The Nation: UK National Infrastructure Commission

Press Release – The Nation

On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd interviews The UK’s National Infrastructure Commission’s Katie Black


Simon Shepherd: Shane Jones is setting up an independent infrastructure agency here – but Britain is already several steps ahead.The Simon Shepherd: Shane Jones is setting up an independent infrastructure agency here – but Britain is already several steps ahead. The UK’s National Infrastructure commission has just released its first report on preparing for a low-emission future. Katie Black is the commission’s head of transport, energy and digital. I began by asking her how important it is to put climate change at the centre of infrastructure planning.
Katie Black: Yeah, I mean, vitally important, right? Because infrastructure reports every activity within the economy, and that’s true for any economy in the world, so without infrastructure that’s performing well, it could ultimately be a limit to your growth.
Simon Shepherd: And what’s been happening in the UK? Because you talk about the UK as running to standstill on infrastructure.
Sure. So I think, as you say, New Zealand and the UK historically, well, we haven’t been too bad on infrastructure delivery. On the decision-making side of things, so making the tiny decisions about what sort of infrastructure we should be investing in and when – we’ve struggled with. So the classic example is airport capacity. 15 years ago we had a paper that identified the need for extra airport capacity in London, but building is still yet to start.
Significant lags there aren’t there?
Significant time lags, and that’s really what the organisation I work for, the National Infrastructure Commission was set up to try and do something about.
But hasn’t everything changed yet again with this focus on the impact of climate change? And how important is it to have climate change in the middle of planning for infrastructure?
Really important. So in the UK we have a legally binding climate change target. And in fact about 70% of our emissions come from energy and transport and waste. So decarbonising or getting rid of the carbon emissions associated with our infrastructure systems is a key part of responding to climate change.
And you work for an independent infrastructure commission. Is it really important to have a single, sort of, expert organisation which is outside of that political cycle?
Yeah. So I don’t think it’s ever going to be possible to completely depoliticise infrastructure. Ultimately, the decisions have to be taken by, sort of, democratically-elected bodies. But what we are there as the commission is to A) think long-term, so step outside of that political cycle and take a bit of space to think about the UK needs over 10 to 30 years, rather than the, sort of, next two to five and also be a neutral, transparent source of expertise, so anyone has access to our work, and anyone can see how we came to our conclusions, which we think is really important for building consensus around the conclusions that we come to. So although, as I say, you’ll never completely depoliticise it, you can make sure that the decisions that are taken are based on the best available evidence.
Okay. So your independent organisation looks into the future. What is the key component in building an infrastructure for a modern city now?
For a city specifically, well, a lot of our work has looked at – and I know this is a huge challenge for Auckland, but – the links between housing and transport is essential. And then I think a theme that runs across all of the sectors that we look at is how can you harness technology, and how can you use it to both make the systems that you have more efficient, but also bring it into the systems of the future?
The power that’s going to be responsible for all of this technology. New Zealand is lucky – it has 80 per cent renewable energy, but we want to go to 100 per cent. What are the risks of going to 100 per cent renewable energy?
Yep. So we’ve been looking at a bit of this in the UK context, and I think that’s quite useful for New Zealand, because we don’t have the hydro resources and geothermal resources that you guys are so lucky to be able to exploit. So really most of our renewable power is coming from the wind and the sun. And I guess the question in New Zealand is how can you replace some of your, sort of, coal and gas power stations and bring in some more of those variable renewables? And the work that we’ve done in the UK context shows that the cost of those renewables has come significantly down and the cost of the technologies that you need to manage them has also come significantly down, so batteries, demand management – all of those kind of things. So a highly renewable system looks more possible and cheaper than it has done ever before, and we think that’s very exciting.
Yeah, but how resilient will those systems be?
Yes, and so that’s the real key challenge. So the work that we’ve done for the UK shows that in a normal year, it looks like a very credible way to run your electricity system. The issue that we’re coming up against – and I know the equivalent for you is a dry year, when your hydro resources aren’t fully available – so the equivalent issue for us would be an extended cold and windless period because a lot of our renewable’s coming from both onshore and offshore wind. So what can we do to make sure that our system stands up and is still functioning in those times? I think that’s still the key uncertainty that has to be resolved.
I mean, are we going to need massive battery storage units in the UK and New Zealand to make sure that we always have power when we need it?
What battery storage can help you do really effectively is manage supply and demand within a day. What it doesn’t necessarily do is help you manage over an extended period of time. And that’s why more work needs to be done to, sort of, flesh out how much it’s going to cost to mitigate that.
You’re talking about cost –will going to totally renewable sources of energy mean that we’re going to see electricity prices go up?
