Green Day: Powering Up Britain Needs More

The UK Government has launched its ‘Powering Up Britain’ plans for generating clean energy, and making the way energy is distributed and used more efficient, whilst lessening the burden on developing clean energy generation though better planning and financing.

While this is ostensibly about a long-term plan to improve the UKs prospects, it’s also highly political. The Conservatives are acutely aware that energy prices are high up on the public agenda – linked to the wider cost of living crisis – and it is something that No.10 have expended vast amounts of time looking to address. Their polling also suggests that action on Net Zero could help them attract younger voters. Indeed, these two imperatives were also behind the recent decision to set up the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, which is fronting today’s announcement.

Labour’s top line response was largely aimed at trashing the plan as ‘nothing new’ following Ed Miliband’s launch of Labour’s Green Growth Plan this week, further demonstrating that this is a highly political and contested policy area that all sides are jockeying to ‘own’. Across the channel, France’s nuclear-fuelled grid, and Germany’s gas supplies have shown up the UK’s vulnerabilities, and the Government understands that it has to grab the bull by the horns.

Net Zero plays to younger and aspiring generations in a way that is now central to shifting political loyalties. The green agenda is still seen by many in Westminster as not exclusively owned by any one political party and, by driving forward innovative technology in carbon capture and an underpinning of research into hydrogen, there is an opportunity to move beyond some of the more populist policies that simply do not play to this audience.

Just six weeks ago, the Prime Minister shook up the landscape of Whitehall with new departments and a set of ministers who were told that their mission was to deliver policy wins. Today’s series of ‘green’ announcements is the underpinning of what the new Department for Energy, Security and Net Zero is about. Energy generation through nuclear, accelerating the deployment of renewables, and helping households through efficiency drives. For the markets, there’s the attempt to build a confidence to drive finance and investment by showing that the Government backs them for the long-term.

Whilst the Government will hope that these announcements begin a drive to convert many in their thinking, the response from academics, campaigners, and some industry practitioners has been cool. The announcement of hundreds of millions of pounds in unproven technologies like carbon capture (CCUS) and hydrogen as well as expensive bets like nuclear have perplexed many. CCUS and hydrogen will likely prolong the use of fossil fuels, and investment in nuclear seems to be at the expense of demand-side solutions like insulation – one of the cheapest and most effective ways to reduce the need for, cost of, and climate impact from energy.

The document also fails to outline how the Government plans to meet current carbon budgets, following the High Court judgement last summer that its plans weren’t detailed enough to meet its 2050 Net Zero targets. There’s also nothing on one of the key issues that delays new renewable generation: how long it takes to secure a connection to the power grid.

There is a significant international dimension to today’s announcements. In recent months, both the EU and the US have launched enormous green investment drives to help finance the switch to Net Zero. Many in the industry in the UK, and those hoping to scale-up new tech, feel that they have been short-changed by not having a wider green finance initiative sitting alongside it. At the chancellor’s budget last week, there was a pledge of £1bn a year towards carbon capture, and some smaller investment tax breaks; but, with the US Inflation Reduction Act looking to unlock $1tn in clean technology for American companies, many in the clean energy space in the UK will be asking themselves why today’s announcement wasn’t bigger, more visionary, and more geared towards both unlocking investment and retaining the talent that a British Net Zero future needs.

Today’s announcements are broad, covering everything from hydrogen and export strategies to clean transport and planning reform. The full bandwidth of Net Zero issues is covered, but it’s their depth and the financing that will remain the issue of concern to industries that know other countries are currently doing a lot more.

Vital elements of energy policy have been ‘kicked down the road’ by successive governments, and the hope from the industry, NGOs, and campaigners was that the Government’s much-anticipated ‘Green Day’ would bring that era to a close and showcase its vision and commitment to energy security, cost, and Net Zero.

But, while some parts of today’s 1000 plus page document have been welcomed, the overall verdict of business, investors, campaigners, and policy makers is that today was both a disappointment and significant missed opportunity.