Following the publication of the much-anticipated British Energy Security Strategy, Chris Stratton, ICON’s Policy & External Affairs Manager examines different aspects of the government plan to make the UK less reliant on energy imports.
What can we make of the government’s new energy strategy? Coming up with a coherent energy strategy in the face of record global oil and gas prices, the climate crisis and a war in Ukraine, is an unenviable task. And they were never going to please everyone.
The size of the government’s investment in nuclear in the energy strategy is staggering: over £2 billion in new nuclear this Parliament alone. This will increase nuclear generation to up to 24GW by 2050 – three times more than now and representing up to 25% of UK projected electricity demand. In an era of climate change, investing in a low carbon technology such as nuclear has considerable advantages.
The Achilles heel of nuclear is, of course, the radioactive waste, but the quantity of very high-level radioactive waste is small. From the UK’s entire nuclear programme over the last 60 years, the volume of high-level waste is about the size of a house.
The potential damage that would result from leakage of radioactivity from this waste needs to be balanced against the disasters that could face us if we fail to address Climate Change. Nevertheless, the UK does have the largest amount of radioactive waste of any country in Europe, and something must be done with it.
Currently, no long-term storage solution for higher-level nuclear waste exists in the UK, and the government’s new energy strategy does not make specific mention of the various options. An underground Geological Disposal Facility is widely considered to be the safest and best method for storage of nuclear waste, but a location for this in the UK with a willing community prepared to live alongside it is yet to be found.
Nuclear plants will always be major infrastructure projects, but advances in technology mean not all reactors need to be the size of Hinkley Point C. New Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are quicker to build, are very efficient and require less staff to operate them. Several leading British manufacturers such as Rolls Royce have been spearheading this technology, and in this strategy the government is now committing the necessary capital investment (£210 million) to make these new Small Modular Reactors a reality.
Oil and gas
Given the government has set itself a target of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, it might seem confusing that the government’s energy strategy should include another North Sea oil and gas licensing round this autumn. Under the Paris Agreement and Glasgow Pact, global warming must be limited to well below 2oC, relative to pre-industrial times. A study by Dan Welsby and others at University College London has found that by 2050, nearly 60% of oil and fossil methane gas, and 90% of coal, must remain unextracted to keep within a 1.5 o C carbon budget.
However, despite its status as a fossil fuel, gas is viewed by the government as a ‘transition’ fuel, helping to plug the gap in the UK’s energy supply and demand until enough power can be generated from renewables and nuclear. As the policymakers expect us to still need gas for years to come, the government considers exploitation of North Sea oil and gas to be a sensible energy security strategy to reduce the UK’s exposure to volatile international commodity markets.
However, given that oil and gas are currently sold on the international markets as opposed to being ring-fenced for domestic use, drilling for more oil and gas may serve only to increase the amount of fossil fuels in circulation worldwide (thus increasing global warming) and could do little to safeguard a domestic gas supply.
Furthermore, although it is true that gas emits around half as much carbon dioxide per unit of energy compared to burning coal, the UK has already very successfully transitioned away from burning coal for energy production. And to genuinely be a ‘transition’ fuel, the use of gas should be used for just long enough to facilitate a switch to low carbon energy sources.
As environmentalists, we are concerned the danger is that by licensing more wells, the government may perpetuate the use of fossil fuels rather than transition away from them.
In the energy strategy the government is insistent that there is no contradiction between its net zero strategy and its support for a strong and evolving North Sea industry; in fact, it reiterates its commitment to the climate compatibility checkpoint, which was specifically created to evaluate new North Sea oil and gas projects vis-a-vis the UK’s climate change commitments.
The government’s response to the checkpoint consultation is due to be published soon, and no doubt the government will point to its very considerable £1 billion investment in four Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage (CCUS) clusters by 2030 as evidence of climate compatibility. CCUS is as yet unproven at scale, but this is likely only a question of time and most commentators believe CCUS technology has an essential part to play in the global transition to a net zero future.
In terms of shale gas (fracking), the current pause on shale gas extraction remains in place, but the government is keeping the fracking door ajar in the strategy by commissioning an impartial report on the geological science of shale gas by the British Geological Survey.
The government has repeated its intention for the UK to be the ‘Saudi Arabia of wind’, and under the strategy aims to deliver up to 50GW by 2030, including up to 5GW of innovative floating wind.
If all goes to plan, by 2030 the UK will have more than enough wind capacity to power every home in Britain.
Reducing planning consent time from up to four years down to just one year as expressed in the strategy could do much to make this a reality.
The UK is a leader in the use of floating offshore wind technology, which allows wind energy to be harnessed in locations where the water is too deep for turbines to be fixed to the seabed. It is often in these locations where the wind is strongest, meaning this is a significant and impactful technological advancement.
The government does not express the same level of enthusiasm for onshore wind as for offshore, citing the ‘range of views’ amongst the general public on the subject. It does, however, intend to develop local partnerships for a limited number of supportive communities who wish to host new onshore wind infrastructure in return for benefits including lower energy bills.
The government points out the cost of solar has fallen by 85% over the past decade, making it one of the most cost-effective energy technologies. The government’s promise to simplify planning processes for rooftop solar should enable more businesses, as well as domestic consumers, to bring down their energy bills by making use of this powerful energy source.
Better use could be made of public sector rooftops, and this will be a focus for the government but the how and the when are not addressed in this strategy.
Planning rules may also be amended to support ground-mounted solar, especially solar that is co-located with other functions (e.g., agriculture, onshore wind generation, or storage) to maximise the efficiency of land use.
As an island nation surrounded by water, the government says it will also aggressively explore renewable opportunities afforded by UK geography and geology, including tidal and geothermal. Tidal energy has thus far been under-exploited in the UK; one of the few projects under construction is the Morlais tidal project on Anglesey, which was recently awarded £31m EU funding.
Although renewables, especially offshore wind, are championed in the energy strategy, it seems the government is not confident renewables alone can provide long-term energy security for the UK.
New nuclear and CCUS are being heavily invested in, and it is being left up to individuals to take energy efficiency measures in their own homes. Some will argue the government is taking a risk with its net zero strategy by opening up a new North Sea oil and gas licensing round, but the pace of an energy transition on this scale is always going to be a difficult one to get right. The government no doubt believes it has found a path to a ‘just’ transition.