The UK must unshackle itself from ‘Ghosts of Energy Past’ to reach Net Zero

Overhead power lines

The Energy White Paper’s support for technologies that are costly and late is out of step with the need for rapid decarbonisation

The UK government’s long awaited Energy White Paper arrived this week, providing a pre-Christmas gift for energy system geeks like us and the climate-concerned public alike. The strategy gives some certainty about the UK’s coming green transformation, which is undoubtedly cause for optimism. However, certain ‘Ghosts of Energy Past’ threaten to blur the “fair deal” promised for consumers – leaving our energy system, like Jacob Marley from A Christmas Carol, entwined in chains, and slowing our journey to net zero emissions.

On many levels, the white paper does its job, giving clear backing for a dynamic and responsive electricity grid, deploying more offshore wind, storage and electric vehicles, underpinned by big data – a clear acknowledgement that the system of the future will not look like that of the past.

Yet the major investments planned for technologies that carry the greatest burden in cost and time – namely new nuclear and carbon capture and storage (CCS) – are contrary to the imperative to rapidly speed up implementation to meet the stated goal of achieving “overwhelmingly decarbonised power in the 2030s.”

The ghost of nuclear past

Nuclear power station

Britons are still haunted by the promise, made a decade ago, that we would be cooking our Christmas dinners with power from a new nuclear plant in 2017. Three Christmases later, we’re still waiting for Hinkley Point C, one of the world’s most expensive power plants, to come online. Unlike those of us that leave gift wrapping to the last minute, the price tag of new nuclear has been carefully removed from the Energy White Paper. At £20 billion – twice the amount budgeted – Hinkley is not expected to start providing electricity until 2025. If the plant’s younger sister Sizewell C also receives the green-light, another £20 billion will be spent on large scale, unproven infrastructure, that will not come online until the end of the 2020s (at the very earliest).

When considering the remarkable levels of subsidy that go hand-in-hand with nuclear, the Energy White Paper’s premonition that Sizewell C could be approved on grounds of ‘value for money’ is likely to haunt generations for decades to come, should it become reality. 

The ghost of energy present

There’s no disputing that renewables have won the price war. COVID-19 showed that the share of renewable power in the UK energy system today can already reach 60%. The pandemic gave a glimpse into how – with the necessary investment in system balancing and flexibility – the true potential of renewable baseload power can be unlocked quickly, reliably and cost effectively to maximise emissions cuts before 2030.

Yet, despite their proven role in the current energy system, the strategy has little to say on promoting proven onshore technologies such as wind and solar, which can substantially accelerate decarbonisation. This is a missed opportunity. Similarly, unlike nuclear and CCS, which operate independently of a flexible, distributed power system, renewables work symbiotically with the array of low carbon technologies supported by the Energy White Paper, such as electric heating and electric vehicles.

Onshore wind turbine

Opening the door to ‘energy future’

Like Bob Cratchit’s family feast, a power system leveraging system flexibility is an inclusive affair – with greater potential to stimulate new market entrants and competition in the coming decades – and thus to drive down costs. The guest of honour at this table of the future energy system is, of course, green hydrogen, which promises to transform how we use energy – decarbonising hard-to-electrify sectors such as transport, heating and heavy industry, before 2050.

The government’s aim to develop 5GW of low-carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030 acknowledges the opportunity ahead. Yet, the white paper does not fully reflect that to produce hydrogen efficiently, the energy system must operate a very high share of renewables, so that excess clean power can be absorbed and used to create green hydrogen. If the UK effectively ‘locks up’ its energy system with inflexible nuclear power, it will block itself from using much beyond 70% renewables – closing the door on the UK green hydrogen economy.

To return to A Christmas Carol, Scrooge awoke on Christmas morning in a rapturous state following his ghostly visitations since, “…the time before him was his own, to make amends in!” We must take forward Scrooge’s optimism and ambition – and make decisions that accelerate the deployment of a flexible, future-proof system powered by the lowest cost, cleanest energy.