UKERC’s initial comments on the Energy Security Strategy

07 Apr 2022

Prof Rob Gross, UKERC Director:

“The most welcome aspect of the strategy is it shows that energy security and decarbonisation are strongly aligned.

The strategy doubles down on many of the commitments made last year. It reinforces the emphasis government places on new nuclear and offshore wind. Whether government will part finance new nuclear is left a bit vague. It strikes compromises on onshore wind and fracking, which appear to have been controversial within the government.

Very little of what is announced will bring short term relief to households. Even the quickest of the new technologies – probably onshore wind, won’t be operational for years, irrespective of streamlining of planning. This is equally true for nuclear approvals and modular reactors. There is a lot of ambition on many fronts but it will all take time – from years hence to decades.

For this reason the announcement of an energy advice site for households is very welcome. There are many quick and relatively easy things households can do to fix draughts, insulate lofts and ensure that heating systems function as they should. More could and should be done this summer to help households prepare for next winter. A major information campaign could be launched to help. The strategy is a good start but action on energy efficiency could be much bolder.

The strategy makes no mention of the need for western European nations to work collaboratively to maximise security of supply. The UK, Norway, and the EU have an interconnected gas grid and it is essential to work together to mutual benefit and share import capacity, storage sites and reserves next winter.”

Prof Jianzhong Wu, UKERC Co-Director, on heat and hydrogen:

“Improving the energy efficiency of buildings is a cost-effective way to reduce our reliance on imports of fossil fuels, and should play a crucial role in ensuring both long- and short-term energy security, especially considering households are currently grappling with soaring energy bills.

The closure of historic energy efficiency schemes led to a significant gap in the Government’s energy efficiency deployment programme. The Heat and Building strategy placed much less emphasis on energy efficiency improvements of owner occupier homes. It is encouraging to see that the Energy Security Strategy make the installation of household energy saving measures VAT-free for the next 5 years. However, more effective strategy is still urgently needed to drive energy efficiency improvements.

A doubling to 10 GW of the goal for hydrogen projects and an ambition to develop 24 GW of nuclear power capacity by 2050 are welcomed, although it is not clear how much will be used for direct decarbonisation of heat supply. It says that at least half of the hydrogen will come from green hydrogen produced using water and renewable electricity. However, secure decarbonisation of heat needs the government to join the dots and provide an integrated plan for alternative options besides electrification of heat, e.g. pink hydrogen production and transportation using repurposed gas networks, and SMR for district heating and industrial heat.”

Prof Neil Strachan, UKERC Co-Director UKERC, on nuclear and demand side measures:

“It is very welcome to see that the UK government is aligning the net zero energy transition with improved energy security and reduced energy price volatility. This can be a win-win-win.

But major uncertainties remain in the Energy Security Strategy. Notably the caveats in the potential roll out for nuclear reflect unease in the scale of required public financial guarantees for nuclear power as renewables continues to see rapid reduction in costs.

And this Strategy is a missed opportunity on the energy demand side, as any proposed supply side improvements to energy security will only be realised in 10 to 15 years time. If the UK wanted to improve energy security right now, as well as generate many jobs and improve health outcomes, it should insulate every home and commercial building in the UK. But improving the energy efficiency of buildings is politically difficult as it involves the homes and businesses of millions of consumers and voters, and frankly is less glamourous than announcing major engineering projects.”

Prof Christian Brand, UKERC Co-Director, on transport:

“The absence on any near term strategy on how to deal with transport and the high cost of personal travel and freight is simply mind boggling. The recent reduction in fuel duty on fossil petrol and diesel was textbook regressive, meaning the £9bn it costs us will mainly benefit the better off at the expense of the poor.

We’re in an alternative world when the UK as a self-titled world leader on climate is less ambitious  on actions to reduce reliance on oil than the traditionally conservative International Energy Agency. The IEA’s 10-Point Plan to Cut Oil Use focuses almost entirely on transport and recommends actions such as 1970s-style speed limits, making public transport cheaper and more accessible, and car-free Sundays in cities. Our own UKERC research has shown time and again that these actions have significant carbon benefits, and can be done now.”

Prof Nicky Beaumont, UKERC Co-Director, on the environment:

Marine renewables are rightly proposed to play an increasingly significant role in the UK energy mix and this emphasis on decarbonisation is fully supported. The aspiration to deliver 50GW of offshore wind by 2030 is a strong opportunity. To be truly ‘green’ this deployment must be undertaken with due care and process, fully taking into account the potential impacts on the marine environment, ecosystems and biodiversity.

