UK promises more nuclear and North Sea oil in energy revamp

Boris Johnson says long-awaited strategy will reduce UK dependence on foreign energy sources

Construction work on the reinforced concrete and steel home of a reactor at Nuclear Island 1, at Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant, near Bridgwater in Somerset, England. PA
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Britain has unveiled a sweeping new energy strategy which will see more oil and gas extracted from the North Sea and as many as eight nuclear reactors added to the power grid, in a push to to tackle the twin crises of soaring fuel prices and Russia's hold over European energy markets.

But the long-awaited strategy, which set the goal of producing 95 per cent of electricity from low-carbon sources by 2030, was lukewarm on expanding wind power on the British mainland and did not commit to resuming shale gas fracking, both moves supported by some MPs.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the revamp would give the UK greater self-sufficiency and shield it from volatile international energy markets which it cannot control and which ministers blame for rocketing household fuel costs.

The opposition Labour Party said the strategy did nothing to help consumers today, failed to invest in energy efficiency and criticised the government's lack of enthusiasm for onshore wind.

Under the new strategy:

  • In an expansion of atomic energy, a public body called Great British Nuclear will oversee the construction of up to eight reactors at a pace of one a year;
  • Offshore wind turbines will have a target of producing 50GW of electricity by 2030, up from a previous aim of 40GW, supported by looser planning rules;
  • But onshore wind will only be expanded in a "limited number of supportive communities" who wish to have it;
  • In a push to "maximise" North Sea oil and gas production, new licences for fossil fuel extraction will be issued in the autumn;
  • Ministers have commissioned a scientific review on shale gas fracking after it was banned in 2019 over fears of earthquakes.

The new strategy comes amid spiralling fuel prices at home and a worldwide scramble to break free of politically toxic Russian energy imports after the invasion of Ukraine.

Ministers are promising “cleaner and more affordable energy” to be made in the country by boosting wind, new nuclear, solar and hydrogen power.

Under the government’s plans a new body, Great British Nuclear, will be launched to bolster the UK’s nuclear capacity, with the hope of up to 24 gigawatts of electricity by 2050, or 25 per cent of the projected electricity demand.

It is hoped the focus on nuclear will deliver up to eight reactors, the equivalent of one a year instead of one a decade.

The strategy also confirmed the intention to push ahead with a nuclear project at the Wylfa site in Anglesey.

“We’re setting out bold plans to scale up and accelerate affordable, clean and secure energy made in Britain, for Britain, from new nuclear to offshore wind, in the decade ahead," Mr Johnson said.

“This will reduce our dependence on power sources exposed to volatile international prices we cannot control, so we can enjoy greater energy self-sufficiency with cheaper bills.”

The rocketing energy bills faced by families have been caused in part by a post-pandemic rise in demand for gas, with lower levels of production.

This was exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, decreasing energy supplies and the production of wheat and some metals.

On offshore wind, the plan outlines the ambition of producing up to 50GW of energy by 2030, which the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said would be more than enough to power every home in the UK.

About 5GW should come from floating offshore wind turbines in deeper seas and planning reforms will slash approval times for new wind farms from four years to one year.

It is thought a major crunch point in the strategy, and one of the reasons its launch has been delayed, is wrangling over onshore wind farms.

Several ministers have backed the development of new oil and gas, but not onshore wind, which is one of the cheapest forms of electricity, along with solar.

Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg played down the earthquake risks from fracking and suggested “every last drop” of oil should be extracted from the North Sea.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he did not favour a vast increase in onshore wind farms, which “can create something of an eyesore”.

The government said it would be “consulting on developing partnerships with a limited number of supportive communities who wish to host new onshore wind infrastructure in return for guaranteed lower energy bills”.

It has already commissioned a review into the science around fracking, which could pave the way to lifting the moratorium on the controversial process.

A £30 million ($39m) competition to make heat pumps is also to be launched, and there are ambitions to increase solar capacity with a consultation of the rules for projects.

The government also aims to double its goal of low-carbon hydrogen production to 10GW by 2030, with at least half of that coming from green hydrogen.

Meanwhile, on oil and gas, a new licensing round for new North Sea oil and gas projects is planned for the autumn to cover the “nearer term”.

“We have seen record-high gas prices around the world," Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said.

“We need to protect ourselves from price spikes in the future by accelerating our move towards cleaner, cheaper, home-grown energy.

“The simple truth is that the more cheap, clean power we generate within our borders, the less exposed we will be to eye-watering fossil fuel prices set by global markets we can’t control.

“Scaling up cheap renewables and new nuclear, while maximising North Sea production, is the best and only way to ensure our energy independence over the coming years.”

The plan was welcomed by offshore wind company Orsted, trade association Hydrogen UK, Shell and EDF, among others.

But Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow climate change and net-zero secretary, said: “The government’s energy relaunch is in disarray.

“Boris Johnson has completely caved to his own backbenchers and now, ludicrously, his own energy strategy has failed on the sprint we needed on onshore wind and solar, the cheapest, cleanest forms of homegrown power.

“This relaunch will do nothing for the millions of families now facing an energy bills crisis. No reversal of the ban on onshore wind and not a penny more on energy efficiency.

“These decisions will force households to pay hundreds of pounds more for their energy bills and keep the UK dependent on imported gas for longer.”

Steam, which would have been used to turn the turbines, is released from Reactor 4 at Hunterston B nuclear power plant in North Ayrshire, which is being permanently shut down almost 46 years after it started generating electricity. PA

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said the plans were “utterly hopeless”.

Climate think tank E3G said the announced plans had “failed to support the action needed to either get off Russian gas this year or bring down energy bills”.

“With no new support to save energy and by holding back on solar power and onshore wind, this strategy will do nothing to help the UK get off Russian gas this year," said Ed Matthew, campaigns director at E3G.

“Instead, the government has prioritised policies that will keep us dependent on high-cost fossil fuels and nuclear power.

“This isn’t an energy security strategy and will do nothing to bring down energy bills. It is a national security threat and the person who will be happiest with it is Vladimir Putin.”

Updated: April 07, 2022, 8:28 AM