Reflecting on the British Energy Security Strategy

Eryl Bradley
Written by Eryl Bradley

Tags: communications Energy sustainability sustainnovation

Following weeks of speculation, leaks, and story-trailing, the UK Government released its long-awaited British Energy Security Strategy. Why did it take so long to publish this landmark document? Sources say there have been fraught debates raging at the ministerial level over what should and should not be prioritised or even included within the paper, in which policymakers hang their hats on a range of measures to secure the UK’s power supplies for the coming decades.

Whatever the reason for the delay, we now have the final version in our hands. Cutting through the hyperbole and political soundbites, what does it tell us about the Government’s plan for keeping Britain’s lights on and homes heated?

Betting the house on nuclear

As expected, the Strategy goes full tilt towards nuclear power, claiming: “this government will reverse decades of myopia, and make the big call to lead again in a technology the UK was the first to pioneer, by investing massively in nuclear power.” The Strategy sets an ambitious target to source 25% of Britain’s projected electricity demand in this way by 2050, representing a marked shift towards a technology that has long been plagued by reputational and logistical issues.

The pivot is unsurprising, particularly in light of the record rise in gas and coal prices seen over the last year, which have soared by more than 200% and 100% respectively on the global market to which we remain exposed. As a homegrown, reliable, and zero-carbon source of power, nuclear generation could provide a backbone against which a network of other, more intermittent technologies can be built. One thing nuclear power is not, however, is quick off the starting blocks. Reactors take years if not decades to commission, and the inclusion of nuclear as a central pillar of the Strategy has thrown up criticisms from many corners of the industry who demand to know what can be done now and for the next ten years to alleviate pressure on households, many of which are struggling to stay afloat in what is already a ferocious cost-of-living crisis.

A stitch in time

It takes a lot of nerve to announce a strategy that places its allegiances so firmly on long-term solutions when the immediate future looks so challenging. In the paper’s foreword, Johnson writes of a governmental legacy of “policy fudges, decision-dodging and short-term thinking” that has led to the fractured and ill-designed energy landscape currently seen in the UK. Indeed, quick-fix Band-Aids that are effective vote winners but which do little to improve outcomes are what got us into this mess in the first place, and it’s heartening to see an acknowledgement of the need to get beyond the four-year political cycle if we’re to meet the challenge ahead. 

That said, the two options are not mutually exclusive. Whilst we wait for the promised grand, green land of tomorrow, there are systems and solutions capable of relieving at least some of the burden over the shorter term, and many are wondering why more hasn’t been made of them in this Strategy.

Improving the here and now

Besides mammoth investment in new and existing technologies, there is a point within the Strategy worth surfacing for its cost-effective impact and short-term potential: shaking up the planning system. On logjams often seen within the industry, Johnson writes: “Energy companies tell me they can get an offshore wind turbine upright and generating in less than 24 hours but that it can take as much as 10 years to secure the licences and permissions required to do so.”

This is an issue seen across sectors and technologies, indicating the need for a serious rethink of the planning process if we are to make a decentralised network of clean energy generation logistically possible. Removing obstacles and clearing the way for these projects would start relieving some of the demand-side pressure in a far shorter time than nuclear alternatives, but without detailed guidance on making this happen, any targets set out within the Strategy to improve the process look ineffective.

If not now, when?

There is undoubtedly an art to creating a holistic energy security strategy that balances supply, demand, politics, finance, technology, and skill not just for today but over the coming decades, which look set to be as turbulent and unpredictable as the one from which we have just emerged. Which levers will we pull, to what extent, and in what order?

There was little chance of today’s policy document satisfying every critic, and there are many areas in which more detail, more investment, and more attention are undoubtedly needed. But there’s something to be said for a Strategy that focuses on greater energy independence in the face of the current political climate, and one that grasps the nettle of our current energy landscape and faces it with a determinedly long-term view. The coming years are certain to be challenging, and it is only a resolute focus on getting to net zero that will keep us on track to meet and overcome the many hurdles ahead.

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