Clean Growth

30th November 2017

Paul Reeve explains the UK government’s plans for an ‘innovative, low-carbon economy’

The government’s long-awaited clean growth strategy outlines its plans for an “innovative, low-carbon economy”, and how it aims to achieve the UK’s self-imposed carbon reduction targets up to 2030. It brings together no fewer than 50 existing plans and new proposals, and many of these will affect the UK’s infrastructure and built environment.

Within its very broad approach to building a low-carbon economy, there are some favourites. First, the new strategy is particularly keen on offshore wind energy, where the UK is a global leader. And, despite rising capital and other costs, nuclear energy will attract well over £450m of extra public cash. This is nearly double the allocation for boosting smart, distributed energy, even though the strategy sees this as vital if the grid is to handle increasing renewable energy and changing customer demand. Large-scale management of energy supply and demand, enabled by digitisation, would also reduce the need for nuclear or gas power stations need to be built.

Pointing to falling costs and improving technology, the strategy sees renewables and electrical energy storage as a headlining double act – if it can remove regulatory and market barriers. The 160-page document aims to support the transition from fuel to electric vehicles and infrastructure, and it repeats the much publicised undertaking that by 2040, all new UK vehicles must be electric.

Despite the clear enthusiasm for offshore wind energy, there is nothing in this strategy about additional onshore wind, and the Swansea Tidal Lagoon is a regrettable absentee. Following the Hendry report, which advocated the Swansea scheme earlier this year, the new strategy says “…nascent technologies such as tidal range could also have a role, but must demonstrate how they can compete with other energy generation”. Short of building a tidal lagoon, it’s difficult to see how to demonstrate the relative value of this type of scheme. Significantly, the strategy also tells us that further growth in solar PV will be left to market forces, so it’s heartening to see the first ‘subsidy-free’ UK solar installations coming on line.

With low- to no-carbon energy options now operating at multi-gigawatt levels, and with more capacity on the way, the strategy reminds us all that ‘negawatts’ – energy savings from better design and efficiency – are the cheapest way to cut carbon emissions and energy bills. This suggests that further government initiatives will, once again, try to bring large-scale energy efficiency to the UK’s built environment.

Preventing atmospheric carbon emissions is, of course, far better than attempted cure. Even so, carbon capture and storage (CCS) has been viewed as vital to reducing atmospheric CO2, notably by the Committee on Climate Change. Yet when it comes to carbon abatement, the government is lukewarm, and CCS gets only about a quarter of the new cash investment in nuclear, and just a tenth of the £1bn promised as recently as 2015.

Significantly, this new strategy entirely omits fracking, which until recently was a big hit in government circles, and it is not explained how Heathrow’s third runway would fit in with the UK’s increasingly challenging carbon reduction plans.

The government is inviting comments on its new strategy until December 2017.

Paul Reeve Env FIEMA is director of business at the engineering and electrical services trade body, ECA

Image credit: istock


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