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  1. Environment
7 April 2022

UK voters are the losers from the government’s energy strategy

People could die next winter if they can’t heat their homes. The Tories’ latest plan fails to address rising bills or the climate crisis.

By Philippa Nuttall

There is so much wrong with the UK’s energy security strategy, published today (7 April), that it is difficult to know where to start. The whole point of the strategy is to “reduce our dependence on power sources exposed to volatile international prices”, in particular Russian oil and gas, and to bring down energy bills. Yet, by placing nuclear at the heart of its plans and almost totally ignoring measures to reduce energy consumption, the government will bring no respite to British voters.

“Baffled and disappointed,” said Helen Clarkson, the CEO of the Climate Group, a not-for-profit organisation working with 500 multinational businesses on reducing emissions. She is far from alone in her reaction to the long-awaited government strategy.

It sets out how Britain will “accelerate the deployment of wind, new nuclear, solar and hydrogen, whilst supporting the production of domestic oil and gas in the nearer term,” wrote the government. Increasing offshore wind, solar and hydrogen from renewable energy sources is good news. But planning to produce more fossil fuels when climate science shows the incompatibility of new oil and gas infrastructure with efforts to stop dangerous levels of climate change is totally wrong-headed. “Moral and economic madness,” is how the UN secretary general António Guterres described such investments earlier this week.

The decision to open a licensing round for new North Sea oil and gas projects is even madder when better alternative solutions exist, namely onshore wind and energy efficiency measures. Onshore wind is nearly six times cheaper than gas.

The focus on nuclear is also bonkers if the goal is, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson enthuses, “cheaper bills”. Nuclear energy is not cheap and it is certainly not quick to build. It is the only major energy technology that has increased in cost in the past decade, and routinely runs over time and budget. In a recent government survey, 37 per cent of voters backed nuclear power – solar and offshore wind had 90 per cent and 84 per cent support respectively. A YouGov poll last year found that 70 per cent of voters were in favour of more onshore wind turbines in the UK.

“With good luck and a following wind, we might get some nuclear up in ten to 15 years,” commented Clarkson. Homes could be insulated this week, and wind and solar farms are much faster to build than a nuclear power station.

The Business Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, is believed to have wanted to double onshore wind power by 2030, and treble it by 2035. Instead, the government said it will “consult 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”. Johnson seems to have been swayed by others in his party, including the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, who argued against a proper onshore wind strategy. Shapps said turbines were “an eyesore”.

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Even the government itself points out that prices of renewables have been consistently decreasing, “with the price of offshore wind dramatically falling by around 65 per cent since 2015, onshore wind prices down 50 per cent since 2013, and residential roof top solar panels now less than 50 per cent the price they were a decade ago”. It is understandably quiet on the price of nuclear. But for the record, Hinkley Point C, the nuclear power station being built in the south-west of England, will cost about £23bn, with the cost of electricity per megawatt hour fixed at £92. Offshore wind was secured in the latest auction at just under £40/MWh. Onshore wind is even cheaper. 

The strategy similarly fails to offer a proper scheme to support people wanting to insulate their homes to save energy. Media reports earlier in the week suggested the Energy Company Obligation – a home energy efficiency scheme – could be expanded by £200m a year, but the measure was reportedly dropped by the Treasury following tensions with the Department for Business and Energy, according to the Energy and Climate Intelligent Unit (ECIU). Analysis from the think tank shows the funding could have allowed 22,500 households a year to upgrade their insulation. 

“Soaring gas prices are… adding at least £500 to energy bills, forcing another 2.5 million households into fuel poverty,” said ECIU’s Sepi Golzari-Munro. “Without help to insulate their homes… there may be little prospect they can afford to keep their homes warm.” Eighty-four per cent of voters see insulation as the best way to cut reliance on gas and reduce bills, she added.

“Next winter is going to be terrible,” said Clarkson – energy prices are almost certain to remain high and people look set to continue living in energy-leaky homes. “We will have people dying.” She suggested that the government has passed over efficiency measures because it prefers “a good muscular building project”, like a nuclear power station. “And energy efficiency is notoriously hard to measure,” she added.

The government is also keen to suggest its strategy will be good for jobs, claiming it will help support 90,000 jobs in offshore wind by 2028 – 30,000 more than previously expected; 10,000 jobs in solar power by 2028 – almost double previous expectations; and 12,000 jobs in the UK hydrogen industry by 2030 – 3,000 more than previously expected. However, some experts suggest these numbers are not quite what they seem at first glance.

“The promise of 10,000 solar jobs in six years is hard to stomach when it was only six years ago that the Solar Trade Association was lamenting the 12,500 jobs the [David] Cameron government slashed in just a year,” said Alice Bell from the climate NGO Possible. “Cameron and [George] Osborne [the then UK chancellor] managed to slash 12,000 solar jobs in a year, now Johnson and Sunak [the current chancellor] are saying they’ll make 10,000 in six? It’s hardly the visionary energy policy we’re looking for from the Prime Minister.”

The German chancellor Olaf Scholz said yesterday that the EU should use Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a trigger for unified climate action. The war has made clearer than ever Europe’s reliance on Moscow for coal, oil and gas. “In my view, it is important that we now show solidarity…” he told German MPs. “And that means first and foremost that we must ensure that Europe stands on its own two feet as far as energy supply is concerned and makes itself independent of fossil resources.”

The UK may be less reliant on Russian gas than its European neighbours, but even if it increases oil and gas extraction from the North Sea, the country will still be exposed to volatile international markets and price fluctuations. And swapping fossil imports from Russia with ones from Saudi Arabia or Qatar is not desirable on environmental or humanitarian grounds.

“The government has prioritised policies that will keep us dependent on high-cost fossil fuels and nuclear power,” said Ed Matthew from the climate think tank E3G. “This isn’t an energy security strategy and will do nothing to bring down energy bills. It is a national security threat and the person who will be happiest with it is Vladimir Putin.” 

The strategy is “economically and environmentally illiterate,” said the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas. “We’re taking one very small step forward and several giant leaps back. This was a crucial test of Johnson’s leadership – and he’s flunked it.”

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