Distant Solutions to Urgent Problems

UK Policy Net Zero

Distant Solutions to Urgent Problems

Commentary
Posted on: 7th April 2022
Daniel Newport
Head of Net Zero - UK Policy

After weeks of delays, rumours, announcements and retractions, the government has today finally published its Energy Security Strategy.

The strategy has been repeatedly held up by the cabinet infighting on everything from fracking to nuclear to wind, as well as the usual wrangling over the price tag. And while the government has resisted the cynical attempts to blame records fossil fuel price crisis on net zero, the result is an Energy Security Strategy that feels perilously insecure.

We were promised a response to a crisis fuelled by war. Having failed to provide meaningful financial support in the Spring Statement, and with a projected one third of UK households set for fuel poverty next winter, the strategy comes with enormous pressure to deliver real solutions, quickly. So how does it measure up?

It was supposed to be a plan for rapidly overcoming three interlocking tests: how to reduce bills, improve energy security, and stop funding Putin’s Russia. On any reasonable timeframe it fails all three.

Expensive, slow and risky options backed over quick, cheap and popular ones

The government is keen to keep the spotlight on a few big ambitions. 24GW of new nuclear by 2050, 50GW of offshore wind by 2030, and an unquantified promise to expand solar are genuinely ambitious. But new offshore wind will take years to make an impact, and new nuclear, decades.

The strategy promises to deliver a new nuclear reactor every year, rather than every decade. Perhaps it should have added “in a decade”.

Onshore wind would be faster than both, but has been left largely on the side-lines despite being 75 per cent cheaper than current prices and having overwhelming popular support (even by locals). Government should be pulling out all the stops to rationalise planning rules, instead it is “consulting on developing local partnerships for a limited number of supportive communities”. Not exactly a national call to action.

Insulation ignored again

Demand reduction is the only real short-term lever available. And for all the big announcements of new generation capacity, 45 per cent of the gas we use is burnt by homes and businesses for heat. But instead of big bold plans to insulate our homes, the strategy trots out the government's pre-existing. Worse still, trumpeting the £6.6bn funding previously committed, just highlights the gap to the £9.2bn the government committed in its own manifesto.

Instead, it could have committed to consumer advice and information campaigns alongside further investment in energy efficiency through loans, grants and skills programmes that would support millions of homes with immediate bill savings and permanently reduced UK reliance on gas.

Perhaps most bizarrely of all, with all the pressure to reduce our demand for imports, the government has doubled its target for hydrogen production, intimating that up to half of it will be “blue”, creating a significant additional demand for natural gas.

energy strategy

Targets are easy, but delivery is hard

Perhaps it is not surprising given the pace at which it has been drawn together but the strategy’s big promises do not yet appear to be backed by big ideas on how to deliver. There are some welcome signals, for example the commitments around new delivery institutions, the future system operator and market reform. But these were needed anyway and ideas appear nascent.

A strategy for the 2030s and 2040s that does nothing to solve the crisis of the day

In truth, it was never going to be easy. There are few real options with short-term impacts, and any solutions would take years to fundamentally impact prices. But by ignoring demand reduction, spurning onshore wind, and failing to provide adequate fiscal support the government has prioritised nimbyism and fiscal ideology, leaving the public, rather than Putin, out in the cold.

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