve producing (but not capturing any) carbon.

UK’s aim is to develop 5GW of “low carbon” hydrogen production capacity by 2030.  This could see the creation of 8,000 jobs and be supported by a £240 million Net Zero Hydrogen Fund.

Nuclear Power

A hugely significant point in energy transition is security and stability of supply.  What happens if the wind isn’t blowing?  Or the sun doesn’t shine?  Nuclear energy is seen as a reliable source of low-carbon electricity and the Government has committed significant investment in new nuclear projects to increase capacity.

Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage (CCUS)

Point 8 on the plan is investing in CCUS.  This is not a new concept, but it has gathered momentum recently.  Instead of using reservoirs, wells and the offshore infrastructure to extract oil & gas, some of that can be repurposed to pump carbon in the opposite direction and lock it in, saving the atmosphere from damaging carbon emissions.  A £1 billion CCUS Infrastructure Fund will help to capture up to 10Mt of carbon dioxide per year by 2030 across four “SuperPlaces” and the creation of up to 50,000 jobs.

The rest of the plan?

The other points on the plan are around greener transport and buildings, protecting our environment and green finance and innovation.

Notable absences include tidal and solar power.

Can we reach net zero?

We are in for a fascinating 20-30 years in the energy industry – there is no doubt of that.  The offshore industry has been hugely innovative over the years and I am sure that innovation will see us revolutionise our energy production by 2050.  Achieving net zero will remain an enormous challenge.

If you would like further information on the topic discussed in this blog, please contact Calum Crighton by email: ccrighton@gilsongray.co.uk or by phone: 0131 285 7841 / 07841 920101. You can also view Calum’s profile by clicking here.

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