Britain’s energy strategy is both loose and inconsistent
The writer is Professor of Energy and Climate Change at University College London and was a former senior adviser to energy regulator Ofgem
The defining feature of Britain’s energy strategy is its inconsistency. He doesn’t know what problem he’s trying to solve — and so he doesn’t solve any. By failing to increase energy efficiency and abandoning the only possible short-term supply option – that of cheap onshore wind – in the long grass, it will certainly not help those who will have problems with their energy bills over the coming winters.
Offshore wind is the big success story of the last decade and capacity has increased significantly in recent years. The strategy increases the offshore target for 2030 from 40 GW to 50 GW. It is very ambitious but possible. But offshore wind involves large and complex kit from just a few suppliers, it typically takes three to five years from bid to completion, and the pace of expansion could strain supply chains. and drive up costs. If everything were concentrated in the North Sea, the network would face immense challenges, both in terms of transmission and managing peaks and troughs. The wind is better when it is more widely distributed.
The most cowardly failure concerns onshore wind power. It is not only our cheapest energy resource – it usually costs around a third to a quarter of what people will soon pay for their electricity – but it is, along with solar, the only one that could make a dent in short term.
Any energy company or local authority can purchase a wind turbine off the shelf. It would take a few weeks or months to install. But getting planning consent would take years – because planning regulations were overhauled in 2015 to stop it. ‘Consulting’ a ‘limited number of support communities’ on the cheapest and fastest option is hardly a Churchillian response to Britain’s national energy crisis.
The strategy outlines a plan for nuclear to 2050, launched with a new plant to be funded before the next general election. If it takes an energy crisis to make a decision, so be it, but that won’t help solve the crisis. Nuclear is not only slow and expensive, it should be flexible to scale up and down with fluctuations in demand, wind and solar. This further undermines the economy. The launch of a 30-year plan for nuclear power also raises the question: why can’t the government even draw up a coherent 30-month plan for energy efficiency?
Elsewhere, the strategy confirms plans to issue licenses this year for gas production from existing discoveries in the North Sea. But there’s a reason UK production has fallen – many UK reserves have been depleted, and it will become harder and more expensive to extract more. In the aftermath of the IPCC reports on climate change, it is also rightly difficult to tell the world that we need to move away from fossil fuels as we in wealthier countries seek to make ends meet. last drop.
The government has reassured us all that it will not consider rationing gas supplies, unlike some other European countries which have contingency plans in place. But consumers, and the Treasury, should be concerned. In the Russia-EU standoff, if either side really cuts the gas, all hell will break loose in international markets and the UK will have to outbid both EU and Asia for supplies. It won’t be pretty.
The ultimate irony of a strategy born out of crisis is that by the time most of its proposals come to fruition, if they do, the crisis will have long passed. Global energy markets will have completed their gyrations and returned to normal, and Vladimir Putin may even be out of power.
But many consumers and businesses will have suffered horribly. We also risk undermining much of the UK’s climate change achievements. By failing to focus on a joint strategy that solves these twin crises together, the government fails to offer the energy sector the consistent signals that investors need and may even worsen short-term bills.