The Road to Net Zero Green House Gases (GHG)

The Road to Net Zero Green House Gases (GHG)

Published on April 1, 2020

Trevor Turner is a management consultant and chartered engineer (electricity) and was previously a director and senior manager in the UK power and gas sectors. For more information go to He shares his views here on the efforts so far to reduce GHGs.

Today there is no road map or plan to take us from where we currently are to Net Zero GHGs. From what I have observed in studying the topic in the last few years, the work of BEIS, the industry, lobby groups and trade representatives, the academics, lawyers, engineers, consultants and advisers, there is no cohesive idea for what the future will be. We have literally a starburst of individual ideas and projects leading in a multitude of directions.

Let us list a few: wind and solar electricity, the hydrogen economy, carbon capture and storage, electric vehicles, grid scale battery systems, hydrogen and ammonia powered HGVs and long distance transport (land and sea), energy aggregators, smart meters and demand side optimisation, decentralised networks and active distribution management, electric and hybrid heat pumps and hydrogen boilers, insulation and alternative materials for buildings and so on. Then there is the matter of optimal land use including management, agriculture, forestation, land for new infrastructure to enable more solar and wind, hydrogen and carbon capture, more energy efficient housing and airborne CO2 capture, elimination of gases from waste. Somewhere in the mix there is also the abolition of F-gases[1] presumably requiring the infrastructure for replacement chemicals.

The primary challenge has three interrelated elements. To write it simply, these are scale (or volume), the eventual cost of energy (or customer prices) and consent (is the consumer in support of the objective?). Now, one might say that the objective is morally virtuous and thus the scale and the cost will make it worthwhile. I suspect, that at best, most people who are aware of the concept believe that Net Zero will require a few extra windmills for electricity, a different gas in the pipelines and some electric charging points.

In 2018 the UK consumed 2,226 TWh of primary energy, of which 257 TWh was electricity, 110 TWh classed as renewable. In other terms, that is 11% of primary consumption was electricity and ~5% classed as renewable. The big sources of primary energy were natural gas (872 TWh) and petroleum (796 TWh). The Net Zero project appears to require the re-engineering of the entire petroleum, natural gas and electricity systems; an increase in the electricity network capacity of two, three or four times[2]; the creation of a hydrogen production, transport and storage network larger than the current UK power generation capacity; the conversion of millions of end user applications; and a carbon capture, transport and storage system to be maintained for thousands of years.

I often hear the claim that the UK has successfully reduced its carbon emissions since 2005 without damage to the economy. Indeed, primary energy consumption has dropped by 18% (2005 to 2018) and we have had economic growth, albeit sluggish. Having consumer energy prices as high as Japan’s post Fukushima is probably the biggest factor. From my experience as a utility Manager I can assure the reader that if we just want to reduce carbon emissions, a tax doubling consumer energy prices would achieve most of what is necessary without any infrastructure investment. The impact for UK emissions would be positive as commercial and industrial users would increasingly outsource the energy consumption and carbon emissions to a country with much lower energy costs.

The residential consumer is captive, but they are also voters and whether they would support such high prices as a deliberate plan would seem doubtful. In which case this poses the question of why would they support the prices increases if the infrastructure is built? To provide a measure, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) reported an annual cost of 1 to 2% GDP (2018 data) from now until 2050 for carbon abatement. I estimate that to be between £1 – 2 trillion. However, the CCC do not provide the data on which this is based or what the cost estimates include. The fact that they specifically mention “for carbon abatement” suggests to me that this is probably their view of the short run of marginal costs and excludes the fixed costs of the infrastructure.

Some of the changes listed above are legal to undertake. Some have regulation. Some have proven technology. Some have the support of some people and some organisations. Some are heavily promoted for business interests or by parties hostile to the petroleum industry and the use of fossil fuels. As a consultant with extensive experience in large scale energy projects and risk management, I have described the achievement of the Net Zero target on the basis of where we are now as: plausible, possibly feasible, but not remotely realisable.

For a moment, let us explore what has been little discussed and the barriers to delivery that might easily take the full 30 years we have for implementation to overcome. There are many more infrastructure related elements to achieve a scale conversion, which is to go from 231 TWh (10%) of primary energy classed as renewable (and therefore low or zero carbon) delivered to end users, to let us say 80% of current primary consumption.


  • A grid twice, three or four times the existing capacity; a wind-based production system requiring peak installed capacity 3.5 times greater than the energy supplied.

  • New hydrogen or natural gas with carbon capture power plants for operational balancing.

  • A planning and construction backdrop where it typically takes 10 years from application for permits to being operational for a new HV overhead line or underground or seabed cable.

  • Also there are environmental challenges regarding electromagnetic currents.

Natural gas:

  • Replacement by hydrogen is feasible.

  • However, there is no operational experience.

  • Mixed gases in distribution are only now being tested; no existing hydrogen gas network.

  • Unlikely to be suitable in high pressure systems[3] (NTS).

  • No storage network, no legal status, regulation and permitting standards as a product suitable for widespread use, installation or transport.

  • Switching heating to electrical heat pumps, hybrid (hydrogen and electricity) for very cold temperatures.

  • Need for extensive natural gas fired reformers or renewable electricity to produce hydrogen.

  • A public perception that hydrogen is explosive.

Carbon capture:

  • No operational experience of carbon capture, no pipeline legal status or regulations for pipelines.

  • Potential for hazardous conditions when pipeline CO2 mixes with other products (e.g. water).

  • Little work has been or can be done on the construction and operational issues of supply and demand of CO2 from reformers and power plants to sequestration and intermediate storage.

  • Limited real information on sequestration sites.

  • Energy requirements of sequestration sites.

  • Risks of explosion and blockages.

  • Earthquakes and the use of fracking materials.

I believe that the task of getting from 2020 to the objective of Net Zero GHG should have many positive benefits. However, this is currently a scatter gun approach to the biggest infrastructure challenge in the history of a country that once could manage an Empire, but now seems unable to build a railway line from London to Birmingham.

Notes to main text:

[1]  Since you asked that is hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), perfluorocarbons (PFCs), sulfur hexafluoride (SF₆) and nitrogen trifluoride (NF₃).

[2] Depending upon the extent of hydrogen production from non-fossil sources

[3] At high pressures hydrogen is an escape merchant