Court threat as ‘half-baked’ UK energy security reset leaves green groups cold

The UK’s eagerly awaited energy security strategy reset was branded a let-down by the nation’s renewables industry when it was unveiled today (Thursday), while environmental groups threatened new legal action.

UK Energy Security & Net Zero Secretary Grant Shapps set out a raft of policies he claimed would boost independence from imported energy sources, cut bills and give the UK a “world leading position in achieving net zero”. 

But Shapps is not given the ‘net zero’ part of his title in a press release announcing the Powering Up Britain – Energy Security Plan, and it quickly became apparent that what was at one stage billed as a ‘Green Day’ for the UK would be focused on security of supply, with campaigners fearing a new impetus behind North Sea oil and gas.

The UK’s strong new focus on nuclear and carbon capture use and storage (CCUS) under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, apparent since the national budget earlier in March, was underlined in the statement announcing the strategy’s launch.

Key measures highlighted for renewables include the launch of the £205 million ($252 million) next round of contract-for-difference (CfD) support auctions — which industry groups had already warned would be inadequate to drive the growth needed to meet huge ambitions in the UK’s offshore wind sector.

Developer Orsted has warned that projects awarded under the last round, including its own Hornsea 3, could be at risk of being shelved unless the UK government acted to make the investment environment more attractive — but a UK response to huge initiatives such as the US’s Inflation Reduction Act has reportedly delayed until the autumn.

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‘Final nail in the coffin’

Jess Ralston, head of energy at the Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) think-tank said the delay “could be the final nail in the coffin for businesses and offshore wind investors who will simply move investment to where there is long term policy and regulatory certainty”.

The launch of a £160 million floating wind infrastructure fund and support for a first tranche of green hydrogen projects, as well as measures to speed up infrastructure delivery, were given a muted welcome but — with the exception of the nuclear and CCUS sectors — the reaction was downbeat.

Director of policy at industry body RenewableUK Ana Musat said the strategy “won’t attract the investment we need in the renewable energy sector. We need much bolder action to secure Britain’s clean energy future”.

“Global competition for investment for renewable energy projects is fiercer than ever and the UK risks falling behind and surrendering our global lead,” Musat said.

“The government has highlighted some important steps forward in existing policies and schemes, but we need much more than a ‘business as usual’ approach to kickstart investment on the level we need to boost energy security, cut consumer bills and reach net zero,” Musat added.

There was also puzzlement at the absence of any mention of onshore wind, subject to a de facto ban in England since 2015.

Campaign group Britain Remade said: “Onshore wind is overwhelmingly popular across the country. By ending the ban on new onshore wind developments in England we can unlock at least 20 gigawatts of onshore wind generation by 2030. But this plan is silent on the cheapest form of energy available to us.”

Legal action warning

Perhaps the most damning reaction came from environmental group Friends of the Earth (FoE), which put the UK government on notice of further legal action.

The group was one of three that successfully took the government to court over the failure of its existing net zero strategy to meet its commitments, forcing ministers to come up with a revised one by the end of this month — with the energy security plans likely to form part of that response, according to the campaigners.

FoE said: “Ministers should be scaling up and accelerating the race to net zero, but these plans look half-baked, half-hearted and dangerously lacking ambition.

“Yet again, onshore wind has been ignored despite being cheap, plentiful and popular with the public – and crucial for meeting our climate targets.

“The idea that carbon capture and storage is a solution is fanciful — burning fossil fuels can never be green. These announcements will do little to boost energy security, lower bills or put us on track to meet climate goals.”

It added: “Friends of the Earth lawyers will study the detail of the revised strategy and are poised to act again if it falls short of meeting legally-binding carbon budgets.”

(A version of this article first appeared in Upstream’s sister renewables publication Recharge on 30 March, 2023)