The government’s energy security strategy, released in full on Thursday afternoon, is shaped by ambitious – yet vague – promises for nuclear power and offshore wind, with little mention of new measures for energy efficiency or onshore wind.
It says some 95 per cent of the country’s electricity could come from low-carbon sources by 2030, ahead of the government’s existing aim of decarbonising the sector by 2035.
Just days after the release of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on tackling climate change, the strategy also commits to holding a new licensing round for North Sea oil and gas and promises to “remain open-minded” about fracking.
However, it adds that “it is disappointing not to see more on energy efficiency and on supporting households to make changes that can cut their energy bills now”.
Overall, experts tell Carbon Brief that, despite being framed as a response to the energy crisis, the strategy contains very little in the short-term to help struggling people with their bills or wean the nation off Russian fossil fuels.
We have to be smarter in our planning and more efficient in our use of energy – nuclear presents a big opportunity to do that and the co-benefits of heating will reduce the cost.
Peter Bruce, chemist, University of Oxford
Some climate measures that enjoy high public support, such as onshore wind power and solar, receive less attention in the strategy than nuclear power, one of Johnson’s “big bets” for securing the UK’s future energy security.
Below, Carbon Brief analyses all the key elements of the UK’s energy security strategy and explains the origin of the various “ambitions” it contains.
Many publications led their pre-release coverage of the energy strategy by reporting on Johnson’s “big bet” on nuclear power.
The press release for the strategy – the basis for this reporting – does not put forward clear targets for nuclear power expansion.
Instead, it says the government has “an ambition” to produce “up to 24GW” [gigawatts] of nuclear power by 2050. If achieved, this would “present up to around 25 per cent of our projected electricity demand”, the press release notes.
This ambition is more than double the 10GW of nuclear power that the CCC expects under its central scenario for how the UK can get to net-zero by 2050 in the most cost-effective manner, as shown by the purple bars in the Carbon Brief chart below. In its initial response to the strategy, the CCC says the government’s ambitions for nuclear “clearly go beyond” its own proposals.
The chart also shows the range of capacity expected by 2050 for solar (yellow), offshore wind (red), onshore wind (blue) and gas or biomass with carbon capture and storage (CCS, grey) under scenarios from the UK government’s Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), when compared with those produced independently by the CCC, National Grid Electricity System Operator (NGESO) and the Energy Systems Catapult (ESC).
The government’s strategy does not specifically include ambitions for 2030. (In March, the Guardian reported that officials were mulling a target of 16GW of nuclear power for 2030.)
The press release is also not clear on how many nuclear reactors the government is planning for in the coming decades.
It says the government “will work to progress a series of projects as soon as possible this decade”, including at the Wylfa nuclear site in Anglesey, north Wales. (A planned scheme at Wylfa is one of several to have been shelved in recent years.)
It adds the plans “could mean delivering up to eight reactors”, which it claims would be the equivalent of “one reactor a year”. (Several publications misinterpret this as a government pledge to build one reactor a year.)
However, the strategy itself says the possibility of eight reactors is dependent on “the pipeline of projects” and it is clear that most would not be built this decade.
The strategy repeats the government’s existing “intend[ion]” to take one nuclear project to a final investment decision “this parliament” – no later than 2024 – and widely understood to be the Sizewell C scheme in Suffolk.
The strategy says that, in addition to this, a further two projects would be signed off during the “next parliament”. (However, it cannot bind the winner of the next election.)
It says this ambition includes small modular reactors (SMRs) – nuclear fission reactors that are smaller than conventional nuclear reactors, but have not yet been proven to work commercially at scale.
Crucially, given reports of opposition to funding further new nuclear from the chancellor Rishi Sunak, the strategy says projects would be “subject to value for money assessment, all relevant approvals and future spending reviews”. It adds:
“This is not a cap on ambition, but a challenge to the industry to come forward and compete for projects and aim to come online this decade.”
The strategy also says a new government body – “Great British Nuclear” – will be established “this year” to help deliver projects. Through this body, the government will start “selecting” further UK nuclear projects – but not until 2023 – and only as a prelude to entering into negotiations for “potential” government support.
