Last year’s Energy White Paper indicated that the power sector would decarbonise only by 2050, in line with net zero for the country as a whole. The move goes beyond the recommendation from the Climate Change Committee (CCC) to stop gas power stations operating without carbon capture and storage by 2035.
The new policy was widely trailed earlier this week, ahead of the prime minister’s keynote speech to the Conservatives’ annual conference. Though expected to make the commitment himself, Boris Johnson made no new policy announcements whatsoever.
The move is in response to surging natural gas prices. The cost per therm reached more than £3 earlier this week, a new record and five times more than the start of the year, which has had a knock-on impact the viability of some industries and on the cost of UK Emissions Trading Scheme allowances. Futures contracts reached an unprecedented £75.56 per tonne at the end of September, though have since fallen somewhat.
“Recent volatile gas prices have also demonstrated how the way to strengthen Britain’s energy security, ensure greater energy independence and protect household energy budgets in the long-term is through clean power that is generated in this country for the people of this country,” said Kwarteng.
“We need to end our dependency on fossil fuels to insulate ourselves from global prices. Renewable capacity is up from 8GW in 2009 to 48GW today - but there's more to do. We must generate more clean power in this country to ensure energy independence,” he added on Twitter.
Though the expected mix remains unclear, more offshore wind and nuclear power are intended to plug the gap left by the loss of natural gas from the UK’s energy mix. It currently supplies just over a third of the country’s electricity, 111 terawatt-hours last year.
The announcement builds on existing policy to end generation from coal. Economic forces, largely driven by an £18 per tonne top-up on the cost of carbon trading allowances, have seen almost all of the sector shut down already, leaving only two plants functioning: West Burton and Ratcliffe-on-Soar. However, the biomass-burning Drax also unexpectedly fired up its coal boilers again recently, again responding to the global gas crunch.
“Ensuring our electricity is green by 2035 is exactly what is needed to ensure we can meet our climate targets. Our analysis shows that with up-front investment now we can deliver long-term savings but this needs clear policies from the government to lead and deliver on the increased ambition. Increasing the UK’s energy security, reducing costs and a clear direction for electricity can lead the way for decarbonising transport and our homes,” said CCC chief executive Chris Stark.
Trade associations also welcomed the announcement.
“Meeting the 2035 target will require properly ambitious policies and other actions from government. This is the key decade for delivery for decarbonisation, and we need to invest in diverse low carbon technologies at scale, build a much more flexible and integrated energy system, keep costs down for customers, and maintain security of supply. This is why we need an Energy Bill and also why the upcoming Net Zero Strategy is so important,” said Emma Pinchbeck, chief executive of Energy UK.
“To make this a reality we need to move even faster, building more onshore and offshore wind projects without delay, as well as harnessing the full potential of innovative technologies like floating wind, renewable hydrogen and marine energy,” said RenewableUK's chief Executive Dan McGrail.
“That’s why we’re calling for the government to help remove the barriers which are getting in the way building of vital new projects, and for ministers to go the extra mile by setting ambitious new targets for clean energy technologies across the board for 2030,” he added, describing the 2035 goal as a “landmark moment on the road to net zero emissions”.
But Kwarteng’s Labour counterpart Ed Miliband was unimpressed. “Another day, another distant target from government not backed by a plan. There is a yawning chasm between this government’s promises on climate and their failure to deliver them. Pledges not supported by policy or investment is greenwashing, plain and simple,” he added.
Detail of how the 2035 deadline will be implemented will presumably emerge in the forthcoming Net Zero Strategy, due before the COP26 summit.