Researchers at Imperial College London have warned that models predicting the whole power system could run on near-100% renewable power by 2050 may be flawed as they do not sufficiently account for reliability of the supply.

Writing in the science journal Joule, they said some models do not consider power transmission, energy storage, or system operability requirements.

The academics tested a model for 100% power generation using only wind, water and solar (WWS) power by 2050 and found that the lack of firm and dispatchable “backup” energy systems – such as nuclear or power plants equipped with carbon capture systems – means the power supply would fail often enough that the system would be deemed “inoperable”.

They calculated that even by adding a small amount of backup nuclear and biomass energy, creating a 77% WWS system, then around 9% of the UK’s annual demand could remain unmet, leading to “considerable power outages and economic damage”.

Maximise decarbonisation

Clara Heuberger, a Research Assistant at the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial, said: “Mathematical models that neglect operability issues can mislead decision makers and the public, potentially delaying the actual transition to a low carbon economy.

“Research that proposes ‘optimal’ pathways for renewables must be upfront about their limitations if policymakers are to make truly informed decisions.”

Niall Mac Dowell, [correct – two words] a Senior Lecturer at the centre, added: “The focus should be on maximising the rate of decarbonisation, rather than the deployment of a particular technology, or focusing exclusively on renewable power.

“Nuclear, sustainable bioenergy, low-carbon hydrogen, and carbon capture and storage are vital elements of a portfolio of technologies that can deliver this low-carbon future in an economically viable and reliable manner.”

> Download the paper