April 13, 2024

Rishi Sunak risks further criticism from green campaigners after throwing his weight behind the building of new gas-fired power stations, saying he will “not gamble with our energy security”.

The government will on Tuesday announce a plan to increase gas power capacity by providing extra certainty to investors that plants have a long-term future, even as Britain moves away from fossil fuels.

Ministers said it represented a “commonsense decision” to ensure power supplies kept flowing during the transition to net zero. They argued that gas plants were a “safe and reliable source” when weather conditions did not power wind and solar farms.

The government stressed that the move would not impact net zero targets. However, critics are likely to see it as a backwards step in the wider push to decarbonise Britain’s power network through renewable energy projects. Some big energy firms have deserted the gas industry in recent years to focus on renewables, which have a more certain future.

Last year, gas accounted for 32% of Great Britain’s electricity generation, ahead of 29% from wind and 14% from nuclear. The last remaining coal-burning plant, at Ratcliffe-on-Soar in Nottinghamshire, is due to close in September.

Renewable industry backers argue that investment in battery projects – which can store electricity when weather conditions are unfavourable – is vital to make the system more reliable.

The energy secretary, Claire Coutinho, is expected to set out her strategy for gas at a speech at the thinktank Chatham House in central London on Tuesday.

“Without gas backing up renewables, we face the genuine prospect of blackouts. Other countries in recent years have been so threatened by supply constraints that they have been forced back to coal,” she will say.

“There are no easy solutions in energy, only trade-offs. If countries are forced to choose between clean energy and keeping citizens safe and warm, believe me they’ll choose to keep the lights on.”

Jess Ralston, an energy analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit thinktank, said: “The secretary of state suggesting that if we cannot control energy prices then we are not secure as a country, while announcing new gas power stations, has a real irony about it.

“Anyone paying an energy bill in the past two years knows that the UK doesn’t control the price we pay for gas, that international markets decide.”

Energy security has shot up the political agenda since Russia cut gas exports into Europe after Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, leaving countries scrambling to secure supplies and household bills soaring.

Sunak said: “We need to reach our 2035 goals in a sustainable way that doesn’t leave people without energy on a cloudy, windless day. I will not gamble with our energy security.”

The prime minister’s intervention appears to be his latest attempt to win votes by pushing back on green policies. The switch to green power has also become a contentious political point, with the Conservatives pledging to decarbonise power generation by 2035, and Labour by 2030.

Both parties envisage gas-fired plants will play a small part in providing back-up power supplies even after those dates, as Britain prepares for a surge in electricity demand despite recent delays to renewable and nuclear projects.

The shadow energy secretary, Ed Miliband, said: “Of course we need to replace retiring gas-fired stations as part of a decarbonised power system, which will include carbon capture and hydrogen playing a limited back up role in the system.

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“But the reason the Tories cannot deliver the lower bills and energy security we need is that they are specialists in failure when it comes to our clean energy future: persisting with the ludicrous ban on onshore wind, bungling the offshore wind auctions, and failing on energy efficiency.”

Juliet Phillips, of the climate thinktank E3G, said: “Due to policy failures over the last parliament, the government has missed opportunities to build out the full offshore-wind pipeline, to make gains in energy efficiency, or address clunky network connection times – all factors that mean new gas plants have been announced.”

Coutinho plans to say that laws ensuring newbuild plants are “net zero ready” will be broadened to encompass hydrogen, allowing gas plants to switch to a new fuel source.

Power plants are already due to command record prices to keep the lights on, after an auction last month.

Rules will also be updated around the capacity market, which sets prices for payments to electricity generators, to incentivise gas plant operators. Ministers do not now plan to introduce lower emissions limits in the market for newbuild and refurbishing plants until 2026 “at the earliest”.

However, one chief executive of a gas plant operator said the changes were unlikely to trigger a new wave of plants. “In reality, we can keep updating plants which are nearing the end of their life at relatively low cost,” they said.

Coutinho’s speech coincides with a second consultation on the Review of Electricity Market Arrangements, a set of wide-ranging changes. It is expected to propose zonal pricing, which will allow renewables developers to charge higher rates if they build wind and solar farms closer to cities, where demand is greater.

Separately, the industry regulator Ofgem said on Monday it was concerned that costs linked to net zero could “disproportionately hit lower income consumers”, unable to invest in new technologies or change their behaviours to cut bills.

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