Widespread adoption of electric cars to lead to increased electricity demands, while gas will remain important to the UK until 2050.
The National Grid has been looking at the future of the UK's energy needs. It has concluded that the number of plug-in cars and vans could reach 9 million by 2030, an enormous increase from the 90,000 or so on our roads today.
Last week, car manufacturer Volvo announced that all of its cars would be electric or hybrid by 2019, while France has committed to ban petrol and diesel cars by 2040. These new developments have been hailed by environmentalists as signs of the beginning of the end for the internal combustion engine. Whilst it's definitely true that electric cars will be much cleaner, reducing air pollution in cities in particular, they are not the answer to all our problems by themselves.
In particular, National Grid has raised concerns about the surge in demand for electricity that could be caused if large numbers of these vehicles had their batteries charged at the same time, such as when people returned home from work in the evenings. This could have the effect of reversing the trend of falling energy demands that has been observed in recent years, as a result of more energy-efficient domestic applicances like TVs, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators and the widespread adoption of LED and low-energy lighting in homes.
Their Future Energy Scenarios report has suggested that moving charging of electric cars to a time when demand was lower could reduce the peak in demand to about an additional 3.5GW (GigaWatts), whereas if charged at early evening peak time, this could be as much as 8GW. (1 Gigawatt = 1 billion watts - enough energy to power more than 100 million low-energy bulbs at the same time!).
The big question is where all this extra energy will come from. In three out of four Future Energy Scenarios, solar power will provide the biggest share of our energy needs by 2050. The scenarios also assume that new nuclear power plants like Hinkley Point C in Somerset will have been built and will be fully operational, and that 'interconnectors' which can transfer electricity being generated in the EU to the UK will have increased in capacity from the current 4GW to up to 19GW by 2030.
The report also concludes that gas is going to be a siginifcant part of our energy mix until around 2050, both for energy generation and for heating. Gas produces less greenhouse gases when it's burned than other fossil fuels, and its cost-effectiveness and relative abundance mean that it's likely to be a major energy source for a long time to come.
But it's also clear from the report that climate change could be a factor in actually increasing our energy consumption here in the UK, with more people turning to air conditioning to keep homes, offices, schools etc. at comfortable temperatures during increasingly warmer summer months.
This all helps to illustrate the complexity of our challenge to keep increases in global temperatures to 2C below pre-industrial levels, because of the way in which different factors become interrelated.