PM ‘set to decarbonise power system by 2035’

All of the UK’s electricity should be produced without reliance on fossil fuels by 2035, prime minister Boris Johnson is expected to announce.

Boris Johnson has morphed from a critic of wind power to its most powerful advocate. Photograph: Jane Barlow / Getty Images Boris Johnson has morphed from a critic of wind power to its most powerful advocate. Photograph: Jane Barlow / Getty Images

According to a leak reported in the Times yesterday, he will use his keynote address to the Conservatives annual conference, due at 11.30am tomorrow, to “commit his party to hugely increase investment in renewable and nuclear electricity”, in part justified by the huge increase in the wholesale cost of natural gas. More carbon-free generation should immunise the country from the rough and tumble of the international gas market.

The US and Canadian governments have already made the same 2035 pledge, in advance of COP26. It is also an acceptance of advice made by the Climate Change Committee in last year’s recommendations for the Sixth Carbon Budget. Under it, greenhouse gas emissions should be slashed by 78% by 2035, compared to 1990.

An earlier interview with the newspaper hinted that Johnson would do the same: “Dealing with the cost of electricity and energy [is one of the] long-term things that government has got to do. We’ve got to get back into nuclear, we’ve got to increase our clean energy generation. That will bring the cost of energy down and bring down the cost of transport,” the prime minister said. 

Addressing a similar theme in a recent interview with the Independent, environment minister Zac Goldsmith said that the recent petrol crisis was a “good lesson” on the wisdom of eliminating reliance on fossil fuels.

Even if wholesale costs had not increased markedly, leading to a £139 rise in the energy price cap, the cost of gas for consumers would still be expected to go up. Ministers are rumoured to be considering the transfer of policy costs, which fund renewable subsidies and other green measures, from increasingly decarbonised electricity supplies onto natural gas, as part of the forthcoming Heat and Buildings Strategy. Both that and the overarching Net Zero Strategy are supposed to be out in time for COP26, now less than a month away.

“Kicking gas off the grid will protect consumers from future price shocks, crowd-in investment in cheaper cleaner energy and protect the planet all at the same time. This 2035 clean power target is a hugely welcome and very powerful signal ahead of COP26 of the UK's commitment to an economy based on renewables and a smart, flexible energy grid. The government is right to double-down on net zero - it's the best route to levelling up the country and preventing the worst of the climate crisis,” said Chris Venables, head of politics at Green Alliance.

Last year, Johnson pledged to quadruple offshore wind generation by 2030, aiming to produce 40 gigawatts of power – enough to power every home in the country.

According to government statistics, UK renewables generated more electricity than fossil fuels for the first time last year, producing 43.1% of the UK’s power, though this was partly the result of a 4.6% dip in demand caused by the coronavirus outbreak. Wind, solar and other green sources of power generated a total of 134.6 terawatt-hours in 2020, a 12.6% increase on 2019 and higher than the 117.8 TWh generated from fossil fuels.

Despite government policy to back the nuclear sector, as a form of zero-carbon power, limited progress has been made in building new capacity. The amount of energy it has produced has steadily declined over recent years, as reactors gradually retire. Dungeness B, the first full-scale advanced gas-cooled reactor to be shut down, went officially offline last year, having not functioned since September 2018. Hinkley Point B and Hunterston B, which have nameplate capacities of 840 and 830 megawatts respectively, are due to be closed next year. Both have had boiler issues for 15 years, cutting their output by about 30%.

Expectations are that the only existing nuclear power station still running by Johnson’s target date will be Sizewell B. Running at 1.2GW, it is scheduled to close in 2035.

The only project currently being built is Hinkley Point C, which owner EDF says has 22,000 people working on it across the country. Meanwhile, the Financial Times reports that the company is seeking urgent clarity on the future of the £20bn Sizewell C project, particularly on the continuing involvement of Chinese firm CGN.

Talks are now underway on resurrected plans for a new nuclear power station at Wylfa, with US-based Bechtel and the UK’s Shearwater Energy in the running for the project. A previous 2.9GW project was dumped by its backer Hitachi earlier this year, after funding arrangements could not be agreed.

Katie White, executive director of advocacy and campaigns at WWF, welcomed the news that the prime minister will commit to fossil fuel-free electricity for the UK by 2035, saying the move “represents an encouraging step towards vital climate and nature targets”. She said: “This is another clear indicator that fossil fuels are on the way out and it must be matched by action on the ground to speed up the roll out of renewables and phase out oil and gas.”

“By showing that protecting the planet is top priority at the Conservative Party Conference, the prime minister and his team would set an ambitious agenda for action in the final weeks before the all-important COP26 Summit. Given what’s at stake, future generations won’t forgive or forget leaders who fail to act while there’s still time,” she added.

But some experts urged caution about how exactly it would be delivered.

“The overall commitment to green electricity is welcome, and necessary to meet our climate commitments. However, the prime minister's focus seems only on electricity supply when reducing demand and reorganising the electricity system are equally, if not more, important,” said Marie Claire Brisbois, lecturer in energy policy at the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex.

“The UK needs to make a significant commitment to insulate homes and reduce overall usage, with sufficient funds attached, in order to avoid an even bigger public spend on electricity generation and distribution infrastructure. The cost of the renewable or expensive nuclear infrastructure necessary to meet demand without undertaking a nation-wide energy efficiency program is astronomical. Given national concern over household energy bills for this winter, the need for a well-funded, well-run retrofit program should be self-evident,” she continued.

There are also concerns that more renewables could mean more consumption of biomass – a perennially controversial issue.

Sasha Stashwick, a senior advocate with US-based environmental body NRDC and a campaigner with Cut Carbon Not Forests, said: “Biomass electricity is simply not clean. Yet, it now accounts for nearly one-third of what the UK government calls ‘green’ energy. Just like fossil fuels, power stations that burn wood pump massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, making our climate crisis worse and emitting dangerous air pollution linked to an array of health harms.” 

“Britons deserve real clean and renewable energy. One immediate thing Boris Johnson’s government could do to support this goal is redirect the UK’s billions in biomass electricity subsidies to wind and solar projects, which guarantee real emissions cuts – and more real clean energy jobs – at a fraction of the costs of dirty biomass.”