On the fifth anniversary of the UK legislative net zero commitment (27 July), the Mission Zero Coalition published its report At a Crossroads: Pathways to a Net Zero Future.

Outlining how the UK can stay on track to achieve net zero, the report presents a roadmap for the government that will be elected on 4 July. It is the culmination of 11 sessions held by the Mission Zero Coalition’s Power Generation Network, which took evidence from key stakeholders and policy experts.

The Mission Zero Coalition was launched in March 2023 to build momentum from the Mission Zero Report written by ex-conservative MP Chris Skidmore. He stepped down as a politician in protest of the government’s Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill.

Skidmore launched the report at an event in London with Dan McGrail, chief executive officer of Renewable UK. They were joined by a panel consisting of Katherine Bennett CBE, Chris Stark, Michelle Brechtelsbauer and Mark Owen-Lloyd.

Speaking at the launch, McGrail said: “Net zero is the economic opportunity of our generation. We need to move into an era of delivery – it’s all about delivery.”

He added that delivery must be consistent “almost to the point where it becomes a bit boring; it needs to be predictable”.

The Independent Review of Net Zero identified ten priority missions for the period to 2035 and uncovered numerous issues regarding clean power generation in the UK. The government’s response, on 30 March 2023, came with the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero’s (DESNZ) blueprint for the future of energy in the UK, Powering Up Britain.

It stated a goal to develop up to 50GW of offshore wind by 2030 and to increase solar power five-fold by 2035 to 70GW. Action to accelerate the deployment of renewables included opening an allocation round of the Contracts for Difference (CfD) scheme.

A “generational economic opportunity”

According to the Mission Zero Coalition’s report, the UK’s journey to net zero is at a crossroads; the country’s climate leadership is being challenged by other nations and this “generational economic opportunity” could slip away.

It states that, as set out in the Net Zero Review, delayed targets come at a high cost. Suggesting that a fast delivery of net zero will be costly is “entirely a false narrative.” Indeed, delaying the transition by ten years will potentially cost 23% of debt to GDP by 2050.

McGrail commented: “Ofgem estimates a net zero grid would deliver £10 billion of savings for consumers by 2050, so the imperative to build a grid that’s fit for purpose to make the most of renewables is as important for billpayers and our energy security as it is for the planet. As the report states, the longer we wait to decarbonise, the more billpayers lose out”.

The UK is five years away from its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) promise of a 68% emissions reduction. Labour’s commitment to a net zero grid is also only five years off, with the current commitment to decarbonise the power supply by 2035 just a decade away.

The waiting list to receive a grid connection is the longest it has ever been, with anticipated connection delays until the early 2030s. The number of planning approvals for renewable energy projects is also too few, with too many applications being blocked. Despite 350 local authorities having passed motions declaring a climate emergency, over 70 have actively blocked renewable energy projects totalling 4.4GW, including battery storage projects that could have stored up to 680MW of renewable energy.

To that end, At a Crossroads: Pathways to a Net Zero Future lays out what should be delivered in the next hundred days of a new government, that government’s first year and over the course of a Parliament. It presents the following pathways to a net zero grid:

  • Balanced supply and demand
  • An attractive investment environment
  • An efficient and democratic planning system
  • A sufficient flow of skilled workers
  • A data-driven and digitalised energy system.

Five pathways for achieving a net zero grid

Grid capability has been consistently cited by trade bodies and energy companies as a major barrier ahead of the general election. Small-scale generation like domestic solar PV is enabling consumers to become prosumers.

Across generation technologies, there are barriers to the UK’s energy system being primarily powered by renewable energy sources and accelerating the scale needed to meet the expected increased demand for electricity.

The report highlights the lengthy process of bringing a project online, even before generation. The key stages are identified as early development and planning, applying for and receiving planning or consent and connection to the grid, construction and operations, and decommissioning. Throughout those stages, financing and seeking investment are key.

