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The security of the UK’s energy supplies has made the headlines once again in recent months. This demonstrates the fundamental importance of reliable energy sources and infrastructures for modern economies.

One of the reactions to these events has been calls to redouble our efforts to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels – and to accelerate the shift to a more sustainable economy with net zero emissions. As the Government’s Integrated Review put it: “ensuring the supply of secure, affordable and clean energy is essential to the UK’s national interests”.

The UK has already made significant progress with this transition. Since 1990, territorial emissions of greenhouse gases have been reduced by over 45%, but there is much more to do. The Government’s Net Zero Strategy sets out some detailed plans for reducing emissions further. In addition, the Government needs to ensure that the costs and benefits are distributed fairly – and that the security and resilience of our energy system is maintained or strengthened.

Fossil fuels are likely to be used in the UK for many years, even if climate action is swift and successful. Natural gas will continue to heat homes and help to balance the electricity grid and supply industry during the transition. Future price spikes will therefore continue to impact energy bills for some time.

Climate change is already changing weather patterns. Weather events such as Storm Arwen are likely to become more frequent and intense. This is not only a problem for those communities directly affected. As the Ministry of Defence puts it in their latest assessment of Global Strategic Trends, climate change means that “transport and trade routes, including key chokepoints, are likely to be disrupted affecting global markets and supply chains”.

The energy transition will also present new challenges to security and resilience. In the electricity sector, which has decarbonised the most so far, the growth of wind and solar power has been a clear success story. As the share of weather-dependent renewables continues to grow, however, the grid will need to be managed differently to balance supply and demand. This means complementing traditional strategies based on flexible power plants, which will need to be low or zero carbon, with more investment in cables to other countries, electricity storage, and incentives for flexible demand.

One of the consequences of the shift to low carbon electricity is rapidly increasing demand for important minerals. The production of many of these minerals is highly concentrated. For example, cobalt is used in batteries for electric vehicles. Mining is concentrated in the Democratic Republic of Congo – with severe environmental and social consequences. Production of so-called ‘rare earth elements’ that are used in many low carbon technologies is concentrated in China. Reserves of these materials are more widely distributed elsewhere, but it will take time to diversify production.

The energy sector is likely to integrate more digital technologies in future. If implemented carefully, this could provide a boost to decarbonisation – such as by helping to balance electricity grids. One of the downsides will be increasing vulnerability to cyber attacks. There have already been high profile examples of such attacks – for example on the Ukrainian power grid in 2015, and on the world’s biggest oil company, Saudi Aramco, in 2012.

It is tempting to think that the best solution is to hunker down, and rely on so-called ‘home grown’ sources of energy and other resources. That ignores the benefits of sharing security with other countries because they do not have all the resources they need. This is a strategy the UK has pursued since at least the early 1970s. This includes shared approaches to oil security established under the International Energy Agency and, more recently, supporting more electricity cables to neighbouring countries. It also neglects the unpredictability of specific risks to security, and the history of security risks that come from within the UK’s borders.

Given the interconnected nature of global energy systems and supply chains, a strategy that emphasises resilience of our energy infrastructures is required. It means redoubling efforts to ensure our use of energy is as efficient as possible. Upgrading the UK housing stock will require investment, but it could lead to dramatic reductions in heating bills. This will also make it much easier to shift homes to the necessary low carbon alternatives to gas and oil heating.

It means following Winston Churchill’s advice. When reflecting on the risks of shifting the Royal Navy from coal to oil, he said: “on no one quality, on no one process, on no one country, on no one route, and on no one field must we be dependent. Safety and certainty in oil lie in variety and variety alone”. This applies just as much to rare earth elements as it does to oil.

Production of so-called ‘rare earth elements’ that are used in many low carbon technologies is concentrated in China

Finally, the role of storage in our energy system also needs to be kept under review. Recent headlines have highlighted the lack of gas storage, and have questioned whether this has exacerbated the price spikes we have seen. In the net zero economy, storage is likely to take new forms. Whilst the proliferation of batteries in electric vehicles could increase resilience, larger scale storage may be required to help meet winter peaks in heating demand.

Professor Jim Watson is Professor of Energy Policy and Director of the Institute for Sustainable Resources at UCL. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Favourable climate? Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Sing Kham]