Making net-zero easier by embracing solutions for heat, transport and electricity

transport and electricity
© Francesco Scatena

Andrew Smallbone, Associate Professor in the Department of Engineering, University of Durham and Durham Energy Institute Fellow, explores how net-zero can be made easier by embracing solutions for heat, transport and electricity together

Currently, electrical power, gas, petrol and diesel are delivered to consumers in their homes or at the forecourt through a well-established and extensive national distribution infrastructure. Over the past 100 years, we have invested significantly into this infrastructure and it is well understood and trusted by the UK population. To achieve net-zero targets we rapidly need to find new solutions, which can move energy at the 1000s of TWh/year scale and still be compatible with expectations of tens of millions of 21st-century consumers, who simply want to use low-cost and zero carbon dioxide energy on their terms.

This challenge is without precedent as it must take place at such a significant scale and will directly impact upon every industry, resident, vehicle and property. Furthermore, it must be delivered within decades, which in infrastructure deployment terms is at rapid speed. For context, our current major infrastructure project HS2 Phase 2 has been in planning for a decade or more and is due to complete by 2035-2040.

The future of our energy system is uncertain but the net-zero transition will see our heating, transport and electricity demand more directly coupled than ever before. This brings huge challenges for energy system flexibility and its resilience to extreme use driven by weather events or pandemics.


Our future is increasingly likely to take the form of a significantly scaled-up electricity network underpinned by a hydrogen gas based distribution and energy storage network. This combination is fundamental to being able to deliver the necessary flexibility and resilience that our energy system needs. The analysis shows that the extreme planning scenarios, i.e. an “electricity only” or a “hydrogen only” solution is more expensive and technically complex – we must without reservation embrace both.

As energy consumers, we may all be expected to switch to vehicles with zero tailpipe emissions but must still work within a common energy system. This means moving toward vehicles with more electrified powertrains either powered by hydrogen or by direct electric charging of an on-board battery. To retain a cost-effective and resilient energy system the nation’s vehicle fleet will need to use both options. If a current vehicle fleet runs on diesel, there is growing evidence that it makes more sense for it to run on hydrogen rather than by an electric grid-charged battery. It is entirely possible that we may not always see this value immediately the price per kilometre driven but we will in our winter heating bills. However, the overall cost of living will be cheaper.

We will always need to heat our homes and power our industrial processes. Again, a dual approach will benefit everybody, some of us should benefit from using electrically driven heat pumps and some using hydrogen gas. When that winter blast hits and energy demand spikes, we naturally all turn on our heating, however, the dual approach shares this massive load across the electricity and gas networks. Again, we will all benefit from this through a lower cost of living.

The decarbonisation of two-thirds of our energy use is dependent on addressing the challenges outlined above. Based on the current rate of progress, the scale of the challenge, associated economic factors, open research questions, technical barriers and socio-political constraints, most believe that delivering upon these is the principle and most difficult element of delivering net-zero by 2050.


Durham University, along with our partners in the N8 Research Partnership – a strategic collaboration between the research-intensive universities in the North – recently submitted a representation to the Comprehensive Spending Review with a view to achieving this aim. Known as Net Zero North, one of its key pillars is the building of a Sustainable Hydrogen Economy which will support the economic regeneration of the North by establishing the region as a testbed for sustainable hydrogen use by industry; including green transport, industrial decarbonisation, and heating of residential and commercial buildings. NzN will link existing and proposed Northern hydrogen assets and capabilities with the region’s strengths in nuclear and renewable energy technologies to drive clean growth in multiple sectors of the economy.

Similarly, in Durham University, we have just established two new EPSRC Network+ that aim to bring together policymakers, industrialists, researchers and wider stakeholder groups in how we can advance the multi-disciplinary challenges and opportunities related to the Decarbonisation of Heating and Cooling as well as Hydrogen for Transport. To support this, over the next four years, we will launch major technological road-mapping exercises, support research activities and hold dozens of events to help seed the energy transition.

As I’ve detailed, there’s a wealth of work underway that hopes to be crucial in the decarbonisation of our heat, transport and electric networks.  It’s a deeply challenging undertaking – especially in the wake of a pandemic, but collaboration between academic, industry and government will be crucial in us allowing us to deliver the net-zero goal that will be so crucial to a green and vibrant economy in the years ahead.


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