Prime minister Boris Johnson has set out wide-ranging proposals for the future of energy supply in the UK, including trebling nuclear-power generation within the next three decades and speeding up the planning system for offshore wind farms.
The British energy security strategy also targets new oil and gas projects in the North Sea, in part because of global uncertainty about supplies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the international backlash it has prompted.
On the next generation of nuclear power, the strategy proposes the delivery of eight new reactors across the nation, increasing deployment to a potential 24GW by 2050, which the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said was three times more than at present.
The strategy’s nuclear ambitions include the creation of a new body – dubbed the Great British Nuclear Vehicle – to help projects through every stage of the development process and create a “resilient pipeline” of new builds. Another element is collaborating with other nations on advanced nuclear technologies, including small modular reactors and advanced modular reactors.
Johnson’s strategy also repeats plans for ramping up efforts to switch UK households away from gas-powered heating, via better insulation and the use of heat-pump technology. Elsewhere, it proposes doubling the production of hydrogen for use as a clean “super fuel” by 2030.
The strategy pledges to make the UK “the Saudi Arabia” of wind power. And proposes investment in additional fixed and floating offshore wind farms as well as developing local partnerships in England through which a “limited number of supportive communities” can host new onshore wind farms in return for lower energy bills and other benefits. It adds that “smarter planning” for offshore wind projects will speed up the pace of deployment by 25%.
Controversially, the strategy says the government will be “open minded” about the future exploitation of onshore shale gas reserves, despite the current pause on fracking. It says an impartial technical review on shale gas has been commissioned from the British Geological Society that will look at scientific updates on seismicity for ministers to consider.
In his foreword to the the paper, Johnson said that for most of the industrial age the UK had been “energy independent” and the strategy would be a step towards making sure the nation had clean, secure and affordable power for generations to come.
“We need a power supply that’s made in Britain, for Britain – and that’s what this plan is all about,” he said.
“And as even the most evangelistic environmentalist would concede that we can’t simply pull the plug on all fossil fuels overnight without the lights going out all over Europe, we’re going to make better use of the oil and gas in our own backyard by giving the energy fields of the North Sea a new lease of life.”
Sue Ferns, senior deputy general secretary of the Prospect union – which represents professionals in the civil service and in industry – said the government’s commitment to new nuclear was “essential for net zero”. But she cautioned that the strategy was low on detail.
“This energy strategy is big on ambition and if matched with a concrete plan of action and funding from government will go a long way to providing the long-term energy security the UK needs,” she said. “We are yet to see that concrete plan however and it must not be allowed to slip.
“Direct investment in new nuclear will be hugely welcome – we now need direct government support for Sizewell C, Wylfa [nuclear power stations] and any other projects that can be set in motion. We have talked about this for too long and must commit fully with the cash and legislation to back it up.”
Ferns said increased investment in renewable energy was also very welcome, but said the government needed to make sure a greater proportion of infrastructure was made in the UK to sustain high-quality jobs. She said the same was true for the nuclear supply chain.
Darren Jones, who chairs parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee, described the strategy as a “missed opportunity”.
“For families and businesses across the country, energy security means being able to turn the heating or electricity on knowing you can afford to pay the bill,” he said.
“Ministers continue to ignore the reality faced by millions of people with yet another missed opportunity to help bill payers and a failure to announce funding for the home insulation works required to reduce the amount of heating needed in the first place.
“Replacing gas power with more nuclear power is lower carbon, but nuclear isn't renewable and it isn't cheap. It's disappointing that the government has failed to seize the full opportunity of onshore wind and solar once again with no explanation other than disagreements within the Conservative Party.”
He added: “This energy security strategy is the fifth energy policy announcement in a long line of energy policy announcements. We need the government to start delivering. Ministers must urgently explain how they plan to speed up the delivery of their promises instead of just launching yet another policy.”