In addition, the government says it will launch its £120m “future nuclear enabling fund” – first announced in the 2021 spending review – this month.
Many commentators note that large-scale nuclear projects tend to come with high costs and long development times of at least a decade, meaning they can do little to reduce reliance on Russian fossil fuels and lower energy bills in the short term.
“Any nuclear project – including the untested (and non-small) SMRs – is inevitably hugely expensive, runs over time and over budget, and leaves a waste legacy that we still don’t know how to deal with. Renewables are modular, flexible, cheap, not a security risk, and the government’s surveys show 86 per cent public support for them.”
In a statement, Prof Peter Bruce, vice president of the Royal Society and a chemist at the University of Oxford, says that the UK could be using nuclear power in a “smarter” way:
“Nuclear power is already part of the energy mix in the UK, but we can be much smarter in its use. At present, 65 per cent of the energy generated is lost as waste heat – that energy can be used for industrial processes, such as producing green hydrogen, or even for directly heating homes in the local region. We have to be smarter in our planning and more efficient in our use of energy – nuclear presents a big opportunity to do that and the co-benefits of heating will reduce the cost.”
The IPCC report on how to tackle climate change published earlier this week concludes that large-scale nuclear power “can deliver low-carbon energy at scale”, but that “doing so will require improvements in managing construction of reactor designs that hold the promise of lower costs and broader use”.
It also states with high confidence that nuclear power “continues to be affected by cost overruns, high up-front investment needs, challenges with final disposal of radioactive waste, and varying public acceptance and political support levels”.
On SMRs, the report says with medium confidence that the still-emergent technology is not expected to be competitive against large reactors until 2040, as “cost-cutting opportunities” emerge. (A new Q&A published by the UK government to highlight the “benefits” of nuclear power says that “one of the world’s first SMRs…could be deployed in the UK in the early 2030s to turbocharge UK nuclear capacity”.)
In its scenarios for how the UK can reach net-zero, the CCC estimates that the cost of generating nuclear power will far exceed that of renewables in 2050.
Under its central scenario for net-zero in 2050, it estimates a cost of £85 per megawatt hour (MWh) for nuclear, with offshore wind and solar costing £40/MWh.
The energy security strategy’s second “big bet” sets a “new ambition” to achieve “up to” 50GW of offshore wind power by 2030. This would be “more than enough to power every home in the UK”, the government says in its press release.
(Homes only account for a third of electricity use in the UK, but 50GW of offshore wind would generate roughly 75 per cent of current demand and more than 60 per cent of the level expected in 2030.)
Of this 50GW, the government “would like to see” up to 5GW from floating windfarms – offshore projects in deep waters where turbines are mounted on a floating structure rather than fixed to the ocean floor.
The strategy continues:
“Our history of North Sea oil and gas expertise enables us to rapidly deploy our rich expertise in sub-sea technology and maximise our natural assets. Already, just off the coast of Aberdeenshire, we have built the world’s first floating offshore windfarms. There will be huge benefits in the Irish and Celtic Sea.”
This ambition is higher than the government’s previous pledge to build 40GW of offshore wind power by 2030. This pledge was first mentioned in the Conservative’s 2019 election manifesto and repeated in Johnson’s 10-point climate plan released in 2020.
In its initial assessment of the energy security strategy, the CCC says that, along with nuclear power, the government’s ambitions for offshore wind “go beyond” its own proposals. The statement from the CCC adds:
“The new commitments are hugely ambitious – they would see the UK produce more electricity from offshore wind in 2030 [around 240 terawatt hours] than it has produced from gas in any year in history. Government, business and industry will need to focus relentlessly on delivery at a scale and pace as yet unseen.”
The press release for the strategy says its ambitions will be “underpinned by new planning reforms to cut the approval time for new offshore wind farms from four years to one year”.
The strategy itself adds that the government will establish “a fast track consenting route for priority cases where quality standards are met” for offshore wind.
It plans to achieve this “by amending Planning Act 2008 so that the relevant secretary of state can set shorter examination timescales”, it adds.
“The challenge is to take these stretching targets and turn them into delivery of cheaper electricity into people’s homes as quickly as possible.”
