U.K. Doubles Down On Fossil Gas Power. 10 Experts Deliver Verdicts
8 mins read

U.K. Doubles Down On Fossil Gas Power. 10 Experts Deliver Verdicts

U.K. Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, Claire Coutinho, during a Q&A session … [+] after her keynote speech at the Energy Transitions Conference at Chatham House in London on Tuesday March 12, 2024.

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The U.K. government has announced what it calls a “commonsense decision” to extend the life of the country’s gas-fired power plants, as well as building more. But the plan has received widespread criticism from top energy and climate experts.

In a speech delivered Tuesday, the U.K.’s minister in charge of energy security and net zero, Claire Coutinho, said that 15 gigawatts of gas-powered generation would soon be retired across the country, and that at least 5 additional gigawatts of gas-fired power were needed in the name of “energy security.”

“That might mean refurbishing existing power stations but will also mean new unabated gas power stations until the clean technology is ready,” she said.

Coutinho went on to claim that building new fossil gas-burning plants was “not at odds with our world-leading net zero commitments” because they would be expected to be “ready to connect to carbon capture technology,” or capable of burning hydrogen instead of fossil gas.

What does this actually mean? Energy and systems researchers gave their interpretations.

‘Behind Saudi Arabia’

The U.K. is highly dependent on gas as a stable source of power: in 2022, gas combustion provided 38.5% of the country’s electricity. As a result, researchers thought some gas-powered generation would continue to be needed for days when solar and wind power were unable to generate enough electricity. But there was widespread concern that the new gas facilities would be “unabated”, meaning that they would not be designed to capture greenhouse gas emissions from their operation.

Myles Allen, professor of geosystem science at the University of Oxford, pointed out that even Saudi Arabia has claimed it will not be building any new gas plants without carbon capture already installed.

“By announcing Britain’s new gas plants will only be ‘capture ready’, when we have some of the best carbon storage capacity in the world and a nascent industry begging for a clear path forward, the government has positioned us behind Saudi Arabia in the race to net zero,” Allen said. “We don’t want to be just ‘former climate champions’—some of us want the U.K. to be a future champion as well.”

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Allen’s colleague Sam Fankhauser, professor of climate economics and policy at the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford, agreed. “New gas-fired power will have to be more than just capture-ready,” Fankhauser said. “There will have to be a firm obligation for any CO2 to be captured and stored safely underground. Only that is consistent with the U.K.’s statutory net zero targets.”

Jon Gluyas, a professor of geoenergy, carbon capture and storage at Durham University, suggested the government’s claims that the new plants were compatible its climate goals were far-fetched. “To add that such power plants will be CO2 capture ready and hence in line with the commitment to deliver net zero is stretching credibility to breaking point,” he said.

Gas Is Why U.K. Energy Bills Are So High

Pointing out that volatile prices for fossil gas were a key reason U.K. consumer energy bills hit record highs in 2022, some researchers framed the government’s case for gas as a step in the wrong direction.

“Investing in new gas power stations is a backwards step, away from a more secure and low carbon energy system,” said Iain Soutar, a senior lecturer at the University of Exeter. “Continuing to rely on gas for electricity will mean prolonging our exposure to a volatile international market—and therefore high energy costs for consumers.”

That’s no small concern. Geopolitical events mean that prices for fossil gas were likely to remain volatile for years to come, suggested Jasmine Cooper, a research associate the Sustainable Gas Institute, Imperial College London.

“The U.K. is a net importer of gas,” Cooper pointed out. With the ongoing war in Ukraine and conflicts in the Middle East, there was “uncertainty on whether future production of gas can meet demand and whether the price of gas will remain at a level which does not further negatively impact U.K. citizens’ ability to pay their energy bills.”

In the view of Iain Staffell, a senior lecturer in sustainable energy at Imperial College London, the government was making a “risky move.” He went on: We are only just starting to recover from two years of sky-high energy prices which punished national and household budgets alike, and was largely driven by natural gas.” Staffell noted that there exist “many tried and tested technologies for bringing more flexibility into our power system” from building more links to neighbouring countries, developing energy storage including batteries and hydro power, and investing in energy efficiency. “These solutions are all low carbon and improve our energy security, so it is surprising that the government does not place greater emphasis on them,” he said.

Neil Jennings, researcher at the Grantham Institute—Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London, concurred, saying: “If the government are really serious about improving energy security and lowering bills, there needs to be much more focus on improving the energy efficiency of buildings across the country, so there is less demand for energy in the first place.”

Jennings said that a lack of government policy support had caused energy efficiency measures being installed in U.K. homes to fall 95% compared with 2012 levels. This, he suggested, was why government should …

Consider The Big Picture

Energy and systems researchers concurred that major infrastructure announcements of the sort delivered Tuesday should be designed as part of a much broader, long-term plan for the country’s energy supply—rather than piecemeal, short-term decisions. This, they suggested, would send the signals investors needed to invest appropriately in the U.K.’s future, while delivering climate-compatible energy security and lower bills for regular people.

But Stephanie Baxter, head of policy at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, commented that “whole-system coordination and accountability mechanisms” were “not currently a feature of the energy sector” in the U.K. In her view, the country needed “an effective strategic planning process to ensure efficient and timely delivery, with consistent direction, clear investment signals, appropriate incentives, and active skills development.”

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Long-term thinking was required, said Jon Gibbins, a professor of power plant engineering and carbon capture at the University of Sheffield, because “the required infrastructure takes decades to put in place and even the most urgent replacements of damaged key components can take many months or years.” He went on: “the U.K., and all of Western Europe, needs to look hard at what is really required and make a rigorous plan for how to deliver it.”

Summing up objections to the government’s announcement, Stuart Haszeldine, professor of carbon capture and storage at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Rather than increasing U.K. energy security by decreasing imports of methane gas LNG, these proposals will maintain U.K. gas imports to mid-century and beyond, keeping consumers exposed to international prices which the U.K. cannot control.”

“It is crazy to build a new generation of gas-fuelled power plants, with no pipeline or shipping connections linking to CO2 storage,” Haszeldine added. “This is not just giving up global leadership, this is the U.K. going backwards to a position of leading to make climate change happen.”