Many in the UK are rightly proud of the ambition this country has shown in tackling climate change.
From 2008, when the Climate Change Bill was enacted, through to the legally binding commitment to achieving net zero that was passed unanimously by the Commons in 2019, the UK has been a policy pioneer. And while there is ongoing political debate on the exact pathway to net zero, particularly around transport and heat, consensus on the final destination remains robust.
But whichever way we go, we know we need to decarbonise the power system first. And the stark truth is we are not moving at the pace we need to if we are to deliver the cheaper, cleaner and more secure energy system we all want to see. The 2020s need to be a decade of delivery not dither, so what needs to happen?
Firstly, we need to accelerate deployment of renewable energy to reduce our reliance on expensive imported fossil fuels and the regimes that control those resources. Secondly, we need to build out the electricity network infrastructure that will transport all that clean, home-grown energy from where it is generated to where it is produced. Thirdly, we need to back up our increasingly renewables-led energy system with flexible generation technologies like carbon capture and storage (CCS), pumped hydro and batteries. And finally, we need to do all of this in a way that delivers a just energy transition which helps create good green jobs and supports people in high-carbon jobs to find low-carbon alternatives.
“This is an historic opportunity for the UK,” says Alistair Phillips-Davies, chief executive of SSE plc, which could invest up to £40bn in the next decade, focused on accelerating the clean- energy transition. “The UK’s ambition is fantastic, but we now need to pick up the pace of delivery. We should make the UK the easiest place in the world to invest in and actually
build clean-energy projects. If we do this, the prize is enormous: more affordable and secure energy, good green jobs in communities from Shetland to the Isle of Wight, and of course, knowing that we are being part of the solution to climate change, not just the problem.”
The massive Dogger Bank wind farm being built 80 miles off the coast of Yorkshire is an example of what can be achieved when policymakers, investors, industry and communities work together. When complete, Dogger Bank will cover an area of the North Sea that is roughly the size of Greater London, and will produce enough clean, home-grown energy to power six million homes a year when fully operational. And it will do this at a cost far lower than wholesale gas prices.
This one project alone has helped support around 2,000 jobs in the north-east of England. And the skills learned
at Dogger Bank will help enable lifelong careers, producing the people that will help deliver the clean-energy transition
in the UK and beyond.
“And we see the same trend in electricity networks where we need thousands of engineers,” continues Phillips-Davies. “They’ll be needed to help build the infrastructure that will support the doubling of electricity demand as we decarbonise homes and businesses. The same is true for new CCS, hydrogen and pumped-storage projects. This should be a golden age for UK industry.”
The lack of any bids to build new offshore wind in the UK because government contract prices were set too low was undoubtedly a setback for the industry, so how can the country regain momentum?
“There are a range of measures that could unlock billions of pounds of investment,” says Phillips-Davies. “Firstly, we need a reset in offshore wind to make sure the industry can give us the capacity we need it to. This means looking at pricing for government contracts, but also other reforms such as extending contract terms and extending capital allowances would help.
“Another big focus should be on planning reform. It has taken more than a decade to get the first turbines out at Dogger Bank and most of that time has been spent in planning and consenting, not construction. Planning is also an issue in electricity networks. We need to speed things up if we are to have any chance of meeting our goals.
“And if we really want to realise the full benefits of the energy transition, we need to support supply chains. This can be done by adding non-price criteria to seabed leases, for instance. “At SSE, we’re actively looking for opportunities to back UK manufacturing capability, but our suppliers say they need a full and reliable order book from multiple projects before they can build the factories that would help deliver this. It’s yet another reason for speeding up delivery of these massive developments.”
And this means ensuring that the UK has the skills in place to generate good green jobs. This could include creating green-energy training academies, high-quality conversion programmes to help people transition into clean and low-carbon careers, modernising apprenticeship funding so that it encourages sustainable jobs, and investing at scale in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) training at all levels of education and lifelong learning.
Investment, growth, jobs, strengthened national security: the prize is significant for the UK if we are willing to be agile enough to seize it. “And if we don’t, we can be sure others will,” says Phillips-Davies. “As a pioneer, the UK was able to build its competitive advantage in clean energy without much competition. This is no longer the case. The energy crisis means we are now in a global race. Remember Aesop’s famous fable? Complacency hampered the hare, enabling the tortoise to win. It’s a good lesson.”
When it comes to decarbonising its power system, it’s time for the UK to pick up the pace.