October 2015: Committee on Climate Change report on electricity scenarios

The UK’s statutory adviser on climate change, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has this week published a report on Power sector scenarios for the fifth carbon budget


CCC’s role is not to set policy, but to analyse options and make recommendations. This report is primarily analysis, but it does contain an important recommendation:

“a portfolio approach is appropriate”.

In other words, the sensible approach is not solar or wind or biomass or marine renewables or nuclear or carbon capture and storage (CCS), but all of the above.

The fifth carbon budget will run from 2028 to 2032. Unless the UK parliament repeals the Climate Change Act, the British government is legally required to keep UK emissions within that budget, and on track to reduce emissions by 80% (from 1990 levels) by 2050. Around a third of all UK greenhouse gas emissions come from the energy supply sector (though this covers heat as well as electricity). So the power sector is the major player in the decarbonisation debate.

Britain is going to need a lot of new power stations in the 2020s. CCC says:

“With no growth in demand during the 2020s, around 25 GW of new capacity would be needed to replace retiring firm capacity and maintain system security.”

If electricity demand grows by 23%, as it does in one of their scenarios, CCC say that 40GW of new capacity will be needed. Demand for energy in the UK could and should reduce, but within that demand for electricity should increase as it becomes more widely used for heat and for transport.

So around 40 GW of new power capacity will be needed in the UK in the next 15 years. To meet the carbon budget, almost all of it will have to be clean power. In a logical world, low-carbon energy providers would unite with climate campaigners in a Clean Power Alliance. But we do not live in a logical world. NGOs and companies remain stuck in the era of technology tribalism.

The CCC lacks a crystal ball, so accepts that it does not know what technologies will be available in 2030 or how much they will cost. But the Committee says, correctly:

“Uncertainty does not imply that nothing can or should be done. The statutory 2050 target implies that the direction of travel must be towards sharply reduced carbon emissions. However, it is not possible to say in advance exactly what the mix of options should be, and there are likely to be limits to generation potential of some technologies.”

To meet the carbon budget despite these limits, CCC recommends:

“developing a wider portfolio of options to ensure cost competition between technologies and that other options are available should circumstances change. A narrow focus solely on the current lowest cost options in the short term is not an appropriate strategy given the different risks and the importance of low-carbon power, and could increase costs in the longer term.”

I think that this wider portfolio should include tidal lagoons and next-generation nuclear reactors. I am working for Weinberg Next Nuclear, and am a consultant to Tidal Lagoon Power, so I would say that, wouldn’t I? In my defence, I also think that the clean power portfolio should include CCS, tidal stream and wave, and I don’t get any money for saying that. (Always open to offers…)

CCC acknowledge that:

“Low-carbon technologies are, and will continue to be, a more expensive way to generate electricity than burning gas and allowing the emissions to enter the atmosphere for free.”

It is important that CCC have said this. UK energy policy debate is dominated by discussion of subsidy. All forms of clean power need some form of public financial support: grants, loans, Contracts for Difference (which, for readers who are not energy policy wonks, give clean energy operators a higher income from sales than they would get from selling electricity from gas without CCS).

The CCC says that:

“To keep down costs of delivery, clarity is needed about how policy will adjust as areas of uncertainty are resolved.”

Clarity would certainly be helpful. But it is not very likely. We are being promised a ‘reset’ of UK energy policy in the next few weeks. If Amber Rudd, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, delivers a speech which reconciles the views of the pro-climate action Prime Minister and the anti-climate action Chancellor, and finds a way to expand the least expensive type of renewable energy, onshore wind, in the face of Tory grassroots opposition, she will be the Harry Potter of British politics.

Then there’s the minor issue of Europe. You want clarity on what the European energy union will be and how it will be delivered? Don’t hold your breath. Will the UK still be a member of the EU in 2030? Nobody knows. I hope we will, but am increasingly worried that the referendum will vote out. The chair of CCC is John Gummer, a pro-European Tory (yes, they do exist). The report doesn’t say much about Europe, but does note that:

“the EU Large Combustion Plant Directive… has restricted the use of coal on air quality grounds”.

I tweeted this quote, and commented that it shows why we are better off in. To which a UKIP activist responded that this Directive has increased the cost of energy. Which it has. Bloody Brussels bureaucrats. If we were an independent country we could have cheaper energy. And allow more of our kids to get asthma.

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