5 April 2023
CapX by Sam Dumitriu
If you were a malign foreign power blessed with massive fossil fuel reserves, what policies would you want Britain to adopt?
You might start by requiring that developers trying to build new wind, solar, and nuclear power stations must produce thousands of documents, including a 10,000 plus page environmental impact assessment, and hold multiple extensive public consultations just to get permission to build. Ideally, you would leave developers waiting upwards of two years for a decision and then allow multiple legal challenges to delay the process even further.
If you were really pushing your luck (and this would require some brass neck), you would ban the building of new onshore wind farms altogether.
And as an added bonus, if they can overcome all of this, you would force them to wait years for a grid connection slot to become available.
The historian Robert Conquest said that “the behaviour of any bureaucratic organization can best be understood by assuming that it is controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies.”
There isn’t an international conspiracy to prevent Britain from building new energy infrastructure, but the planning barriers imposed on clean domestic sources of energy undoubtedly help regimes that wish us harm.
Britain’s exposure to international gas prices meant that when global gas prices spiked by 400% due to Russia’s unprovoked illegal invasion of Ukraine, electricity bills in England more than doubled.
If Britain is to kick its reliance on imported fossil fuels, then we need to make it much easier to build new clean alternatives. At the moment, it can take as long as 13 years to build a new offshore wind farm once planning and grid connections are taken into account. This is despite the fact that construction takes at most three years.
Recently, there have been some positive noises from the Government on the planning and grid problems. Among the thousand plus pages of new policy documents published on ‘energy security day’ was a commitment to streamlining the planning process for major infrastructure projects and multiple revised national policy statements for energy.
These are steps in the right direction, and some are long overdue. National policy statements for energy, which are essential to the planning system’s functioning, haven’t been updated in over a decade. Likewise, if proposed new ‘quality standards’ allow ministers to cut the statutory timescale by a third to 12 months then that’s a clear win.
But let’s be clear, these measures do not go far enough. If the UK is to become energy secure by the end of the next parliament, timelines for building new energy infrastructure will need to be slashed in half and grid build out rates will need to more than double.
If it is possible to design, test, manufacture, and rollout a coronavirus vaccine in less than 18 months, then it is surely possible to get an offshore wind farm up and running in five and half years.
What will it take? For a start, Britain could look at what’s working overseas. While solar developers keep their projects artificially small to avoid added planning burdens here, in Spain projects are fast-tracked and developers freed from the requirement to produce an environmental impact assessment in areas of low environmental importance.
Ending the effective ban on onshore wind is a no-brainer too. The requirement to apply for planning permission when existing renewable sites are upgraded, a process known as repowering, is another. There is near universal support for putting solar panels on industrial rooftops, yet projects capable of generating 1MW of energy are required to seek planning permission.
Britain will not be able to build its way to energy security with renewables alone. Nuclear will be an important part of the energy mix for decades to come, yet as it stands no new nuclear projects will be able to get off the ground until a new siting strategy is published, yet that looks a long way off.
The Government is right to be investing in new Small Modular Reactors, which will apply the production line approach that reduced costs for solar and wind to nuclear, but it will be for naught if the planning system for these smaller projects (in some cases smaller than a football pitch) treats them in the same way as it does for megaprojects like Sizewell C. And given their small footprint, why not allow SMRs to be built on any existing nuclear or coal sites?
All those new electrons are only worthwhile of course if we can get them to people’s homes. At the moment, a failure to build out the grid means that wind farms are actually paid to switch off when it’s too windy. Getting more transmission lines built to move power from where its generated (i.e. Scotland and the North East of England) to where demand is greatest (i.e. South East England) is key.
The challenge is that building more pylons and more substations is controversial. New designs such as the nifty T-Pylon may help, but it will also require politicians to be honest about the trade-offs. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.
The same day that the Government held its ‘Energy Security Day’, Penny Mordaunt tweeted her opposition to a proposed interconnector between Britain and France, which would allow us to export wind power and receive nuclear power in return, being built in her constituency,
The project was rejected by then Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng in part due to its impact on the views of a Grade II listed cottage. The decision, which went against the advice of the planning inspectorate was overturned in the courts earlier this year.
When Jeremy Hunt was asked about Britain’s response to the Inflation Reduction Act, he replied that Britain would focus on a ‘pro-growth regulatory regime’ rather than matching the US’s mega-subsidies. It’s the right approach when there is no shortage of investors willing to plough cash into green investments. But Britain will only become energy secure if politicians choose to back the builders not the blockers.