Boris Johnson claimed on Thursday that his energy security strategy had delivered “clean, affordable, secure power to the people for generations to come”.
In comments issued as he launched the policy at Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant in Somerset and put atomic energy front and centre of his plan, the prime minister said his government was the first for years that had not “dodged the big decisions on energy”.
Yet within hours, critics spoke of a lack of ambition, particularly around onshore wind and energy efficiency, avenues that experts say offer the best and quickest hope of bringing down bills and achieving energy self-sufficiency.
So what exactly is in the plan and what is missing from it?
Peak winter electricity demand is about 60 gigawatts and National Grid expects that to be 85GW by 2050, as vehicles and home heating are increasingly electrified, with a safety buffer needed on top of that.
Johnson has set a target of 25% of electricity coming from nuclear. That means increasing capacity from 7GW to 24GW by 2050, an effort to be overseen by a new body, Great British Nuclear.
The first phase will involve eight new nuclear reactors, equivalent to four 3GW power stations. Sizewell C is set for approval within this parliamentary term. Two more will follow in the next, with Wylfa on Anglesey the front-runner. After that, projects could be located at approved sites such as Oldbury in Gloucestershire and Moorside (Sellafield) in Cumbria. Small nuclear reactors of nearly 0.5GW each will be part of the mix, with both Rolls-Royce and GE Hitachi working on projects.
The recently approved “regulated asset base” funding model will transfer risk to the taxpayer, allaying risk-aversion among private firms, which has stymied recent development. Ministers have not ruled out taking a stake in individual plants.
There will, however, be no nuclear power plants in Scotland, whose parliament has reaffirmed its opposition.
“We will be the Saudi Arabia of wind power,” the government claims.
Offshore wind targets have been scaled up, from 40GW to 50GW, with planning reforms intended to cut delivery times, which can be up to 13 years. But Tory infighting has turned onshore into a sore point.
A leaked version of the energy plan, first reported by the i newspaper, include a target of 45GW by 2035, up from nearly 15GW now. That disappeared in the final document, after anti-wind Tory MPs refused to countenance overhauling planning laws that make onshore all but impossible to develop in England.
The government says it will look at offering local communities cheaper electricity bills in return for their consent but will not rip up those obstructive planning rules.
No such prohibition exists in Scotland, which is better suited to onshore than England thanks to greater wind speeds and more remote locations.
In a TV clip at Hinkley Point C, Johnson said onshore turbines were “controversial with people”.
“People feel that they affect the beauty of the countryside, I totally understand that.”
However, polling by YouGov in 2021 shows two thirds of people support onshore wind projects, even in rural areas.
Solar is in line for one of the biggest expansions. The plan envisages a fivefold increase that could take the total capacity from 14GW to 70GW by 2035. Unlike onshore wind, this could be underpinned by planning reform that favours development on non-protected sites.
The energy security plan contains no major new investment in upgrading leaky homes to make them easier and cheaper to heat, despite the price of gas – the heat source for 90% of homes – hitting historic highs.
As recently as 2012, the UK was upgrading 2.3m homes a year thanks to government funding that was cut when David Cameron vowed to eliminate “green crap”, slowing the rate to a trickle. The energy security plan offers very little to reignite that drive to insulate the UK, enraging environmental groups.
Oil and gas
The government’s renewable proposals have been accompanied by firmer support for oil and gas, further inflaming the ire of environmentalists. North Sea drillers will be encouraged to seek new licences, although the government hasn’t quantified what impact it expects this to have on production.
Having banned fracking in 2019, the government will commission an “impartial” review by the British Geological Survey into whether it can be done safely.