What’s in the UK’s New Energy Security Strategy?

The UK government has finally set out its plan for how the UK can ensure its energy security after weeks of rumor and speculation. As well as targeting net zero carbon emissions and battling with soaring energy bills the UK is also looking to reduce its dependency on Russian oil and gas supplies.

The new energy security strategy is ambitious yet vague with promises for nuclear power and offshore wind but little mention of new measures for energy efficiency or onshore wind.

The new strategy plans for quicker expansion of nuclear, wind, solar, hydrogen, oil and gas, including delivering the equivalent to one nuclear reactor a year instead of one a decade. The plan also allows for over 40,000 more jobs in clean industries to be supported thanks to various measures, totalling 480,000 jobs by 2030.

The Climate Change Committee (CCC) is disappointed not to see more on energy efficiency and ways to support households to make changes that could cut their energy bills now.

While the strategy is a necessary step forward in the UK’s net-zero journey, the UK is still left reliant on natural gas for some time to come. Unfortunately, this leaves the UK open to further bouts of energy price volatility over the coming years.

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Just before the new energy strategy was released the latest IPCC report from the UN was published which once again warned that the chances of limiting global warming to 1.5 centigrade were diminishing. This only adds to the growing pressure felt by countries across Europe also grappling with their energy security.

Despite the IPCC warning the new strategy commits to holding a new licensing round for North Sea oil and gas in the Autumn and promises to remain open minded about fracking. The government considers these fuels to be important in the transition period and to our energy security. Furthermore, producing gas in the UK has a lower carbon footprint than importing it from abroad.

The UK’s new strategy is looking less at shoring up near-term sources of supply and much more at long-term solutions to reducing our reliance on imported energy. The UK’s aim is to boost long-term energy independence and produce cleaner and more affordable energy which will mean greater energy security and prosperity.

The new strategy could lead to 95% of the UK’s electricity coming from low-carbon sources by 2030 ahead of the existing aim to decarbonise the sector by 2035.

The Climate Change Committee’s (CCC) initial response was that if the proposals were enacted it “would bring us closer to meeting the net-zero challenge”.

However, the UK is currently still heavily reliant on gas and reducing this reliance needs to be a key feature of any energy strategy. The government’s new strategy is putting its weight behind pushing offshore wind and nuclear as the primary means of achieving this.

The government has increased its target for offshore generation to 50GW by 2030, up from 40GW, with a new target for 5GW to come from floating turbines. This is more than enough to power every home in the UK. It proposes cutting the approval times for new offshore wind farms from 4 years to 1 year and streamlining the process involved in getting new projects to the construction phase.

RenewableUK’s CEO Dan McGrail said:

“The renewables industry is ready and able to work with government to deliver the ambitions set out in the new Energy Security Strategy. Renewables can deliver new, low-cost power quicker than any other option and wind will be at the heart of a secure, affordable net zero energy system.”

It has also given nuclear power a huge role to play in providing clean energy for the UK. It is hoping that new nuclear capacity can increase by up to 24GW generating as much as 25% of UK’s electricity by 2050. Small Modular Reactors will form a key part of the nuclear project pipeline.

Some climate measures which are popular with the public such as onshore wind and solar have received less attention in the new strategy than nuclear power. Although the strategy contains some new measures to promote solar power which is the cheapest, most popular and fastest energy technology to build, the plan as with other aspects of the strategy lacks any real concrete proposals.

The government plans to 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

The press release for the strategy says that the government will “look to increase” the UK’s current 14GW of solar capacity, including both large-scale projects and rooftop solar panels which “could” grow up to five times by 2035, taking it to 70GW. It will also look at the rules for solar projects, particularly on domestic and commercial rooftops.

Solar Energy UK Chief Executive Chris Hewett said:

“The Government’s expectations of a five-fold increase in solar in the UK by 2035, shows that it now shares the same level of ambition as the UK solar industry. The announced changes in planning, Contract for Difference (CfD) auctions and potential low-cost finance options could significantly accelerate solar deployment, creating thousands of jobs, cutting energy bills and making Britain more energy secure.”

It is important of course to have a reliable backup fuel to wind and solar as you cannot guarantee that the wind will always blow as much as you need it too. Nuclear will play that part in the long-term but it’s going to take well over a decade for enough new plants to come online. In the short-term the share of electricity from nuclear will fall as much of the UK’s existing nuclear capacity is retired. Achieving the targeted offshore capacity will also be gradual as the associated planning decisions are often time consuming though the new strategy seeks to reduce that.

The National Grid also requires considerable investment to get the energy onshore to where it’s needed and to minimise imbalances in local power networks. Though onshore wind is perhaps easier to deploy in the short term it is less favoured by the government.

Further to this the strategy includes targeting 10GW of hydrogen capacity this decade, double the original target with at least half coming from green hydrogen. This is ambitious as the technology is still in its infancy. It will also require some to be generated using gas-fuelled power (so-called blue hydrogen) which may actually increase the UK’s dependence on gas in the short-term. The aim is to provide cleaner energy for vital British industries to move away from expensive fossil fuels, but it could also be used for cleaner power, transport and potentially heat.

Reducing the UK’s reliance on gas for domestic heating is a major challenge and the new strategy hints at utilising some of the new hydrogen capacity for this purpose given the potential to use a lot of the existing infrastructure.

The UK also has much less gas storage capacity than its European neighbours. Its total working capacity is a little under 10TWh which leaves very little room to weather future short-term supply issues.

However, heat pumps are what most experts including the government’s independent climate committee favour as playing the dominant role in future heating systems with any hydrogen kept for industrial uses.

The government are currently offering grants to help speed up the roll-out of heat pumps, but they will only work effectively if homes are well insulated. There’s little discussion of any help to finance or incentivise household investment in efficiency products in the new strategy. The government also plans to run a Heat Pump Investment Accelerator competition in 2022 worth up to £30 million to make British heat pumps, with the aim of reducing the demand for gas.

With the continued risk of further bouts of energy price volatility maintaining the currently high levels of public support for renewable energy will be a key challenge for the UK government over the coming years. Hopefully, the new energy security strategy is just a first step on our journey toward net-zero.