In March 2018, as a result of extended cold temperatures, the UK National Grid issued a gas deficit warning and gas wholesale prices reached a 6-year high, highlighting energy security concerns as demand increases (DRAX, 2019). Energy security is the availability, accessibility, affordability, and acceptability of sustainable energy supply. This is a key sustainability issue as demonstrated through the Sustainable Development Goal 7 to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”. Fossil fuels currently make up most of the energy demand globally but due to their eventual expiration and associated greenhouse gas emissions, this does not equal a sustainable secure source that will meet this ambition. In addition, the numerous impacts encountered throughout the energy supply chain contradict the aim of SDG7, such as harmful extraction processes, exploitation of vulnerable areas, and high greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change. Further to this, through the Climate Change Act of 2008, the UK had initially committed to reducing CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050, but has since increased this commitment to net zero emissions by the same date. This further emphasises the need for a secure, sustainable energy supply chain to achieve this goal.
A sustainable energy supply chain must limit environmental degradation, be socially responsible throughout, and be economically viable. Figure 1 shows the electricity mix required to limit us to the 2 degrees warming target set in the Paris Agreement. An option to deliver energy security identified in this mix is the use of solar PV technologies amongst other renewables. Research by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has predicted that renewable energy technologies will become cheaper per kW produced than all other fossil fuels between 2020 and 2025 (BEIS, 2016). However, it should be considered that the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), 2016, estimates that there will be 78 million tons of solar PV panel waste by 2050. The extraction process of rare earth metals required for these panels can have high environmental impacts, including the formation of toxic lakes in the areas it is mined such as China, which produces 85% of the world’s neodymium. Not to mention the emissions associated with the transportation of materials and technology globally.
As mentioned above, due to the need for energy security and our commitment to net zero emissions by 2050, the sustainable sourcing of energy is an important issue to the UK. The UK is making positive progress to decarbonising the National Grid to achieve these ambitions and targets; however, rapid growth in low carbon energy generation is still required.
Some green technologies, as listed in figure 1, that can achieve low carbon energy generation can also have some negative impacts. These need to be addressed to provide truly sustainable energy sourcing. Traceability through the supply chain could ensure that production is both environmentally and socially responsible. Meaning that the expected future expansion of the industry has not come at the expense of biodiversity, ecosystems or communities (Koh and Ghazoul, 2008). Feedback loops are required to ensure that resources are responsibly sourced, and governance in the supply chain can produce better relationships between actors.
Adopting a more circular approach means that a large portion of the technology involved along the renewable energy production supply chain would be recycled; reducing the waste produced, decreasing the need to extract virgin material, and minimising the impacts in the supply chain.
The built environment can play a significant role in the sustainable supply of energy in the UK. Increasing the deployment of appropriate on-site generation technologies, such as solar PV, and greater uptake of micro-generation technologies such as heat pumps, could shorten the supply chain, reduce land-use conflicts and benefit from more public support. Installing systems on homes create prosumers that generate and consume energy while reducing the running costs of their home, protecting them from variable energy prices. Emerging technologies in this market such as grid-connected electric vehicles which feedback into the system when idle can also form part of a distributed energy supply chain that offers flexibility.
Adopting a flexible approach to not just manage the energy demand baseload but the peaks and troughs of energy usage are crucial, to maintain a secure sustainable supply chain. The growing shift to the electrification of historically gas heating systems and the use of heat pump technologies will increase electricity demand, as such supply must instantaneously match demand to maintain robustness. Introducing smarter systems into the supply chain such as long term and flexible energy storage options, integrating demand-side response to match supply, and demand and feedback, allows for more efficient energy supply and demand interaction.
The final stage of the supply chain to achieving energy security is the efficient use of energy consumption leading to the reduction in total energy usage by consumers and businesses. Improving the energy efficiency of the building stock of both commercial and domestic buildings in the UK would significantly reduce the energy demand and therefore require less energy generation. This can be done by improving the thermal specifications of the fabric of the building and introducing building management systems to run the core services more efficiently.
Sustainability certification of the built environment such as BREEAM and HQM benefits investors, owners, landlords, facilities managers and occupiers by reducing operational costs and increases the efficiency of the building. The energy category encourages the specification and design of energy efficient building solutions, systems and equipment that support the sustainable use of energy and sustainable management in the building’s operation. This contributes to national and global targets, while progressing towards secure energy supply that is affordable and builds resilience into the supply chain.
This article was written by Jordan Magee, Technical Consultant at BREEAM
BEIS. 2016. Electricity Generation Costs. [Online]. [24/06/2019].
DRAX. 2019. DRAX Electric Insights. [Online]. [24/06/2019].
IEA. 2016. Energy Technology Perspectives. [Online]. [24/06/2019].
IRENA. 2016. End-of-life management: Solar Photovoltaic Panels. [Online]. [24/06/2019].
Koh, L. Ghazoul, J. 2008. Biofuels, biodiversity, and people: Understanding the conflicts and finding opportunities. Biological Conservation. Volume 141. Pp.2450-2460.