As the chart above shows, scenarios for net-zero by 2050 involve up to 140GW of offshore wind, meaning continued expansion would be needed beyond the 50GW by 2030.
Onshore wind plays a much more muted role in the energy strategy than pre-release rumours and reporting had suggested, despite the fact that it is the second-cheapest way to generate electricity in the UK after solar.
The press release for the strategy dedicates just one line to onshore wind:
“We will be consulting 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 strategy itself expands on this, saying that the government “will not introduce wholesale changes to current planning regulations for onshore wind, but will consult this year on developing local partnerships”.
It also says this consultation “will consider how clear support can be demonstrated by local communities, local authorities and MPs”.
The strategy adds that “the government recognises the range of views on onshore wind”. This is despite official polling showing 80 per cent of the public support onshore wind (see below), compared with 37 per cent for nuclear and 17 per cent for fracking.
On 2 April, just days ahead of the strategy’s release, many publications speculated that the government had plans to triple onshore wind power generation by 2035 as part of the energy security strategy.
Leaked official documents relating to the strategy from March, handed to the i newspaper and others, appeared to recommend an increase in onshore wind power from around 15GW today to 30GW in 2030 and 45GW in 2035.
The leaked document also recommended the establishment of an “onshore wind task force” to, among other things, create a “more facilitative planning policy” for onshore wind in England. (David Cameron imposed an effective ban on onshore wind in England in 2013.)
None of these plans are mentioned in the final strategy. (On 4 April, the Times reported that Johnson had dropped his plans for onshore wind in favour of new nuclear power.)
Dr Rebecca Windemer, a lecturer in environmental planning at the University of West England, described the lack of policy reform included in the strategy as “extremely disappointing”. She tells Carbon Brief:
“Under the current policy new wind farms can’t be developed in 89 per cent of local authorities in England, despite a widespread desire to do so. Changing the planning policy would enable wind farms to be developed in locations where they are wanted and also enable more communities to develop and own their own turbines.”
In a statement, Ed Miliband, shadow secretary of state of climate change and net-zero, accused Johnson of “completely cav[ing]” to “his own backbenchers” on onshore wind.
“The failure to endorse onshore wind neglects the cheapest form of renewable energy and ignores rational decision making about how to deliver low-cost, zero-carbon power at a time of rapidly rising bills and an increase in fuel poverty.”
While the strategy does not include clear support for the expansion of onshore wind, projects will be able to compete for government “contracts for difference” (CfDs) in an auction due to finish this summer.
The auction is currently capped at a maximum of 5GW of onshore wind and solar combined, despite the nearly 11GW of such projects that already have planning permission and could be built quickly, if given a route to market.
The strategy also commits to include onshore wind in future CfD rounds. In February, the government announced that these would now take place annually.
The strategy contains some new measures to promote solar power, which is the cheapest and most popular energy technology – and the fastest to build. However, as with other aspects of the plan, experts noted that it lacks concrete proposals.
The press release for the strategy says 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.
The strategy itself is similarly vague in its ambitions, stating “we expect” a fivefold increase over this period.
An earlier version of the document, shared by the i newspaper, included more specific targets, notably setting firm goals of 50GW of solar capacity by 2030 and 70GW by 2035.
However, this is missing from the final document and there are few details of what will drive the expected uptick in solar, limited to a handful of consultations and vague pledges.
“When the government first introduced incentives for solar, the capacity rocketed from 1 to 10GW within barely three years.”
Under its central scenario for net-zero, the CCC envisages 85GW of solar power in the UK by 2050. Scenarios from other organisations, including BEIS, see up to 90GW of solar power by 2050, as the chart above shows.
In a briefing ahead of the strategy, trade association Solar Energy UK called on the government to commit to a target of 40GW by 2030 and 54GW by 2035, and the organisation welcomed the plan when it emerged.
However, its chief executive Chris Hewett tells Carbon Brief that 50GW would be feasible by 2030, if grid constraints were addressed.
The earlier draft of the strategy was clear that the way to achieve its proposed goals would be through large-scale ground-mount solar, which it referred to as “the cheapest form of electricity generation”.
It said the government would need to take forward the “vast majority” of proposed projects and show “clear support” through a communications effort.
