Ross Clark

Will Britain’s new energy strategy keep the lights on?

Will Britain’s new energy strategy keep the lights on?
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Today’s Energy Security Strategy puts energy security at the heart of the debate over energy and environmental policy, where it always should have been. There is little question that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought about a big change to the tone of energy policy, but will today’s announcements really wean us off Russian oil and gas, and when? Moreover, will they ensure that we can keep the lights on as the government continues to commit itself to a policy of net zero carbon emissions by 2050?

Here is a summary of the main points:

24 GW of installed nuclear power by 2050

The fact that the Prime Minister chose to launch today’s energy security strategy at the embryonic Hinkley C nuclear power station emphasises that this is the single biggest change in the government’s strategy: rather than allow the nuclear industry to wither, it now wants a huge expansion, with ‘up to 24 GW’ of installed power by 2050. At present, Hinkley C is the only new nuclear power station in the pipeline and its projected opening date has already been delayed by nine years, from 2017 to 2026.

By 2035, all existing nuclear stations are due to reach the end of their working life, with the result than Hinkley could be the only source of nuclear power by then. A decision is awaited on Sizewell C, while Hitachi has withdrawn from its project to build a new station at Wylfa on Anglesey. Today, the PM specifically named Wylfa as a potential new project.

Today’s plan sets an ambition for eight new large reactors – but the government is also banking on small nuclear reactors (SMRs), which generate around a tenth as much power as Hinkley C will. Rolls Royce has plans to deliver 16 of these by 2030, while the government is also in talks with US group Last Energy, which says it could get its first SMR in Britain up and running by 2050, before even Hinkley is open. While there is much promise in SMRs, which could run without the complex cooling systems required in large stations, they are, however, still an untested technology.

The current spike in energy prices has contributed to the turnaround in nuclear power. French company EDF only agreed to build Hinkley in return for a guaranteed price of £92.50 per MWh (at 2012 prices, rising with inflation), which at the time was around twice the market rate of wholesale electricity. However, at times in recent weeks, it has hit £200 by MWh.

How much is 24 GW of power? At present, demand for electricity in the UK averages around 40 GW. However, with a switch to electric cars and heating, demand is sure to grow. The government expects nuclear in 2050 to account for around a quarter of electricity. That is no bigger a proportion than the nuclear industry was producing at its peak in 1995.

Verdict: will it keep the lights on? It will be a significant contribution. Will it reduce our dependence on Russia in the short term? No

Up to 50 GW of offshore wind by 2030

The government wants to reduce the lead-in time for planning new offshore wind from four years to one year. It also hopes to open up new possibilities with 5 GW coming from floating wind farms far out to sea. But there is a big omission: the government doesn’t explain how we are going to cope with the intermittency problem which will come from even more wind power. 50 GW is more than current UK average electricity consumption, but that is only when the wind is blowing strongly. On calm days, it could fall to next to nothing. Today’s plans do mention a big increase in the use of hydrogen as a fuel – surplus energy on windy days could be used to produce hydrogen to be burned on windless days. But the technology of producing hydrogen through electrolysis has yet to be scaled up and even then promises to be very expensive.

As for onshore wind, that seems to have been downgraded from earlier reports. All the government will say today is: We will be consulting on developing partnerships with a limited number of supportive communities who wish to host new onshore wind infrastructure in return for guaranteed lower energy bills.

Verdict: will it keep the lights on? Not when the wind drops. Will it reduce our dependence on Russia in the short term? No

14 GW of new solar energy

The same intermittency problems which apply to wind also apply to solar – even more so, in fact, as the output from solar farms is guaranteed to fall to zero soon after 4pm on every winter’s day. There is another problem with solar energy: solar farms are swallowing up vast acreages of prime farmland – an area the size of Staffordshire could disappear under solar farms in the coming years. There is little point in improving energy security if at the same time we are reducing food security.

New oil and gas

Today’s document speaks of ‘a licensing round for new North Sea oil and gas projects planned to launch in autumn, with a new taskforce providing bespoke support to new developments – recognising the importance of these fuels to the transition and to our energy security, and that producing gas in the UK has a lower carbon footprint than imported from abroad.’

The press release from BEIS doesn’t even mention fracking, although earlier in the week the government did announced a new review into ‘earthquakes’ (ie minor tremors, few of which can be felt by humans at the Earth’s surface), and whether this risk can be tolerated.

Renewed emphasis on the North Sea will be welcome. However, the Energy Security Strategy simultaneously has given a big disincentive for oil and gas companies. Far from relaxing the commitment to reach net zero, today’s document produces a new target: 95 per cent of electricity to come from low-carbon sources by 2030. Previously the target was to make all electricity low-carbon by 2035. Who will want to develop a new gas field if the product will be driven out of use in just eight years’ time?

Currently, gas is vital for balancing wind and solar in our electricity supply. It is hard to see how the government intends to achieve this if gas will be mostly gone by 2030.

Verdict: will it keep the lights on? Maybe for a few years Will it reduce our dependence on Russia in the short term? Not for a few months at least

Written byRoss Clark

Ross Clark is a leader writer and columnist who, besides three decades with The Spectator, writes for the Daily Telegraph and several other newspapers

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