Government’s new commitment to gas-fired energy more ‘woke bait’ than anything else

In the recent confected announcement from the Government supporting the growth of gas-fired power stations, we have once again seen energy used as an avatar for the Tory obsession with winding up the ‘woke’ brigade rather than making a serious contribution to solving the conundrum of keeping the lights on whilst lowering carbon emissions en-route to a net zero aspiration.

By creating a false furore over supporting gas, we have seen Rishi Sunak and his minister Clare Coutinho craftily manufacture a fuss over vague plans that may, or may not, result in a handful of new gas-fired power plants.  The way the polls are reading – anything that the current administration is planning is as likely to happen as seeing a unicorn herd in Chippenham or experiencing a sprinkle of fairy dust in Salisbury.

No, what we saw was a stalking horse proposal to whip up the green lobby, giving the Conservatives a diversionary opportunity to distract from the collapse of their red wall support. Sure enough, on a slow news day it worked and in they all leapt, diverting the conversation from topics that we really should be discussing. These include a discourse on the fact that If ministers were really worried about energy security they would have properly lifted the ‘de facto’ ban on new onshore wind farms, provided sufficient funding for the next offshore wind auction, delivered a final investment decision for #SizewellC, and launched a credible national energy efficiency strategy. They would also ask themselves if energy security is really best served by locking in UK reliance on volatile gas imports and domestic gas from a declining North Sea, and whether alternative forms of backup power could prove more reliable.

The announcement comes as the government also gives an update on its consultation for the Review of Electricity Market Arrangements (REMA). It has ditched a previous proposal to stop linking electricity prices with gas prices. It is still tinkering with one proposal to bring in regional pricing of wholesale electricity, which could incentivise industry to build in areas where electricity is cheaper and attract new power projects where demand is greatest. However, critics have raised concerns over the fairness of the proposal, and ministers have not yet decided if households would be subject to a “postcode lottery” of different costs in different areas.

The bottom line is, do we need to care what the current Conservative government thinks?

According to the polls, it looks certain that a new regime will be holding the levers of power by this time next year. So where is the government in waiting in all this?  Sadly, Labour seems no clearer on its energy policy, having just ditched its £28bn commitment to foster a green revolution. Their tepid approach to energy security versus net zero was summed up by Shadow Energy Minister Ed Miliband, whose reported comments regarding government support for new gas-fired power stations was as follows – “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”.

This is not a sophisticated, clear, transparent energy policy leading to a sustainable, net zero future based on a mixed portfolio of energy solutions. It is another vacuous soundbite from a shallow shadow Secretary of State who should have resigned when his party junked its commitment to the new green deal.  Most sensible observers admit that until there is greater investment in renewables and a commitment from central government to support finance for effective new power grid infrastructure in a timely fashion, a blended approach to energy provision is the only option. However, faux provocative announcements from a government on its way to the departure lounge are not helpful.

Julian Barlow is chair of Wiltshire Wildlife Community Energy

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