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New fossil fuelled power stations needed to protect UK’s energy security says PM

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has today announced plans to build new, gas-fired power stations to ensure the UK’s energy security and have a “reliable and affordable back-up for days when renewables like wind and solar do not deliver”.

The move has attracted criticism from the environmental and clean energy sectors, especially as it follows Mr Sunak’s pledge to extract as much oil and gas from the North Sea as possible, and his recent weakening of policies relating to electric cars and fossil-fuelled boilers.  One leading figure stated that the new plans “fly in the face” of the government’s promise to decarbonise the country’s power system by 2035, especially as said plans do not currently include the addition of carbon capturing technologies. 

Mr Sunak said he would “not gamble with the country’s energy security” and that Britain would still reach the government’s 2035 target in a “sustainable way that doesn’t leave people without energy on a cloudy, windless day”. The Prime Minister has also stated that the plans align with recommendations from the Climate Change Committee (CCC), who said a “small amount” of gas generation without carbon capture is compatible with a decarbonised power system.

Gas-fired power plants are responsible for nearly 40% of the country’s annual electricity on average, with their contribution increasing during still and cloudy days when energy generated from renewables such as wind turbines and solar panels decreases. Critics have argued that a proper investment and roll-out of energy storage facilities in the UK would solve this intermittency problem and provide the backup required, while keeping the country focussed on the transition to clean energy and ultimately the achievement of Net Zero emissions by 2050.

Doug Parr, policy director at Greenpeace, said

“These plans will make Britain more dependent on the very fossil fuel that sent our bills rocketing and our planet’s temperature soaring. The only route to a low-cost, secure and clean energy system is through attracting massive private investment to develop renewables and upgrade our aging grid.”

Gemma Grimes, director of policy and delivery at Solar Energy UK, commented:

“While the government has chosen to emphasise the potential role of backup gas power in its announcement today, the renewables industry is doing all it can to deliver a carbon-free electricity system.

“New, grid-scale energy storage can make this a reality by storing power from renewables, enabling us to use clean, affordable power 24/7, 365 days a year. The storage sector is set to grow leaps and bounds in the coming years, to keep pace with the renewables revolution.”

Liam Hardy, a senior policy advisor at the Green Alliance think tank, said:

“Every new gas power plant built in the UK will make bills higher for consumers in the long run while increasing the risks of runaway climate change” and that today’s announcement “flies in the face” of the promise to decarbonise our power system by 2035.

Liberal Democrat energy and climate change spokesperson Wera Hobhouse labelled the announcement as “another step backwards on the critical road to net zero”, saying:

“We need to wean ourselves off this reliance on expensive fossil fuels by investing in cheap, clean renewable power and insulating every home.” 

Christophe Williams, CEO of renewable energy specialists Naked Energy, said:

“It is a mistake to believe that relying on fossil fuels will lead to cheaper bills and energy security. The North Sea’s gas is running out, and when it does we will be at the mercy of foreign imports and the price volatility that comes with it. Considering that none of the CO2 from this gas will be captured, it’s a lose-lose for customers – their bills and our emissions will go up.

“Regardless of what happens in this year’s election, the answer is renewable energy. It makes far more fiscal sense to invest in modernising the power grid, expand wind farms on our shores and shred the red tape that is slowing down the deployment of renewable technologies. At the end of the day, this is the only way to boost our energy security and achieve our net zero targets – it’s really as simple as that.”

The announcement regarding gas-fired plants is part of a proposed government package of energy reforms, including Capacity Market changes to incentivise new sources of zero-carbon flexibility and a new consultation on the Review of Electricity Market Arrangements (REMA).

An additional measure proposed is a move to zonal pricing, which would theoretically incentivise generation to locate close to demand and reduce constraints on the transmission grid. Concerns have however been expressed by leading renewable energy figures, due to the uncertainty this could bring to the market, the likely increase in related capital costs, and the delays this could cause, especially “at a time when we need to deploy around 10GW of renewable electricity generation capacity each year until 2035 to meet our targets and deliver a lowest cost clean energy system for billpayers.”

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