Why we need whole system thinking

By 25 September 2020 Comment

In his latest column for Nuclear AMRC News, our CEO Andrew Storer explains why we need to think about the whole energy system to tackle the climate crisis, and how innovative approaches to nuclear power can put us on course for a sustainable recovery. 

This year has been an education in crisis management. We’ve all had to change the way we live our lives at home and at work. The response to the coronavirus has shown us the dedication of frontline workers, and the ingenuity of those who stepped forward to help close the gaps in PPE and medical equipment, bringing the work of medical research and science to the forefront of our minds.

However, Covid-19 isn’t the only crisis we need to deal with. The battle against climate change still needs to be addressed, and the UK committing to net zero emissions by 2050 is not going to deliver a change: that simply sets a goal.

Net zero is a massive challenge, and there’s been a lot of talk but little meaningful action since it was made a legal commitment in 2019. Action is needed to decide which technologies we develop and deploy to create the power we need to survive and thrive. This requires us to consider the entire complex system of energy and the economy, and apply innovation in every area.

In recent months, reports from the Energy Systems Catapult, Atkins, the government’s Committee on Climate Change and others have all plotted potential pathways to net zero. Crucially, all highlight the opportunity to drive a national economic renewal by investing in new low-carbon technologies, produced by UK manufacturers and backed by world-leading R&D.

Industry and the research base are ready to act, but we need government to take the lead in deciding the path the UK takes.

At the start of the year, the Prime Minister’s advisory Council for Science and Technology submitted a detailed report on how government could use “a disciplined and rigorous whole systems approach” to achieve net zero.

A whole systems approach is based on a managed process to understand the complex challenges posed by the net-zero commitment, and to devise and deploy the solutions and innovations that are most likely to succeed.

The Council argues that investment in R&D will be an essential part of this. Investment needs to tackle three tracks – discovery, development and deployment – with the greatest emphasis on removing the barriers to deployment for market-ready technologies, and accelerating those at an advanced stage of development.

In energy, that has to mean investment in new nuclear – the only proven low-carbon generation capable of providing always-on baseload power to balance the variability of wind and other renewables. Nuclear currently makes up 40 per cent of our low-carbon generation, and keeping that share makes engineering and economic sense.

As the Council noted, achieving net zero will require very strong and effective leadership from government, as well as innovative approaches to policy making and delivery in all regions of the UK.

Boris Johnson has signalled his backing for a whole systems approach, and hopefully this will be articulated in the long-overdue Energy White Paper.

Thinking about the whole system also shows how nuclear power can play a much more varied role in the low-carbon economy, with opportunities in industrial cogeneration, municipal district heating and hydrogen production.

We believe the best way of reducing emissions before 2050 is with a mix of gigawatt-scale reactors and small/advanced modular reactors. Our centre is part of the UK SMR consortium, and we are working with other developers to turn their designs into engineered reality.

We’re also working with the developers of a host of advanced reactors, including compact flexible fission reactors and the first commercial fusion reactors. Whether these are producing power before 2050 will again depend on UK strategy and the maturity of technology.

We’re working closely with UKAEA on materials and manufacturing for fusion power, and looking forward to the opening of their Yorkshire facility this winter. The success of the Advanced Manufacturing Park has shown the impact of clustering innovative R&D capabilities with industrial knowhow – a model for local regeneration and economic recovery which we’re now replicating with our new centre in Derby.

We recognise that Nuclear AMRC is a very small part of the machinery needed to tackle the fight against climate change but, if all the small parts are brought together around an agreed plan of attack, I remain confident that the UK can deliver its net zero commitment and be a leader for the rest of the world.

I hope we can establish a plan soon and put all our efforts to this, which will also go a long way to address the Covid-19 recovery and stimulate economic growth.


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