After weeks of in-fighting at the top of government, the UK unveiled its long awaited Energy Security Strategy in response to the Ukraine crisis and soaring power and fuel costs with an increased ambition for 50GW of offshore wind by 2030 – 5GW of it floating – and big new targets in hydrogen and solar.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed the “made in Britain, for Britain” plan could see 95% of its electricity “low carbon” as soon as the end of the decade, but it is also certain to spark controversy with a major revived role for nuclear power and fresh moves in oil & gas.
The strategy – which has been the subject of often openly bitter internal conflict within the Conservative government – fails to back a major increase for onshore wind as many had hoped but does see solar growing by up to five times to 70GW by 2035.
Nuclear power is a clear winner, with the UK’s Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) setting out plans for up to 24GW and 25% of UK power by 2050 to come from “this safe, clean, and reliable source of power”, with a “key” role for the small modular reactors (SMRs) currently being developed by Britain’s own Rolls-Royce.
There is also a doubling of the UK’s ambition for 'low carbon hydrogen' – including blue H2 made using abated fossil fuels – to 10GW by 2030, with “at least half” coming from green hydrogen from electrolysis that includes tapping offshore wind.
Johnson said: “We’re setting out bold plans to scale up and accelerate affordable, clean and secure energy made in Britain, for Britain – from new nuclear to offshore wind – in the decade ahead.
“This will reduce our dependence on power sources exposed to volatile international prices we cannot control, so we can enjoy greater energy self-sufficiency with cheaper bills.”
The strategy will present huge challenges and stir major controversies in several key areas.
The 50GW target by 2030 adds 10GW to an existing end-of-decade goal that was already seen as hugely ambitious, given the challenges facing developers as they seek to add to an existing operational base of less than 11GW.
The UK strategy pledges that the additional push will be “underpinned by new planning reforms to cut the approval times for new offshore wind farms from four years to one year and an overall streamlining which will radically reduce the time it takes for new projects to reach construction stages while improving the environment”.
Speeding up consenting will be crucial. Development giants Orsted, Vattenfall and Iberdrola have all faced delays in getting giant offshore wind farms first planned a decade ago or more consented in time to enter the latest round of government-backed renewable power auctions, with particular issues over legal challenges from residents in eastern England angry over the disruption caused by onshore works.
There are also major doubts over the readiness of the grid to cope with the massive amount of green power offshore planned to enter the UK system.
The 5GW floating wind aspiration turbocharges an existing 1GW goal, reflecting the massive interest in the technology on display in the recent ScotWind seabed leasing round when up to 15GW of floating capacity was awarded.
This is a truly momentous day for the offshore wind industry.
Duncan Clark, UK head for global offshore wind giant Orsted, said: “This is a truly momentous day for the offshore wind industry and for every consumer in the UK. Twenty years ago there were only two wind turbines in UK waters, and now, as a nation, we are leading the world in offshore wind and making the changes we need to make offshore wind the backbone of the UK’s electricity system.
“There is no doubt that the technology works, there is no doubt that it is low-cost, and now with the government and industry committing to make the changes needed to accelerate deployment, there is no doubt that we can deliver the secure, low-cost electricity that the UK needs.”
The UK’s energy secretary Kwasi Kwarteng was widely reported to favour a target to double onshore wind capacity to 30GW by 2030 but ran into stiff opposition from some English Conservative MPs, who have fought to keep new land-based wind farms off the agenda as a matter of principle and were said to be ready to stage a rebellion over the issue.
Instead, the strategy says BEIS “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”.
That will dismay renewables advocates who hailed onshore turbines as the cheapest and fastest to deploy source of new zero-carbon power, but in practice is likely to see future large projects confined to Scotland and Wales, which in any case have the best resources and where devolved governments are more favourable, and spur community-based developments.
The strategy puts the UK firmly in the camp of nations looking to nuclear to help secure energy independence, but the plan will be overshadowed by the massive delays and cost overruns that have plagued EDF’s 3.2GW, £22bn Hinkley Point C nuclear station in southwest England.
An often-quoted figure is the 35-year, £92.50/MWh (at 2012 prices) contract-for-difference (CfD) power deal secured by Hinkley Point C, compared to CfDs of around £40/MWh bid by offshore wind farms in the last round of renewable energy auctions.
As for SMRs – also often called ‘mini nuclear’ stations – Rolls-Royce claims its latest 470MW design could match offshore wind on cost of electricity at around £50/MWh, but critics say the technology is still unproven and does not answer concerns over waste or safety.
Oil & gas
In the week when the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned “it’s now or never” in the fight against global warming, perhaps the most depressing element of the UK's energy strategy came with its confirmation of plans for a new North Sea oil & gas leasing round this autumn “with a new taskforce providing bespoke support to new developments – recognising the importance of these fuels to the transition and to our energy security, and that producing gas in the UK has a lower carbon footprint than imported from abroad".