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Industry Highlight

The UK government has announced a reset of its energy policy which will, in the next decade, lock out coal power and open the door to a fleet of new gas-fired power plants.

On November 18, energy secretary Amber Rudd announced that all coal-fired power stations would close by 2025.

The move has been praised by Greenpeace policy director Doug Parr, who said that it “could be a huge international signal for action on coal globally”.

At the same time, Rudd announced an intention to ramp up the UK’s use of gas-fired power stations, with plans to bring many new plants online in the coming years.

And she stressed that the government is “encouraging investment in our shale gas exploration so we can add new sources of home-grown supply to our real diversity of imports”.

In her first major speech since becoming energy secretary in May, Rudd said that the UK now had “an electricity system where no form of power generation, not even gas-fired power stations, can be built without government intervention”.

This, she said, was coupled with “a legacy of aging, often unreliable plant. Perversely, even with the huge growth in renewables, our dependence on coal hasn’t been reduced.”

Rudd said that “one of the greatest and most cost-effective contributions we can make to emission reductions in electricity is by replacing coal-fired power stations with gas.”

At a time when some state-of-the-art gas plants in Europe are being mothballed, this is good news for thermal power sector.

Whether it is good news for Britain’s hopes of meeting its carbon emissions targets is a matter of debate.

Juliet Davenport, chief executive of renewable utility Good Energy, believes “the government needs to be much braver in its energy policy. A commitment to gas raises questions over our legally binding decarbonization targets by locking us into more long-term reliance on fossil fuels.”

Davenport would challenge the government “to offer a truly level playing field for all technologies. Before the government changed the policy goalposts, onshore wind and solar were on track to be the cheapest sources of UK power with the potential to be subsidy-free by 2020. The government’s apparent preferred options of nuclear and gas, and an old fashioned grid, are not cheap and will not be subsidy-free for decades.”

And she warns that “the UK will get left behind other countries like the United States and China if it doesn’t continue to modernize the grid and support renewable technology”. (See our feature on page 4 on how China, according to the International Energy Agency, “is the champion of renewables”).

The UK’s energy policy highlights the imbalance that now exists between the three pillars of the so-called ‘energy trilemma’ of sustainability, affordability and security of supply. A few years ago sustainability was the buzzword, but now Rudd is putting security at the top of the pecking order, followed by affordability.

She has said that the UK has “one of the most – possibly the most – ambitious carbon reduction targets in the whole of the world and we are committed to meeting it”. But she has also stressed that “green energy must be cheap energy” and believes that “gas is an essential part of supporting renewables”.

“Until storage develops, gas and indeed nuclear are an essential part of delivering secure energy. We will take no risks.” (See our focus on Energy Storage on pages 24-27).

Dr Jenifer Baxter, head of energy and environment at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, says that the UK “should not look at building more gas power plants as a silver bullet solution to creating a secure, affordable and clean energy system”.

She said that the UK “should be seen as a nation leading the development of a low carbon energy system for the future, and to achieve this we need to invest much more into research and development of a new generation of renewables and other low carbon energy”.

Paul Barwell, chief executive of the UK’s Solar Trade Association, said that “it makes little sense to replace fossil coal only with fossil gas”, while Greenpeace’s Doug Parr said that “the plan to power the UK with a dash for gas… makes little economic or environmental sense.”

Kelvin Ross