Britain’s energy strategy is both cowardly and incoherent

The author is Professor of Energy and Climate Change at University College London and was a former senior adviser to energy regulator Ofgem

The defining characteristic of UK energy strategy is its incoherence. It doesn’t know what problem it’s trying to solve, so it doesn’t solve any. By failing to increase energy efficiency and kicking the only viable near-term supply option — that of cheap onshore wind — into the long grass, it certainly won’t help those struggling with energy bills in the winters to come.

Offshore wind is the big success story of the past decade and capacity has grown significantly in recent years. The strategy increases the offshore target for 2030 from 40 GW to 50 GW. That’s very ambitious, but possible. But offshore wind requires large and complex kits from few suppliers, typically takes three to five years from proposal to completion, and the pace of build-out could strain supply chains and drive up costs. If everything were to concentrate on the North Sea, the network would face immense challenges – both in terms of transmission and in coping with the peaks and troughs. Wind is at its best when spread more widely.

The cowardly failure concerns the onshore wind. Not only is it our cheapest source of energy — it typically costs about a third to a quarter of what people will soon be paying for their electricity — but it’s the only one, along with solar, that could make a dent in the short term.

Any energy company or municipality can buy an off-the-shelf wind turbine. Installation would take a few weeks or months. But it would take years to get planning permission – because building codes were redesigned in 2015 to prevent that. “Consulting” a “limited number of supportive communities” about the cheapest, quickest option is hardly Churchill’s response to Britain’s national energy crisis.

The strategy outlines a plan for nuclear energy by 2050, starting with a new facility to be funded ahead of the next general election. If it takes an energy crisis to actually make a decision, then so be it, but it doesn’t help solve the crisis. Not only is nuclear power slow and expensive, it would need to be flexible to ramp up and down with fluctuations in demand, wind and solar. This further undermines the economy. The introduction of a 30-year plan for nuclear power also raises the question – why can’t the government put together a coherent 30-month plan for energy efficiency for once?

Elsewhere, the strategy confirms plans to license gas production from existing discoveries in the North Sea this year. But there’s a reason UK production has declined – many of the UK’s reserves are depleted, and it’s becoming harder and more costly to mine more. Following the IPCC reports Also, on climate change, it’s rightly difficult to tell the world that we need to phase out fossil fuels while in richer countries we aim to squeeze every last drop.

The government has assured us all that it will not consider rationing gas supplies, unlike some other European countries that have been in the process of doing so contingency plans. But consumers and the Treasury should be worried. If the gas is truly cut off from the standoff between Russia and the EU, all hell will break loose in international markets and the UK would have to outbid both the EU and Asia on supplies. It won’t be nice.

The ultimate irony of a strategy born out of crisis is that by the time most of its proposals bear fruit, the crisis will long be over. Global energy markets will have stopped spinning and returned to normal, and Vladimir Putin may not even be in power anymore.

But many consumers and businesses will have suffered terribly. We also risk undermining much of what the UK has achieved on climate change. By failing to focus on a common strategy to collectively resolve these twin crises, the government is failing to provide the energy sector with the consistent signals investors need and may even worsen near-term bills. Britain’s energy strategy is both cowardly and incoherent

Adam Bradshaw

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