Yeah, so I think that’s becoming less and less of an issue. We’ve seen huge falls in the actual cost of renewables in recent years. And on technologies like battery storage, prices have fallen by 80 per cent since 2010. So if things continue along that trajectory, then I think costs becomes less of an issue than it has been in the past. It really comes down to those issues – what do you do, how do you make sure your system is resilient?
Resilient – we could be facing blackouts if we don’t have resilient systems?
That’s a risk with any system.
Particularly with renewable systems?
Not necessarily. Again, it’s how much they’re going to cost to make sure that you can add in that resilience.
Okay. What would we do, what would you suggest for New Zealand, because in the UK, you can plug into Scandinavia or Europe – you know, get your power from there – but we’re too far from anybody else.
Yeah. So that’s true, and we’re looking in the UK at building increasing levels of interconnectedness to the different countries, so yeah, clearly, you guys face a different set of challenges.
You don’t know what to do with that one.
I don’t know. I know you have a lot of hydro and maybe investigating pumped hydro systems that allow you to do storage on a very large scale could be one option that’s worth further investigation.
What about hydrogen? Now, your commission has talked about hydrogen as a possible fuel, but is it realistic that hydrogen could be used in a widespread way as a fuel?
So, the specific challenge that we have in the UK is that we use natural gas for our heating. So we pipe natural gas into everybody’s homes. And if we’re going to get rid of carbon emissions, that is just not an option for us in the long term. So one way we could combat that is by using hydrogen instead. Now, there’s quite a lot of work to do establish whether that’s a viable option. But in the shorter term, people are looking at using hydrogen in the transport field.
Okay.
Trains, that sort of thing.
The trains and, like, heavy vehicles?
Yes.
But what about in terms of cars? Now, there’s a very ambitious target in the UK – Britain should prepare for every new vehicle sold to be electric by 2030. Now, that’s just 12 years away, and that’s going to need massive change of infrastructure. What sort of charging infrastructure will you need for that?
Yeah. So firstly, we think that the shift to electric vehicles could happen a lot sooner than people think. And we think it could be consumer-led. Because the price of these vehicles, mainly thanks to the battery technology, is going to drop. And by the mid-2020s, we estimate they’ll cost the same a new petrol or diesel car. And once that happens, you’ve got a better car. Their performance is brilliant. They can accelerate quicker, and also the benefits they bring in terms of air quality and carbon reduction are worth it. So we think that not only could this start happening on its own, but also that the government should get fully behind it and make it happen as quickly as it possibly can, because of the benefits you can get from it.
But there’s a big task there in the UK. You’ve got a fleet of 37.9 million vehicles.
Sure.
So a lot to change over.
It is. And so in terms of the infrastructure challenges that you raise, I think we see three. So the first is do we have enough power generation to power these vehicles?
Yep.
The second is your electricity network – are you able to deliver that power to all the vehicles at the same time? And then the third is your charging infrastructure itself, so people need to make sure or be sure that they can go anywhere they want to with their electric vehicle and be able to charge en route or at their destination.
Getting that charging infrastructure is going to be crucial. And you talk about one recommendation that 5 per cent of council parking spaces should be a charging station. Now, in Auckland that would only equate to 350 parks.
Sure.
It’s not enough, is it?
So what we want to see is we think that the rollout of charging infrastructure in the UK represents a huge opportunity for the private sector, so we want to encourage private investment in that. But one of the problems that these companies face is persuading councils to give up parking spaces. So it’s very difficult to balance the needs of existing conventional car drivers and these new electric car drivers. So what we’ve actually recommended is that councils identify spaces that could be where charging points could be installed, and then actually whether they are or not will be a function of demand.
This rush to electric cars that you’re forecasting, what does that mean in terms of cars on the road – more or less?
Electric vehicles are cheaper to run, so you can imagine that it may in the long term push up car cover.
So increased congestion?
I don’t think there’s any evidence to say that, no.
But if a car is cheaper to run, won’t that keep people in the cars and away from public transport?
It’s possible, but then it depends how attractive your public transport is, and it depends what other tools you’re using to manage transport demand.
Okay. All right. If there’s no evidence for that, what about when cars become autonomous – what’s the city going to look like then? What’s the infrastructure going to look like?
Yeah, and I think that’s where the question gets really, really interesting, because although an electric car functions and pretty much looks like a standard car of today, albeit a bit cheaper to run, as we said, autonomous cars, I mean, we’ve called it a revolution in road transport. Not only could it mean the impact being really significant, but there’s also a lot more uncertainty about what that impact might be.
So would we see traffic lights, if these cars can think for themselves? Would we need traffic lights? Would we need traffic police?
Yep, I don’t know. So the things that we do know – firstly, it’s likely that this looks different in different contexts. So the impact of autonomous vehicles on a motorway is very different to potential impacts they have in an urban centre. That needs thinking through. And so secondly, the transition – what do you do when you’ve got a mixed system, you’ve got both types of vehicles on your road? Thirdly, how can we make sure that we’re designing our infrastructure to really make the most of the opportunities that these cars can offer?
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