Experts and environmentalists pan Tory energy strategy

The government today published its long-awaited strategy for increasing the UK’s energy independence. The strategy contains an ambition to deliver up to eight new nuclear reactors before 2030, including two at Sizewell in Suffolk.

While offshore wind is also part of the plan, there was dismay at the announcement of a fresh licensing round this summer for new North Sea oil and gas projects as well as the commissioning of a new scientific study into fracking. The controversial practice has been subjected to a UK ban since 2019, amid fierce local opposition, but some Tory MPs have been pushing for it to be lifted.

The government strategy stands in marked contrast to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report at the start of this week. As Damian Carrington, the Guardian’s Environment editor, pointed out, “the IPCC report on Monday, produced by scientists from across the globe and signed off by 195 governments, mentions renewables, wind, solar and efficiency 67 times in its summary. It cites nuclear once (in brackets), as an example of a technology with high upfront costs.  The UK energy strategy also backs more drilling for oil and gas in the North Sea – which flies in the face of its own net-zero climate targets.”

Scientific experts were highly critical of the government strategy. Bridget Woodman, Senior lecturer in the Deputy Director Energy Policy Group, University of Exeter, said: “Exploiting new fossil fuel sources, whether in the North Sea or from fracking, is environmental madness if we want to meet our commitment to have net zero emissions by 2050.”

“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. “Furthermore, the emphasis on new nuclear power will push up bills as we continue to have to subsidise an industry which has benefited from billions of pounds of public and consumer subsidy for over 70 years.”

She concluded: “The cheapest way of delivering lower emissions, while also ensuring a reduction in bills and carbon emissions, is to invest in energy efficiency.  The repeated failure to come up with meaningful measures to help people reduce their energy demand and their bills is a huge failure of public policy.”

Dr Sarah Darby, Associate Professor at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, agreed: “ 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% public support for them. So little attention is paid to energy demand that the report can’t really be called a strategy.”

Prof Jon Gluyas, Director of the Durham Energy Institute, said the strategy as “does very little to meet the nation’s zero carbon mantra shouted so loudly at COP26. Nothing is said about buildings or improving their energy efficiency.  The first line of any new energy policy in the UK should read ‘insulate, insulate, insulate’.  It also ignores the huge quantity of waste heat in the UK that could be put to better use.  Indeed if we could use just 20% of our waste heat it would cut our gas bill by 5%.”

Dr Christian Brand, UKERC Co-Director, Associate Professor, Oxford University, said:  “The absence of any near-term strategy on how to deal with transport and the high cost of personal travel and freight is simply mind-boggling. The recent reduction in fuel duty on fossil petrol and diesel was textbook regressive, meaning the £9bn it costs us will mainly benefit the better off at the expense of the poor.”

Prof Michael Grubb, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at UCL, said: “The defining feature of this Energy Strategy is incoherence. It doesn’t know what problem it is trying to solve – and thus fails to solve any. By ignoring energy efficiency and kicking the only possible short-term supply option into the long grass, by ‘consulting’ about cheap onshore wind through ‘local partnerships’ in a ‘limited number of supportive communities in England’ – it most certainly won’t help families struggling with energy bills for the coming winters.”

The environmental pressure group Friends of the Earth condemned the astonishing lack of action on energy efficiency which will leave people freezing, desperate and out of pocket next winter.

Commenting on the government’s Energy Security Strategy, Friends of the Earth energy campaigner, Danny Gross, said: “Households are facing soaring bills and need help right now. The quickest way the government can do this is through renewables and funding a council-led, street-by-street free insulation programme.  “This fails as a strategy, as it does not do the most obvious things that would reduce energy demand and protect households from price hikes.”

He added: “Delving deeper into the UK’s treasure trove of renewables is the surest path to meeting our energy needs – not the fool’s gold of fossil fuels. Nuclear power is not the solution either. New nuclear power stations would take well over a decade to build and they’re expensive, hazardous and produce waste that will remain highly radioactive for thousands of years. We have been here before, with eight nuclear sites announced in 2010. Over a decade on, the only one under construction is seriously behind schedule and over budget, with a price far above current renewables.”

Friends of the Earth is calling on the government to:

• Introduce a huge nationwide energy efficiency drive – with particular focus on the UK’s heat-leaking homes. The government should pay councils to roll out a street-by-street programme of free loft and wall insulation, starting in neighbourhoods with high fuel poverty. This would not only reduce energy demand, it would cut fuel bills too. Almost 8 million homes could benefit and it could be carried out quickly.

• Help homes get off gas. The government should fully fund low-carbon heating solutions for those unable to pay and remove caps on the number of available grants. Doing so would help the 10 million homes ready for fitting heat pumps, and mean it isn’t just the wealthy who can benefit from the transition to a low-carbon future.

• Rapidly increase renewable power infrastructure – including onshore wind. Home-grown renewable energy is the cheapest form of energy, and onshore wind and solar farms are the fastest to build. Planning barriers that hamper the development of onshore wind must be lifted.

• Reject calls for new oil and gas extraction projects. Opening new gas and oil fields will only fuel further climate breakdown. What’s more, it fails to address the immediate needs of energy security and soaring energy prices.

• Introduce a windfall tax on fossil fuel companies. Fossil fuel companies are enjoying record profits as our energy bills soar. Oil and gas companies should foot the bill.

Friends of the Earth also rejected the new review into fracking, saying: “We don’t need a review to know that fracking is not the answer to our energy needs. The idea that shale gas extraction will significantly lower energy bills or improve energy security is pure fantasy.”

Image: “Scout Moor Wind Farm and some people” by Gidzy is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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