Although the secondary impacts of offshore wind may not be as immediately obvious as onshore wind, they do exist. Impacts will be both positive, such as providing additional habitats for shellfish, but also potentially negative, for example to some bird and mammal species.  We currently have a poor understanding of the full implications of making such major changes to our offshore environment. Ensuring that this offshore development is truly ‘green’ will be a major challenge for UK science in the coming years. As such, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, in collaboration with UKERC, are continuing our extensive research efforts to support these changes and ensure the most sustainable approach can be taken.

The strategy includes increased safeguarding for the development of offshore wind, but given the proposed speed of deployment ensuring these are comprehensively applied, will be critical in the coming years.”

Prof Keith Bell, UKERC Co-Director, on switching from fossil fuels to electricity:

“Fundamentally, in the medium to long term across the world, we’ve got to leave fossil fuels in the ground unless we capture and store the carbon dioxide released by burning. Reducing dependency on gas is also crucial in the short-term.

There is a strong commitment in the Strategy towards low carbon sources of energy, such as wind, solar and nuclear power, though it’s going to be a challenge to deliver the scale promised in the timescales promised.

In the transition to lower dependence on gas and oil, three things are important:

  1. Being as efficient as possible in our use of energy.
  2. Being able to make full use of low carbon electricity when it’s available.
  3. Still meeting demand when it’s not windy.

Switching use of energy from gas, oil, petrol and diesel to electricity helps on both 1 and 2. Electricity in heat pumps is more than 3 times as efficient as a gas boiler in providing heat, and in electric vehicles is around 4 times as efficient as an internal combustion engine using petrol or diesel.

However, we also want to, in effect, move the electrical energy from hours of plenty of wind and solar to hours of paucity. That can be done via interconnections with countries with complementary resources, such as Norway, or forms of storage. It’s therefore interesting to see a commitment to up to 10 GW of hydrogen production capacity by 2030 with at least half of that being ‘green’ hydrogen. There will also be efforts to develop demand for hydrogen, e.g. in transport. Use of hydrogen should be prioritised for sectors in which there are few alternatives. Just as happened with wind, the creation of a market can help to drive down costs.

The big gaps in the Strategy are on the demand side: stronger measures to help us be more efficient in our use of energy, such as through insulation of buildings and in conversion to electric heating and transport.”

Prof Mike Bradshaw, UKERC Co-Director, on gas:

“Amid a global energy crisis and a European determination to move away from Russia oil and gas imports, the UK Government has come up with an energy strategy that fails to address the short-term challenges facing UK consumers and industry, while rehashing, promising to consult and accelerate longer-term solutions.

This is a long-term strategy with an emphasis on electricity supply, it is not an energy security strategy.

None of this deals with the immediate problems posed by our current reliance on oil and gas to drive our economy and heat our homes, something that is unlikely to change that much in the coming few years.

The harsh reality is that there is little that the UK Government can do to reduce the price of gas, but it could do more to ensure that we continue to have access to the gas we need, less than half of which now comes from domestic sources, something that it is unlikely change in the short-term despite a new licensing round for North Sea oil and gas. Equally, lifting the moratorium on fracking is not a solution as the industry is unlikely to ever gain the pace and scale needed to make a difference. It is also even more unpopular than onshore wind.

More could be done to increase the transparency of our gas market and encourage the use of longer-term supply contracts; equally, the current lack of storage needs to be revisited and would enable us to make more of our LNG import facilities.

The strategy recognises the need for low carbon sources of flexibility, but for the medium-term it is likely to continue be supplied by natural gas. Equally, reliance on blue hydrogen supports gas demand.

Outside of the power system, in the short-term, domestic gas demand can only be reduced by improving the energy efficiency of our housing stock, which is also a prerequisite for the effective installation of heat-pumps. The strategy pays lip service to demand reduction and efficiency which is a low-regrets approach.

In industry, natural gas is not just an energy and heat source that is difficult decarbonise, as when have seen through supply chain problems, it is also a critical input into production processes.

In short, there is still no sign of ‘gas by design,’ just more ‘gas by default’ that pays no attention to our short-to-medium term gas security challenges that the country faces.

If the Government’s long-term strategy is realised there will be a significant reduction in the role of natural gas in the UK’s energy system, this is not new; but if it fails or is significantly delayed, we will remain exposed to gas security risks for longer.

Whatever happens, there is a pressing need to manage the changing role of natural gas envisaged in the ongoing energy transition to ensure that critical infrastructures remain in place as demand falls.

Yes, longer term the aim should be to improve our energy security by reducing our reliance on oil and gas, while also meeting our Net-Zero ambitions, but the immediate challenge is managing the current energy system to improve its efficiency and resilience.”