Balanced supply and demand

System flexibility is needed to establish a balanced supply and demand. Interestingly, the report envisages that nuclear could take the role that oil and gas currently fulfil by providing frequency regulation. Co-location and off-grid energy generation will optimise network usage.

The report states: “Generation that does not put added pressure on the transmission networks and grid capacity is also a key area for creating a balanced and flexible system.”

It calls for an accelerated rollout of storage systems, citing government-commissioned modelling published in 2024, which identified that deployment of up to 20GW of long-duration storage by 2050 could bring £24 billion of savings.

Storage must be affordable not just for large-scale users but for SMEs and on a domestic scale in order to reach a critical mass.

Market design

According to the report, the current market design encourages interconnectors and storage to flow in directions that exacerbate network constraints. The electricity market arrangements do not maximise the potential for flexibility, with current market signals not fully reflecting system needs, underlined by an increasingly fragmented policy framework.

At the moment, the distribution network costs around £90 annually for the average domestic customer and is largely a passive network, but there is potential to explore unlocking more dynamic markets in this space.

From investors’ perspectives, the UK has a relatively strong record in attracting private investment. Since 2010, almost £200 billion in public and private investment has been channelled into low-carbon sectors through a supportive policy environment.

The government’s Net Zero Strategy states that £280-400 billion in extra investment is needed to decarbonise the power sector by 2035. However, the current policy directive lacks a clear priority.

Planning process efficiency

Mark Owen-Lloyd, director of Photovolt Development Partners and part of the project team working on the development of an 840MW solar power station in Oxfordshire, said at the launch that the UK was historically an attractive space for expansion and investment. However, the Designated Consent Order (DCO) process has become dangerously slow, rising from around two years from start to finish to up to eight.

He said not to underestimate the effect that timescale has on the people taking the risk – they will go elsewhere. Consistency and firmness of policy is really, really important.”

An efficient and democratic planning consent process that promotes community engagement and benefit is imperative to achieving this. The deployment and delivery of a net zero grid, whether for 2030 or 2035, faces the same challenge of how to achieve public and community support for the disruption and changes needed to transform the grid.

The report states that, while it makes recommendations on how legislative planning frameworks can be amended, additional focus is needed to build popular support for the energy transition.

“Community engagement and community benefit go hand-in-hand, and conversations with local communities must be bilateral, sustainable and responsive,” it says.

A skilled workforce

Estimates from National Grid suggest over 400,000 jobs will need to be recruited to a net zero energy workforce to reach net zero by 2050. Emphasis is placed upon the need to look at skills requirements across the supply chain, as opposed to just the ‘front line’.

The report identifies the following challenges to meeting skills demand: competition over collaboration, a fragmented skills landscape, a lack of cross-sector cohesiveness, training providers’ inability to invest in emerging skills, traditional training pathways not responding to needs quickly enough, and a lack of clear progression pathways.

In its first year, the government should produce clearly mapped career pathways for solar, wind and nuclear, which already exist for oil and gas.

A data-driven and digitalised energy system

The report identifies the benefits of a data-driven and digitalised energy system: Digital technologies can help integrate increasing shares of variable renewable technologies and improve grid reliability.

Digitalisation is especially important when the aim is to rapidly increase the percentage of wind and solar generation, where peak production may not match demand.

Currently, however, data is siloed, hindering its potential. Concerns around cybersecurity and striking the right balance between openness and security are core problems to be addressed.

For the Mission Zero Coalition, the ultimate benefit of accelerating net zero is its economic potential. As Skidmore recently said at the UK Solar Summit, “Regardless of who is in government, it will be under their stewardship that we would need to see carbon dioxide emissions fall; CO2 knows no political colours”.

The report concludes: “The galvanising force must be a need for speed. Without a focus on sustained and consistent delivery of energy projects that will lead to a net zero grid, the UK risks not keeping pace with the demand for electricity and restraining the ability of the whole economy to reach net zero, not just power.”

This article was originally published on our sister site Current±.