However, as with onshore wind, such projects have caused disquiet within the Conservative party, with backbenchers – including former health secretary Matt Hancock – vocally opposing solar projects in their constituencies.
The final strategy appears to shift the focus more towards smaller-scale rooftop solar, with the press release stating that the government would “[consult] on the rules for solar projects, particularly on domestic and commercial rooftops”.
The full document lays out plans to “radically simplify” planning processes for rooftop solar with a consultation on permitted development rights.
Other measures include pledges to “consider” the best way to use public-sector rooftops, “look at” facilitating low-cost finance for solar deployment and design performance standards to make renewables, such as solar panels, “the presumption in new homes and buildings”.
For ground-mounted projects, the government says it will hold a consultation to “[amend] planning rules to strengthen policy in favour of development on non-protected land” and “[encourage] large-scale projects to locate on previously developed, or lower value land”.
These words are accompanied by the caveat that the government will “[ensure] communities continue to have a say and environmental protections remain in place”. Juliet Phillips, a senior policy advisor at thinktank E3G, tells Carbon Brief this wording “[leaves] the door ajar for nimbyism”.
Perhaps the most significant omission from the report is any new funding commitment to boost energy efficiency and help insulate the nation’s leaky housing.
This is widely viewed as among the fastest and most cost-effective solutions to the current energy crisis, as it would reduce overall demand and, therefore, save people money on their bills as well as cutting the need for fossil-fuel imports.
Among those who have shown support for more energy-efficiency funding are No 10 and BEIS (reportedly), the Climate Change Committee (CCC), a former Conservative energy minister, the chair of the BEIS select committee, various think tanks, environmental NGOs and many energy researchers.
Despite plenty of positive language around home insulation, including the statement that “every therm of gas saved grows our energy security and brings jobs to the UK”, there is no new money in the strategy to support the required renovations.
Media outlets have reported that this is due to the Treasury under chancellor Rishi Sunak opposing any new measures to support this sector.
During the 2019 general election, the Conservatives committed to:
“Help lower energy bills by investing £9.2bn in the energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals.”
However, the Conservative-led governments over the past decade have a litany of unsuccessful forays into energy efficiency behind them, from David Cameron’s pledge to cut the “green crap” that saw loft and cavity wall insulation rates drop by 92 per cent and 74 per cent in 2013, to the £1.5bn Green Homes Grant which ended up being cancelled after just six months in 2021.
Most recently, in his Spring Statement, Sunak announced a reduction in the VAT paid when having insulation and low-carbon technologies installed in homes. This pledge is repeated in the new strategy.
While this was portrayed as a way of saving people money, it was viewed as a policy that primarily benefited wealthy, comfortable households rather than those struggling with energy bills.
All in all, with the cost of living soaring, the 2019 manifesto pledge to “help lower energy bills” with energy-efficiency investment seems more relevant than ever.
According to the Daily Telegraph, both No 10 and Kwarteng’s team had advocated for an expansion of the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) scheme, which is currently the UK’s main policy for improving home insulation.
As it stands, the scheme, which prioritises low-income and vulnerable households, requires large energy suppliers to install insulation in low-quality housing. It receives £1bn each year, funded with a levy on energy bills, but the new proposal involved an additional £200m of public funds going into it so that it could be expanded to more households.
However, according to reports, the Treasury opposed this idea, choosing instead to stick to the spending announcements from the autumn budget, which themselves were first announced last October in the heat and buildings strategy and deemed insufficient by experts.
She adds that any successor to the Green Homes Grant should also be accompanied by regulatory levers, such as tightened Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES).
Dr Fraser Stewart, a social and energy justice researcher for energy thinktank Regen, tells Carbon Brief that on top of “grants and subsidies for those inclined to do work themselves”, more expansive, inclusive policies are also necessary:
“For a just transition on the scale we need and to help people crucially struggling with the crisis now, we need to reach people and communities across the spectrum.”
He proposes funding local authorities to deliver efficiency, supplementing “underfunded and poorly promoted” existing schemes, such as the Social Housing Decarbonisation fund and a national promotional campaign for these schemes.
