ScienceUK energy security strategy won't achieve what it needs...

UK energy security strategy won’t achieve what it needs to

The UK government has released a plan to end the country’s reliance on gas, but the decisions to ignore quick wins like insulation and favour expensive nuclear power over renewables have been widely questioned


| Analysis

7 April 2022

Nuclear power station construction

Construction at the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, near Bridgwater, UK

Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The UK today unveiled its energy security strategy, claiming it will “boost long-term energy independence, security and prosperity” – but does the plan hold up to scrutiny?

Like many countries in Europe, the UK relies heavily on natural gas for heating homes and generating electricity, so it has been hard hit by the soaring price of gas, which was high even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The recent increase of a government-set price cap on energy has left some people unable to afford to heat their homes.

“We need to protect ourselves from price spikes in the future by accelerating our move towards cleaner, cheaper, home-grown energy,” business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said in a press release. Yet the strategy overlooks the cheapest and quickest ways of reducing energy costs in favour of more expensive options that take longer.

The best way to reduce energy bills in both the short and long term is to use less of it, starting with insulating buildings better. Many of the UK’s homes are poorly insulated, and for years, energy experts including the Climate Change Committee, the UK’s official advisory body on meeting climate targets, have been calling for more to be done.

Despite this, the strategy includes no major new energy efficiency measures and instead summarises policies previously announced. It claims that “by 2025, around 700,000 homes will be upgraded”, but it is far from clear how this will happen. Last month, the Climate Change Committee warned that the government’s current plans for insulating homes wouldn’t deliver on its targets.

The strategy also favours expensive nuclear power over onshore wind and solar power, the cheapest forms of energy in the UK. It sets a target of 25 per cent of the UK’s electricity – around 24 gigawatts – coming from nuclear by 2050, with up to eight new reactors instead of the one currently planned.

But nuclear plants are extremely expensive and can take a long time to build – and when it comes to climate change, we are out of time. The first new nuclear plant in Europe for more than a decade finally began supplying a little power this year, 12 years late. Construction began in 2005 and was meant to be completed in 2009.

In addition to nuclear, the UK also wants to try to get more oil and gas from the North Sea. It claims “there is no contradiction between our commitment to net zero and our commitment to a strong and evolving North Sea industry”, but it should surprise no one that many disagree. The strategy also says new attempts at fracking, long dismissed in the UK, cannot be ruled out.

“Exploiting new fossil fuel sources, whether in the North Sea or from fracking, is environmental madness if we want to meet our commitment to have net-zero emissions by 2050,” said Bridget Woodman at the University of Exeter, UK in a statement to the UK’s Science Media Centre (SMC).

On offshore wind power, the “ambition” is 50 GW by 2030, including 5 GW of floating wind power. This has been broadly welcomed. “That’s very ambitious but possible,” said Michael Grubb at University College London in a statement, also to the SMC.

On onshore wind power, the strategy acknowledges how cheap it is but says that due to “the range of views”, it won’t changing planning regulations in England that make it nearly impossible to get approval. This wording reflects the view held by some in government that people don’t want onshore wind turbines, yet the government’s own surveys show 80 per cent support with just 4 per cent against.

This is the “most stunning and cowardly failure in the strategy”, said Grubb. Onshore wind and solar power capacity can be installed in just months compared with several years for offshore wind power, he said, and could help bring prices down fast.

All in all, the strategy won’t bring energy bills down anytime soon, won’t make the UK more energy independent anytime soon and, despite all the UK’s claims to be a climate leader, takes a step backwards on fossil fuels. “It is more a collection of aspirations rather than a strategy,” tweeted Bob Ward at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change.

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