A UK Energy Strategy for the future? Or a bundle of possibilities?

Last week the UK Government published its energy strategy for the next 30 years. For some it’s a blueprint for future energy security, for others it’s too little, too late and does nothing to help those struggling to pay their bills today. Suffice to say it’s a mixed bag. Nevertheless, there are some pointers for the infrastructure sector in terms of future investment and opportunities. If you’d like to read the detail of the strategy please follow this link https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/british-energy-security-strategy/british-energy-security-strategy#contents   and if you’d like to read the response of the Welsh Government follow this Written Statement: UK Energy Security Strategy (8 April 2022). There’s a lot in it but here are some of my thoughts, from a Welsh perspective of course.

Firstly, the strategy feels like something that could and should have been developed many years ago. The “energy landscape” has suffered from confused and disjointed decision making for too long. And, energy security, everyone’s latest buzzword, has been a foreseeable risk long before the war in Ukraine but the UK Government has been kicking the can down the road and avoiding this for too long. There’s lots of references to “taking back control”, so why was control over such an important part of our lives lost or given away in the first place?

The strategy promises a lot, and there are some very sensible proposals in there which, if combined with investment, will offer lots of opportunities for the infrastructure sector. However, this UK Government, unfortunately, has a track record of over-promising and under-delivering especially when it comes to infrastructure. Many of the commitments are a long way down the line, some are quite clear proposals to appease groups within the government and, arguably, many are a considerable step back on carbon reduction commitments – anyone remember COP26? You could say it’s a “mish mash” of all possibilities but no real sense of coherence. Unfair? Maybe.

A significant emphasis is being placed on nuclear energy which is obviously a very emotive area and has significant legacy issues and costs. Whether you are for or against it’s obvious to everyone that this will take decades to develop even with infrastructure already in place in areas such as Wylfa and Trawsfynydd. And we’ve already seen Hitachi pull out of Wylfa due to an inability to cut a deal on costs (and some dreadful mixed messaging from this same UK Government). So, we’ve been here before. Perhaps the UK Government (and others) need to shift the focus for justifying investment away from just cost to other value factors such as national security?

Hydrogen is mentioned as an opportunity for the future. Hynet in northeast Wales and northwest England will hopefully offer opportunities and developments through the South Wales Industrial Cluster (SWIC), which many civil engineering businesses are involved in, will also support the strategy. But it’s one for the future, albeit near future.

And what about tidal power? Remember the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon? And there are others in development in the north of Wales. There is little or no reference to these in the strategy despite the enormous tidal ranges around the coast of Wales. As with nuclear perhaps the focus for justification needs to shift to a more holistic formula based on much longer return periods? Anyone for a Severn Barrage? Or is that too much deja vu for one article?

Offshore wind generation receives considerable support and this offers a significant opportunity to many across the civil engineering sector. It should also offer opportunities for local communities impacted by these developments and social value needs to be at the forefront of these developments. It would be great to see investment coming in from Wales based investment funds too, especially local authority pension funds.

Onshore wind generation, however, doesn’t get quite the same reception though. It is still one of the cheapest forms of renewable generation but still receives considerable resistance from local communities, particularly in many strongholds of the current UK Government. Solar also receives little attention being seen as a “done deal” but more needs to be done to facilitate this – why are new houses still being built with no solar panels as automatic additions to the roof space?

And there’s not much on fluvial hydro either. This feels like a great opportunity for small rural communities in Wales to benefit directly from renewable micro-generation particularly at a time when energy bills are so high. Unfortunately, the National Grid continues to be a major constraint on development opportunities in Wales (not just for hydro either). Perhaps we could explore local grids? Current Welsh Government and Welsh Affairs Select Committee Inquiries are exploring this further but this strategy offers little or nothing in this area.

Finally, it’s disappointing to see little ambition in the strategy about reducing energy consumption for example by improving energy efficiency in homes. In fact, the strategy is driving towards increased consumption of oil and gas and the use of fracking which will do nothing to reduce carbon emissions. I suspect there will be a parallel drive to introduce lots of carbon capture schemes so that we can conveniently ignore any increase in emissions!

That’s just a few thoughts from me, which you may or may not agree with! Overall, whilst the strategy is absolutely necessary, it feels like more of a timely political imperative with lots of spin and little detail. Confidence levels in the commitment of this UK Government to deliver on the significant investment needed for the infrastructure will remain low until we see “the colour of the money”. And for that to happen we all need to see this “strategy” (or wish list depending on your standpoint) quickly backed up by a detailed implementation plan including sector specific investment strategies. Who knows, we might even be able to train up enough people to deliver such an impressive infrastructure programme over the next decade. God forbid!

Unfortunately, whilst this strategy gives a glimpse of what the future could hold if the UK Government backs it up with firm plans and investment, the reality of the current situation is that this strategy does nothing to alleviate the pain being felt by individuals struggling to pay astronomical increases in energy costs today. And that, sadly, is a political choice!