Are the Conservatives on track with their green energy pledges?

The prime minister’s keynote speech to the Conservative party conference said that the UK’s journey to a net zero economy is down to “optimism”. It is now nearly a year since he announced the government’s Ten Point Plan for reaching net zero and decarbonising our energy in the process. As soaring energy prices continue to grab headlines, how is the government doing on its plans for a green energy transition?

Offshore wind

The UK was already a world leader in offshore wind when the Ten Point Plan was launched, and its pledge to quadruple capacity would probably see us generating enough wind energy to power every home in the UK. In March 2021, the government announced funding of up to £95 million for two new ports on the Humber and Teesside to build the next generation of wind projects. The Offshore Wind Manufacturing Investment Support Scheme offers a further £160 million.

The government’s intention, as set out in the Ten Point Plan, was to encourage £20 billion of private investment for the sector in the next decade. So far only about half a billion pounds’ worth of private investment has been announced, but it is early days yet.

However, some analysts are blaming the focus on wind power for our current energy woes.  Mild weather has meant that although our total wind capacity is over 24.2GW, there have been some days this year when the UK produced less than 1GW of energy through wind power. Many other countries in Europe are in similar situations, and it is a reminder that capacity is no guarantee of what you will actually generate.

Low-carbon hydrogen

The aim is to develop 5GW of low-carbon hydrogen production capacity, using it to reduce the carbon footprint of cooking and heating our homes. The first item on the list was to publish the Hydrogen Strategy, which the government did in August 2021, and to consult on the preferred business models, which it is currently doing.

Currently, less than 1% of hydrogen being produced can be described as green; that is, extracted using electricity from renewable sources. Most of the hydrogen produced in the world is “grey hydrogen”, requiring several tonnes of fossil fuels per tonne of hydrogen. “Blue” hydrogen is somewhere in the middle because although it is produced from fossil fuels, the carbon arising from the process is locked underground through carbon capture and storage (CCUS) instead of reaching the atmosphere. The government is currently financing a “twin-track” approach where it supports the exploration of new technologies to create both “green” and “blue” hydrogen.

Meanwhile, the Office for Low Emission Vehicles has been exploring the possibility of modifying diesel engines to run on a mix of hydrogen and diesel, potentially helping to decarbonise the road freight sector.

New nuclear

The Ten Point Plan sets out the aim to invest in a new generation of nuclear projects. Hinkley Point C is intended to be the first of these, coming online in the “mid 2020s”. However, there have been delays to the building project because of Covid and a shortage of workers, and the plant is now due to open in June 2026 rather than in 2025 as originally planned.

Meanwhile, there is concern over the planned Sizewell C reactor, with energy giant EDF warning the UK government that it needs to decide whether or not China should remain involved. If the government decides to cut China out of the project because of a breakdown in relations, it may take on China’s share itself.

Most of the UK’s nuclear power plants are ageing and set to close by the end of the decade. Unplanned outages caused by the need for maintenance are one of the reasons why the UK’s energy system is having such a difficult autumn.

Another uncomfortable issue to face is the waste. The radioactive waste generated by creating nuclear power needs to be stored for thousands of years before it is safe, which means that all the waste created since the UK’s first nuclear power station was launched in 1956 is still with us. Most of it is being securely stored above ground at the Sellafield site in Cumbria, but a new generation of power stations needs a scaled-up and very long-term solution.

If the UK signed its legally binding net zero pledge in a spirit of optimism, hopefully the same can-do spirit will help it to overcome the energy challenges ahead.