During the reign of his great-great-grandfather, George VI, the electricity system we see today was formed by the merger of several regional grids into the national grid. But how might the energy world look when Prince George comes to the throne? Alice Etheridge, National Grid’s Balancing and Markets Manager, speculates on what the future energy landscape may look like at the start of the reign of the future king.
The Royal baby, Prince George, can expect the world to change significantly over his lifetime. And one area where his world will differ greatly to ours is energy – where it comes from and how we use it.
Let’s take the starting point of King George VII’s reign to be 2072.
His father, King William V, has just made history as the first British monarch to retire as head of state.
The new King George has not been idle during his years as Crown Prince: he has clearly taken on the green mantle from his grandfather, King Charles III, and is a strong promoter of low-carbon electricity generation. He has already completed the transformation of the Royal estates to a zero-carbon operation. At the Sandringham estate, for example, they are growing algae for fuel.
During his service in the Royal Navy, the king’s influence extended to powering the ship he commanded with solar power, leading to the whole fleet running on solar. Now, one of his first public engagements as king is opening the UK’s first nuclear fusion plant.
This marks a milestone in the evolution of the electricity system that had begun before his birth. The electricity market reform from that era increased low-carbon generation and the electricity system has been completely decarbonised.
Thanks to education reforms in 2020, which introduced energy efficiency into the curriculum for our youngest children, domestic electricity demand has not shot up, despite the continued increase in consumer electronics and automatic appliances. Early fears about the potential impact of the introduction of the ‘genius home’ – with touch screen walls in every room – and the move to home-working in the 3D virtual office have been largely allayed. This is partly as a result of an ongoing programme to replace the UK housing stock with zero carbon homes and also from the UK’s fourth generation of smart meters. These have introduced fully integrated control systems for all domestic appliances, resulting in intelligently optimised energy use and energy consumption and control becoming part of everyday life.
The King’s adoption of thin-film solar panels at Balmoral has been taken up by much of the population, helping us to manage the additional electricity demand arising from trends such as home working.
Infinity range vehicles
News that the king learned to drive an electric Aston Martin in his younger days had a huge impact on the road transport network. Since the middle of the century, the rapid rollout of infinity range vehicles with their unique ‘charge-as-you-drive’ technology – has resulted in the king’s favourite Infinity Range Rover dominating the Royal fleet. The subsequent drop in demand for electricity for road transport has been partly offset recently by a significant expansion of the rail network.
Gas consumption continues to decline, its use confined to combined heat and power with carbon capture and storage and for industrial processes. However, researchers are confident of finding an alternative source of energy for these industrial processes to reduce exposure to price volatility.
The trends in energy supply that began before King George’s birth have also continued. With the electricity supply completely decarbonised, fossil fuel plants are now fitted with carbon capture and storage.
Nuclear, wind, solar and biomass have all played a role in the energy mix in recent years, but the most unexpected contribution has come from the dramatic rollout of tidal generation.
The first commercial scheme in the Pentland Firth acted as a catalyst to harness the great potential around our island. Now, offshore sources of electricity generation represent a large proportion of our supply. The Crown Estate recently completed round 27 of offshore wind leases – which will be populated with wind turbines twice the span of those seen at the time of the new king’s birth – and also adopted new vertical turbine technology.
Gas supply has had its ups and downs. The depletion of the UK’s offshore gas deposits at the mid-century point was balanced by the discovery of big new fields by Norway in the Barents Sea. Shale gas, both domestically produced and imported from the US, became part of the mix and supplies from elsewhere continue to flow despite periodic concerns over competing with the large centres of demand in Asia.
The changes to the mix of generation types over the years, and the timings and levels of demand, have each brought new challenges to balancing supply and demand. The new in-home technologies and breakthroughs in the cost of energy storage have given King George’s subjects the tools to meet this challenge.
A significant boost came with the increase in interconnectors with the continent, which allowed different supply and demand patterns to complement each other. The full integration of the electricity system with the continent was achieved in the 2040s.
The result is a green mega grid across the electricity system of 30 countries. Some retirees still remember the initial teething problems of the grid in the first half of the century, but with the practical and commercial arrangements long since bedded in, most consumers see only price uniformity across Europe.
His grandfather, King Charles, would have been delighted.
Find out more
The article above may be the result of some speculation, but National Grid’s 2013 UK Future Energy Scenarios (FES) paint a realistic picture of how the UK’s energy landscape might look in 2035 and as far out as 2050. For more on FES, click here.
Richard Smith, National Grid’s Head of Energy Strategy and Policy, explains how these scenarios have been developed.