Understanding the Zero Carbon Energy System

The decades ahead are set to be an incredibly important time as we switch our energy systems away from fossil fuels to a zero carbon energy supply. if we are to stay within an outside chance of not exceeding 2C warming we will see a revolution in our energy systems.

The last 10 years (2009-2019) saw global photovoltaic capacity grow 40x from 16 GW to over 633GW (2019). The UK installed most of its current 13.3GW (2019) capacity of PV in this time. Global wind power capacity grew over 5.4 x from 121GW to 650GW (2019) (UK 24GW). The number of electric vehicles on the road globally has grown ~80x from 100,000 in 2011 to around 7.9 million at the end of 2019.

The following work documents our attempt to understand the requirements and dynamics of zero carbon energy systems and is intended to be a resource that can be used alongside monitoring to understand energy at home and the wider context.

Before we start it's perhaps useful to reflect that any exercise in building energy scenarios for the future is necessarily heavily influenced by values and world-views. It is possible to model a surprisingly wide range of possible futures.

There are of course a lot of different views on what mix of technologies should be used from heat pumps to hydrogen, nuclear, biomass, wind, solar, CCS, degree of building fabric improvement possible and on and on. Then there is as wide a range of views on what are often called behavioural change measures, will we reduce car use and cycle more? will we choose to fly-less or ultimately transition to electric and synthetic fuels?

The interaction between innovation, deployment and learning curves mean that the mix of technologies that are economically viable can change quite quickly. It's difficult to predict the future 50-80 years ahead but it is still useful to model the dynamics of zero carbon energy systems, even if by the time we do reach zero carbon, this mix has changed again. Energy Modelling can identify pit-falls or areas of opportunity, the important thing is to keep updating our scenarios as new information comes in.

The scenario that we are most familiar with to-date is the ZeroCarbonBritain scenario by the Center for Alternative Technology, which shows how it is technically possible to achieve a zero carbon energy system in the UK through both new efficient buildings, existing buildings retrofit, electrification of transport, land use changes and powering up with renewable energy combined with storage and biomass backup technologies to balance supply with demand.

While the ZeroCarbonBritain scenario describes one path, the energy model behind it can be used to explore a much wider range of options. We have worked with the ZeroCarbonBritain team to make an open source online version of their full energy model to help explore both the dynamics of the ZeroCarbonBritain scenario and the different variations possible.

This page on the ZeroCarbonBritain Energy Model provides a brief history of the development of these tools in chronological order.
Or feel free to jump straight in:

Zero Carbon Energy Model step-by-step:

Full ZeroCarbonBritain hourly energy modelling tool (Includes industry and services):

Open source repository for hourly model:

Examples of different scenario variations:

Who is this for

First of all it is for our own curiosity and understanding. The OpenEnergyMonitor project started out of a desire to understand home energy consumption better in the context of the need for the wider transition to zero carbon, sustainable energy. The following pages cover some of our research into this wider zero carbon energy system, from a technology mix overview provided by scenario planning to detailed hourly energy modelling on how a variable renewable supply can be combined with storage and backup sources to meet demand. We are also interested in developing monitoring and elements of smart control for both heating systems and electric vehicle charging and this work can help inform that work providing a more robust theoretical underpinning to its value.

Community Energy
At several occasions we have heard people talk about the idea of creating ZeroCarbonBritain style energy scenarios at a smaller scale, perhaps at the regional, town, village, community level. We hope the open nature of this work and accessibility of the modelling could lend itself well for use by community energy groups interested in exploring how their community energy wind, hydro and solar projects could supply local energy demands.

Interested individuals
This is also for anyone interested in learning more about how a zero carbon energy system could work. This could perhaps contribute in a small way to the debate on which combination of technologies could provide a reliable energy supply and outline perhaps less conclusions and more methodology for analysing different technologies and the likely scale of their contribution especially as key variables change over time such as costs or embodied energy.

Companies, developers
This is also for companies, organisations and technology developers working on building a zero carbon energy system. The modelling can be used as a tool to help investigate and highlight the role of different technologies and help guide the development of particular features.

In this Chapter:

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