Building the infrastructure for a zero carbon future

The UK must plan its infrastructure now if it is to decarbonise its energy, and engineers have the chance to tell ministers what is required, says David Fisk

The government’s new Clean Growth Strategy1 may extend to 2035, but there are unanswered questions about how we will service buildings in a nearly zero carbon future.

The Climate Change Act emissions target implies there is not enough gas left within the carbon budget to heat homes and offices in a country with a population of 65 million, which is expected to reach more than 74 million by 2039.2 So what is supposed to happen? In its Visions and Priorities3 document – published a day after the Clean Growth Strategy – The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) invites your views.

Unlike some sectors of the economy – such as transport – low carbon heat is not short of technical solutions for reducing its carbon emissions. These range from heat pumps and heat from combined heat and power (CHP), to using hydrogen produced when sequestrating carbon dioxide. All these options imply large-scale, complementary infrastructure investment, running into billions of pounds – hence the interest of the NIC.

Its report reaffirmed the Clean Growth Strategy view that the only effective decarbonisation strategy is a ‘least cost’ one. That is not penny-pinching. Only total global emissions count as far as the planet is concerned, and only cost-effective solutions will be taken up by other countries to lower global emissions.

The consequence of driving cost-effective decarbonisation of heat is that, inevitably, we generate a heterogeneous mix of approaches. Real costs vary widely depending on local conditions such as built-form density, climate and access to renewable sources of energy.

Presumably, the whole transformation could be done under a government grand plan – but without the discipline of competition between different solutions at the local level, it risks suppliers simply printing money at the taxpayers’ expense.

This leads to a second issue: how to incentivise and finance solutions that are locally optimum, as we know pushing a one-size-fits-all technological approach would cost a fortune.

 The only effective decarbonisation strategy is a ‘least cost’ one. That is not penny-pinching” 

The government has set up a Green Finance Taskforce4 to look at the issue, and – after the privatisation of the Green Investment Bank – the NIC invites responses on whether other mechanisms might be necessary.

The only common factor across future environmental services technologies is the imperative to reduce the core energy demand. UK experience of incentivising investment in energy efficiency is, at best, mixed; at worst, interventions have been counterproductive. It’s no surprise the government plans to reform the Renewable Heat Incentive, for example.

Reflecting on the past decade’s experience – and the similarly patchy success for schemes abroad – what do services engineers think is the most effective approach? How would that approach tease out the best local, whole-system solution? There is little point incentivising electric heat pumps or hydrogen fuel cells if there is insufficient infrastructure to supply them.

Worrying about 2035 and beyond in the current economic climate may seem something of a luxury. The infrastructure being built now, however, will still be in use in 2050, so it is very important for clients that we do not strand their assets because of a lack of foresight or future-proofing.

For example, the Clean Growth Strategy and the NIC both point to the inconsistency of a decarbonising strategy that continues to expand the natural gas network. How then should we deploy infrastructure to retain sufficient local flexibility in the years ahead?

The NIC consultation ends in January, ready for the first National Infrastructure Assessment in spring. If the construction industry wants the infrastructure to be in place for its optimal 2050 solutions, it needs to input into the process now.


  1. Clean Growth Strategy, Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), October 2017,
  2. Overview of the UK population, Office for National Statistics, July 2017,
  3. Congestion, capacity, carbon: priorities for national infrastructure:  Consultation on a National Infrastructure Assessment, National Infrastructure Commission 2017,
  4. Green Finance Taskforce, BEIS July 2017,