Cutting usage is key to UK energy security

The UK government has moved fast after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to draw up a strategy for energy security. If its targets can be achieved it will do much to expand homegrown and green supply sources long-term. But internal wrangling has left two large holes. By backing away from targets for the cheapest and fastest forms of new generation — especially onshore wind — the plans do little to enhance short-term security. And new measures to raise energy efficiency and reduce overall consumption are largely absent.

The government is right to make nuclear energy a centrepiece, setting a capacity target of 24 gigawatts — a quarter of projected electricity demand — by 2050. Expanding nuclear power has for too long been left to market forces, with several projects falling through. Much has still to be resolved on financing. But the government has conceded that state involvement is needed with plans to take a 20 per cent stake in Sizewell C, and to set up a new government body. Assuming the technology can work, including small modular reactors in the plans is positive.

Also welcome is the extended target for offshore wind capacity by 2030 of 50GW, up from a previous 40GW and almost five times what exists today. It is unclear, though, whether enough projects can be finished quickly enough to achieve it, despite the government’s aim of halving a planning, consent and construction process that can take up to 13 years.

Onshore wind projects could be completed much more quickly, if planning were fast-tracked. But, facing opposition from Conservative MPs, the government has backed away from setting targets here, even though business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng is understood to have supported doubling onshore capacity from 14GW to 30GW by 2030.

The policy now amounts to a vague promise to consult on “developing partnerships with a limited number of supportive communities” — though polling shows a majority of people support wind farms. The plan does talk, however, of increasing today’s 14GW of solar capacity, which the government says could grow up to five times by 2035, with consultation on the rules for projects, especially on rooftops.

Though Russian imports will need replacing, a plan to open a new licensing round for North Sea oil and gas — albeit with a “climate compatibility check”— has angered campaigners. It sits badly with the government’s record as the first big economy to pass a net zero law for 2050. Industry insists gas will continue to be needed as a transition fuel.

The most glaring gap, however, is the lack of initiatives to cut energy use. Beyond removing VAT on household energy-saving measures as already announced, there is no big programme to help insulate Britain’s notoriously draughty homes, or any new inducement for people to swap gas boilers for heat pumps. Consumption could also be cut by bringing in new energy efficiency rules for some existing homes before they are sold or rented out.

The Treasury is understandably resistant to new spending. It was bruised by the mishandled £1.5bn green homes grant voucher scheme for insulation or low-carbon heating, scrapped last year after six months. There are shortages, too, of engineers. Yet such investment would have huge long-term benefits. An insulation effort starting with the neediest households could reduce energy costs long-term, unlike one-off help with bills. With signs that the war in Ukraine has made consumers more willing to turn down thermostats and lag their lofts, failure to follow up with ambitious efficiency plans would be a big missed opportunity.