Yesterday brought us the long-heralded arrival of the Government’s new ‘Energy Security Strategy’. With the crisis in Ukraine demonstrating how relying upon Russian oil and gas might not be the best option from a geopolitical perspective, this strategy promises to end decades of ducking the big decisions on the UK’s energy needs. Did it deliver?
The proposals are certainly ambitious. The Government aims for 24 GW of Britain’s power to come from nuclear fission by 2050, delivered by eight new large reactors and several smaller ones. Since Britain is on track to have only one nuclear power station by 2035, this is a rather large change of tack. The strategy also calls for 50 GW of offshore wind by 2035 – more than the UK’s current average electricity consumption.
Alongside these headline proposals is also mentioned new oil and gas exploration in the North Sea and a push to expand the number of solar farms. All in all, it is certainly the most forward-thinking approach to energy in living memory. But since it took a major land war in Europe to shake ministers out of the torpor that usually surrounds energy policy, this is not saying much.
There are a few very obvious issues with the policy, the biggest being that it does not address the primary current political problem with energy: household bills. Launching your big new energy strategy with the confirmation that bills may not fall for five years was hardly the best look for Kwasi Kwarteng. These measures are good comfort to the consumers of 2050, not 2022.
Due to Treasury penny-pinching, there is nothing in the strategy on insulation. Some have touted insulation as the fastest way to reduce demand for energy by plugging Britain’s heat-leaky homes. Households could save up to £500 a year, according to reports. But the Treasury balked at the £200 million cost for a scheme designed to help the lowest paid insulate their homes, so any strategy to reduce household demand appears a non-starter.
Indeed, this strategy focuses entirely on supply at the expense of demand, and, in that context, looks at only those forms of supply which are least likely to set off Tory backbenchers. When the Prime Minister’s Chief Whip is the man who bounced his predecessor but one into opposing onshore wind farm construction, it is hardly surprising that Johnson’s energy strategy prioritises offshore turbines.
Onshore wind does get a mention, but it is a far cry the potential push for mass liberalisation of planning rules that Kwarteng and Michael Gove were reportedly pushing for in Cabinet two weeks ago. Instead, the Government only says it will be aiming to develop partnerships with a limited number of supportive communities who want new wind infrastructure for guaranteed lower bills.
This idea of bribing local communities with lower bills in return for new energy infrastructure is one Craig Mackinlay highlighted on this site earlier this week. But he did so in the context of fracking. For those for whom the f-word is the solution to our energy needs, this strategy is not a shale of a time. Fracking does not get a mention, although Kwarteng did announce a review into it earlier this week.
That onshore wind and fracking do not feature in this strategy is unsurprising. Again, this is an energy policy driven not only by the obvious necessity of securing our energy supplies in a dangerous geopolitical environment, but also of securing the Prime Minister’s own position in an oft-dangerous domestic political environment for him personally.
So turbines are pushed into the sea, deadlines are pushed into the future, and the centre piece of the strategy becomes a big announcement on nuclear – the likes of which, as Peter Franklin has shown, have been made by many previous governments. This strategy is not so much for facing the future, as for facing down backbench revolts. A depressing prospect for a government with an 80-seat majority.
It also suggests that ministers have missed out on a subtle shift in the political mood. In the same way that Russia’s invasion has forced the Government to confront an energy security issue it would much rather duck, voters appear to have grasped that surging bills require hard choices over supply. That’s if they want to see costs come down any time before I’m middle-aged.
Robert Colville has highlighted how polling suggests that onshore wind is more popular than often thought. A poll from Savanta ComRes has shown that more voters support an expansion of fracking than do not. A strategy that pushed further with Mackinlay’s idea of winning around local communities to both these two approaches could have achieved something much more radical.
But, alas. Even if Number 10 was in a mood to be radical at the moment, the Treasury is unwilling to stump up the cash for it to be so. So whilst the ‘Energy Security Strategy’ may be a worthy attempt to tackle a long-neglected topic in a way that addresses pressing needs within a hostile political climate, its bold ambitions are not backed by bold actions.
And with voters worrying about tripling bills, this will not enough to spare the Government the political pain this cost-of-living crisis will inevitably bring. It may have kept a few backbenchers and ministers happy, but it is not the answer to Britain’s current energy needs.