Why workers and climate activists should reject the ‘British energy security strategy’

Yesterday (6th April) the UK Government announced a new ‘British Energy Security Strategy’.  The shape of the strategy isn’t a surprise with many of the elements being trailed in recent weeks.  Put simply the strategy is a disaster.  It’s a recipe for failing to meet UK greenhouse gas emission targets and ignores the recommendations of the IPCC report that was published earlier in the week (4th April).

This post is a first response, and we will share more detailed analysis in the weeks to come.  

The government’s press release notes that the strategy involves an ‘ambitious, quicker expansion of nuclear, wind, solar, hydrogen, oil and gas, including delivering the equivalent to one nuclear reactor a year instead of one a decade.’  

Note the ‘expansion of oil and gas’.  The aim will be to accelerate the approval of new oil and gas fields in the North Sea and west of Shetland.  Essentially, it’s a doubling down on the oil industries so called ‘North Sea Transition Deal’.  The aim of the deal is to make the North Sea a ‘net-zero’ oil and gas basin by 2050 – but this can only happen if carbon capture and storage can be developed and introduced at large scale, which is as yet uncertain.  

Hydrogen is part of the oil industry strategy – the aim of the transition deal is for hydrogen to replace North Sea gas in domestic and commercial heating systems – these currently account for more than 20% of UK greenhouse gas emissions.  The strategy talks about hydrogen supplying around 10% of energy needs.  What it doesn’t say is that producing hydrogen by splitting methane or water is an enormously inefficient process and so a very significant proportion of all the new electricity produced from nuclear, wind, solar and oil and gas will be needed to produce the hydrogen!

After a period of equivocating on nuclear power it’s now back at the centre of the strategy.   No figures are given, but if we extrapolate from the cost of the current Hinkley C project the proposed developments will cost around £150 billion.  The government refers to nuclear as clean and safe.  It is neither.  This blog has looked at the arguments about nuclear elsewhere.  It’s a hugely expensive form of energy, high risk with long construction times and a history of cost overruns and serious and unresolved problems with radioactive waste.   

The new strategy says nothing about reducing energy demand through insulating new buildings and retrofitting existing housing stock.  Retrofitting the majority of UK housing is estimated to cost around £160 billion – this is roughly what the new nuclear programme will cost.  So, it seems like their plan is to construct large scale nuclear plants whose output will then provide the energy that is lost through the walls and roofs of homes, office and factories.

The supposed rationale for the new strategy is energy security.  Currently working people are paying the price for the super profits being earned by the oil and gas sector.  Led by that sector the strategy opts for a future of high energy prices – continuing oil and gas and new nuclear.  Renewable costs continue to decrease, nuclear energy costs continue to rise.  Currently renewable electricity is 6 times cheaper than gas and the gap is even bigger between the cost of renewables and the cost of nuclear.   

Wind turbines near Carberry – image Pete Cannell CC0

It will be interesting to hear the response from the Scottish Government.  Until now Holyrood has been firmly signed up the North Sea Transition Deal and the oil industry agenda, but it has had a firm position of no new nuclear.  Similarly, it is now crunch time for the trade unions who have advocated just transition while endorsing the Transition Deal Strategy.  The argument at root has been over jobs.  It has been the case for a long time now that large-scale investment in renewables creates far more jobs than the same investment in nuclear.  Yesterday’s strategy announcement means in effect no transition and no justice.  There is an ever more urgent need for the workers movement and the climate movement to work together in opposition to the new strategy (really just the old strategy with more investment in false solutions).  Less than 24 hours after its release the strategy has been widely criticised but we will need to do more than oppose this latest attempt at preserving an unacceptable status quo and reject the North Sea transition deal in its entirety.

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