Instead of any of these measures, the strategy reiterates many past commitments, announces a new £30m heat pump innovation competition and a new “energy advice service” that consumers can contact to help navigate the “unknown territory” of home insulation.
The document also lacks any substantial measures to cut consumer demand for energy – moves which would have the most immediate impact on saving people money and reducing reliance on Russian gas.
Pointing to her organisation’s proposal for nine measures to cut demand, including expanding the Boiler Upgrade Scheme and launching a public information campaign, Juliet Phillips from E3G tells Carbon Brief:
“Even Kwasi Kwarteng has admitted the strategy is, at best, a “medium-term” plan, rather than focused on supporting struggling households. With estimates that one in three households will fall into fuel poverty if energy bills hit £3,000 later this year – as experts are warning they might – this means the strategy totally fails to speak to the moment.”
The prime minister’s final “big bet” after nuclear and offshore wind, as reported by newspapers in the run up to the strategy, is a pledge to double the UK’s target for hydrogen production to “up to 10GW” by 2030.
Experts broadly welcomed the ambition of the new target, but they noted that there was an urgent need to begin demonstrating hydrogen projects across the nation, prioritising hard-to-decarbonise areas such as heavy industry.
The strategy itself does not mention using hydrogen to heat homes, but the press release talks about this “potentially” being an option.
Moreover, according to Adam Bell, head of policy at the consultancy Stonehaven, the mere raising of the target would provide a boost to hydrogen in heating, as injecting it into the gas grid could provide a straightforward option for large volumes of hydrogen.
While many experts – and the recent IPCC report – suggest hydrogen should be prioritised for other sectors rather than heating, the government has currently left the door open for this application, with a decision currently delayed until 2026.
The strategy says the UK is well-placed to exploit “all forms” of low-carbon hydrogen production – referring to both “green” hydrogen made with renewable power, and “blue” hydrogen made using natural gas with carbon capture and storage (CCS).
According to the documents, “at least half” of the 10GW will come from “electrolytic” – green – hydrogen.
While the EU has opted to primarily focus on green hydrogen, the UK’s decision to pursue blue as well has been contentious, as unlike the green variety, it is not zero-carbon and would maintain reliance on gas.
“I think the continuing commitment to blue hydrogen as well as green hydrogen in the UK…[is] problematic. Why is it a good idea to use gas to produce hydrogen which would be used to replace gas?”
The strategy says that to support its target it will run “annual allocation rounds for electrolytic hydrogen, moving to price competitive allocation by 2025 as soon as legislation and market conditions allow”. This builds on a business model mentioned in previous government strategies.
North Sea oil and gas
In the energy security strategy, the UK government describes gas as “the glue that holds our electricity system together” and says “it will be an important transition fuel”.
The strategy says that the North Sea Transition Authority (until recently known as the Oil and Gas Authority) plans to “launch another licensing round” for North Sea oil and gas projects in “the autumn”, claiming:
“This will mean more domestic gas on the grid sooner.”
But it is worth noting that, according to official data, it takes an average of 28 years for an exploration licence to lead to oil and gas production. Because of this, any licence awarded in the autumn may not be contributing to supply until the 2040s or 2050s – doing little to reduce reliance on Russian fossil fuels in the short term.
The strategy also says the government will establish “gas and oil new project regulatory accelerators” to “facilitate the rapid development of projects”. It claims this “could take years off the development of the most complex new opportunities”.
The UK government has previously said that new licensing rounds can only take place if the oil and gas sector can pass a “climate compatibility checkpoint” that “ensures” any new production is in line with the country’s goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. The new strategy reaffirms this commitment, saying the North Sea Transition Authority will take the checkpoint into account.
The final details of how this checkpoint will work in practice has not yet been announced. (Earlier this year, Carbon Brief took an in-depth look at whether new oil and gas licences can ever be “climate compatible”.)
The recent IPCC report on how to tackle climate change is among high-level scientific assessments to conclude that, globally, continued fossil fuel expansion is not compatible with efforts to keep global warming to 1.5C, the aspiration of the Paris Agreement.
In their response to the strategy, many commentators pointed out that the government’s recommitment to fossil fuels comes just days after the release of the IPCC report.
