In the face of shocks from Ukraine and inflation, London is reviewing its energy priorities

British Energy Secretary Kwasi Quarting at COP26 in Glasgow, November 4, 2021 (Daniel LEAL / AFP / Archives)

A few months ago, the UK hosted the COP26 international climate conference and the London Energy Strategy which focused on the transition to carbon neutrality. Since then, the war in Ukraine and inflation changed the situation.

The Conservative government unveiled a new energy security strategy on Thursday that wants to accelerate nuclear, wind, solar but also fossil fuels in the North Sea, drawing criticism from NGOs and the opposition.

Energy Minister Kwasi Quarting stressed Thursday morning that there was “absolutely no doubt” that the UK’s climate commitments had been de-prioritized.

But “given what is happening in the world (…) we are also working to bring back energy independence to the UK”, he justified. The first round of licensing for hydrocarbon exploitation in the North Sea will open this summer.

Boris Johnson during a visit to the Moray Offshore Windfarm East off the coast of Aberdeenshire on August 5, 2021
Boris Johnson during a visit to the Moray Offshore Windfarm East off the coast of Aberdeenshire on August 5, 2021 (Jane Barlow/POOL/AFP/Archives)

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who targets “nearly half of the country’s energy capacity coming from offshore wind from ‘Here 2030’,” added the country “will never again be blackmailed by people like (Russian President) Vladimir Putin.”

M. Johnson compte aussi “relancer complètement l’industrie nucléaire, qui je le crains était plus ou moins moribonde dans ce pays”, at-il ajouté en visitant jeudi le chantier de la centrale nucléaire de Hinkley construction Point, seule country.

Critics on Thursday targeted the option of producing more hydrocarbons but also a strategy that will take years to pay off, without doing anything in the short term to reduce the energy bills of Britons who shine.

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The project has an electronic image of the two nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point in southwest England, in London on July 28, 2016
The project has an electronic image of the two nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point in southwest England, in London on July 28, 2016 (Hayes Davidson/EDF ENGERY/AFP/Archives)

Despite “some improvements to renewable energy targets”, the government has “prioritized slow solutions”, and Greenpeace UK expresses its displeasure.

The new plan “supports new oil and gas licenses” contrary to the country’s climate goals and addresses the NGO, stressing that these new drilling “take an average of 28 years to start.”

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday called new investments in fossil fuels an “economic and moral folly” in light of the climate emergency.

But Kwasi Kwarteng no longer hesitates to assert to the contrary that it would be “absolutely insane” for the UK “to shut down its national gas spout in such an uncertain world”.

EPRs around the world
EPRs around the world (Vincent LEFAI / AFP)

Under pressure from the British forced to choose between heating or food, the minister acknowledges, however, that drilling more domestically will not bring down gas prices, which follow international market prices. “So we need to generate more electricity in Britain” using renewable and nuclear energy sources, he insists.

Aging of the nuclear fleet

The UK is planning to speed up the development of atom, planning as many as eight new reactors by 2050 at some of its eight designated nuclear sites, aiming to supply 25% of electricity demand.

Originally called Windscale, the site was renamed Sellafield after it had a serious accident at one of its reactors in 1957, at Sellafield in northern England, September 26, 2002
Originally named Windscale, the site was renamed Sellafield after a serious accident at one of its reactors in 1957, in Sellafield in northern England, September 26, 2002 (ODD ANDERSEN / AFP / Archives)

But its strategy relies in particular on the small, modular reactors built by Rolls Royce, which will require years of development: the first won’t be operational until the early 2030s.

Great Britain currently has 15 reactors in eight sites, but many are at the end of their lives and Hinckley Point, a project implemented by China’s EDF and CGN, has seen its costs rise and will not open until 2026.

London aims to produce 95% of low-carbon electricity by 2030. But while the role of gas will gradually decrease in the country, it will not disappear by then, and its emissions will have to be offset by carbon capture strategies.

The Committee on Climate Change, a public body responsible for advising the government, commented: “The new commitments are very ambitious” but “it is disappointing not to see more (advertisements) on energy performance and household support” to reduce bills immediately.

London is also looking, in the longer term, towards the promising technology of “green” hydrogen and tidal energy.

In contrast, the Energy Minister recently indicated that hydraulic fracturing and onshore wind power will not have a central role due to “strong domestic opposition”.

But onshore wind is the “cheapest and fastest source of energy” to implement, Ed Miliband, head of the opposition Labor Party’s climate change division, criticized on Thursday.

But this energy “has been stopped since 2015” due to “a few Conservative MPs who are holding government energy policy hostage,” he said.

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