Tessa Khan, an environmental lawyer and director of the campaign group Uplift, tells journalists:
“The fact that this strategy has been published just days after the IPCC made it clear that already-planned fossil fuel projects will take us past safe climate limits makes it all the more galling.”
The press release for the strategy notes that the plans for a new licensing round also hinge on the government’s view “that producing gas in the UK has a lower carbon footprint than imported from abroad”.
Recent analysis by the CCC found that the emissions intensity of oil and gas produced by the UK is lower than the global average.
However, it is worth noting that the UK is not currently outperforming its biggest import partner, Norway, when it comes to oil and gas production standards.
In addition, its current plan for slashing production emissions in the North Sea is not ambitious enough, when compared to CCC scenarios for how the UK can reach net-zero.
The strategy says the government plans to “further” reduce production emissions by “driving rapid industry investment in electrifying offshore production”.
In the weeks leading up to the strategy’s launch one of the most hotly debated topics among ministers and commentators has been fracking.
Banned in England since 2019, due to public outcry following minor earthquakes – of magnitude 2.9 – at a test site in Lancashire, fracking remains one of the least popular energy technologies in the country, supported by just 17 per cent of the population (see chart above).
Nevertheless, the extraction of shale gas from UK soil has been a consistently popular idea among certain right-wing factions of the Conservative party, tabloid newspapers and climate sceptics.
This has become all the more apparent since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has seen these groups seek to argue that an end to the moratorium is necessary to ensure a secure domestic supply of gas, independent of Russia.
Only two shale gas exploration wells have ever been drilled and tested in the UK. Researchers have argued that it is highly unlikely the industry will get off the ground.
Even if the England moratorium were lifted, it would take years of drilling before significant volumes of gas could be extracted, by which time – under the UK’s net-zero strategy – the nation would have reduced its reliance on gas. This was a point made by the CCC in a 2021 letter to Kwarteng, in which it also said:
“The moratorium on UK shale production should not be lifted without an in-depth independent review of the evidence on the climate impact.”
While Kwarteng himself has said that fracking is not the answer to the UK’s energy crisis, in an apparent bid to appease backbenchers he wrote a letter to the British Geological Survey (BGS) the day before the strategy was announced requesting a report on the current state of scientific knowledge around fracking and earthquakes.
In the letter, the business secretary wrote:
“While it remains the case that shale gas extraction is not the solution to near-term price issues, it is right as a government – given the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s regime – that we keep all possible energy generation and production methods on the table.”
The questions being explored by BGS in this review include whether there are new techniques available that reduce earthquake risk, whether modelling of such risk has improved and whether areas outside Lancashire – where exploratory wells were previously drilled – would be less prone to earthquakes.
It asks if ministers could, on the basis of improvements in the past three years, be “completely confident” about modelling of seismic events and their predictability.
When they were underway, fracking activities in the UK were placed under a system in which seismic activity that breached a certain, fairly low, threshold meant activities had to be paused. (Notably, the 2.9-magnitude event triggering the ban was well above this threshold.)
Prof John Loughhead, industrial chair in clean energy at the University of Birmingham and chief scientific adviser at BEIS from 2016 to 2020, tells Carbon Brief that as far as he knows none of the factors leading to this earthquakes or the monitoring of them have changed, meaning the BGS review is unlikely to yield much:
“To the best of my personal knowledge, I don’t think any substantive new information or understanding or insight has arisen…and I don’t think there has been any significant research activity on fracking because the government said ‘we don’t want to do it’.”
In the end, the strategy says the government will “[remain] open-minded about our onshore reserves”, citing the “impartial technical review” by BGS. It adds that:
“Any exploration or development of shale gas would need to meet rigorous safety and environmental protection both above ground and sub-surface.”
Ultimately, while the inclusion of fracking appears to show some compromise with pro-fracking elements in society, Prof Michael Grubb of UCL says environmentalists “shouldn’t be too worried” about the decision:
“Whatever the government does, don’t hold your breath for shale to be – if and when anything actually emerges – anything more than an uneconomic trickle. It sure won’t help with our energy prices.”
This story was published with permission from Carbon Brief.