Plan for New Gas Power Plants Sparks Debate on the UK’s Green Transition

The announcement of plans for new gas power plants and a House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report highlight the challenges the government faces in maintaining energy security while honouring commitments to decarbonise the UK’s electricity system, writes Jack Green-Morgan, Political Consultant for Energy, Utilities and Net Zero at Dods Political Intelligence.

In a speech to Chatham House on March 12,, Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho set out proposals to replace some of the UK’s aging gas power station fleet with new unabated gas power plants. These proposals, which form part of a wider consultation on the Review of Electricity Market Arrangements, aim to ensure the UK has sufficient electricity  to meet demand while it is scaling up low-carbon generation and storage.

In a decarbonized economy the UK would meet the need for flexible generation capacity with a combination of nuclear energy, abated gas power plants, and long-duration energy storage. However, like many other developed countries, the UK has not developed and deployed these technologies in sufficient scale yet. As a result, the government has few options in the short-term other than to replace elements of the existing gas fleet. Otherwise, as the Energy Secretary said, “without gas backing up renewables, we face the genuine prospect of blackouts.”

Labour agreed with the government that the construction of these additional gas power plants was required to ensure the security of the UK’s electricity supply in the near-term, in the absence of other technologies. However, the opposition party raised concerns over the lack of clarity on how much gas generation the government intends to commission. Speaking in parliament the day after Coutinho’s announcement, Graham Stuart, Minister for Energy Security and Net Zero, said, “We need up to 55 GW [gigawatts] of short-duration flexibility and between 30 and 50 GW of long-duration flexibility”. While he added that the government aimed for as much as possible of that capacity to be low carbon, he did not specify what proportion of this would be from gas.

If a large number of unabated gas power plants were commissioned, meeting a high proportion of the flexible generation need, it could disincentivize investment in lower-emission generation and storage technologies, leaving the UK dependent on gas for longer. With the UK’s North Sea gas fields declining, and already insufficient to meet UK needs, over-investment in gas power risks making the country increasingly reliant on potentially more expensive and less secure imported fossil fuels, and therefore vulnerable to economically damaging price shocks of the kind seen when Russia invaded Ukraine.

To some extent, the government’s lack of confirmation of how many gas power plants may be required could be explained by uncertainty over the UK’s future energy mix. The cost of renewable and low-carbon technologies is decreasing, and if deployment and commercialization continue at pace, the need for additional gas power to meet flexible demand could be reduced.

Climate campaigners and others have also raised concerns over the prospect of new unabated gas power plants, which may make it harder for the UK to meet its targets to decarbonise the electricity system by 2035 and reach net zero by 2050.

In response, the government said the new gas plants would be “net-zero ready” and capable of integrating carbon capture technology or converting to the use of hydrogen in the future. Stuart also stressed the plants would “run for only a limited number of hours a year, so emissions will be entirely in line with our legally binding carbon budgets.” The government expected unabated gas to account for 1percent or 2 percent of the UK’s electricity generation mix by 2035, he added, calling it a “sensible insurance”. While that percentage would be a substantial drop, with gas currently accounting for a third of UK electricity generation, it would run contrary to the government’s commitment to wholly decarbonise the electricity system by 2035.

In principle, new gas power plants do not threaten the UK’s climate commitments. The Climate Change Committee has said gas generation with carbon capture and storage could still provide between 7 and 15 percent of the UK’s electricity generation by 2050. However, in practice, deployment of carbon capture and storage technology has yet to be widely adopted.

Adding to the debate around the challenges of decarbonizing the electricity system, a House of Lords Science and Technology Committee report published the day after the Energy Secretary’s Chatham House speech called for the government to “act with urgency” to speed up delivery of technologies to store low-carbon energy.

The report titled “Long-Duration Energy Storage: Get On With It” said that without policies to support investment in low-carbon, long-duration energy storage, the UK would remain reliant on fossil fuels for flexible energy generation, with negative implications for both consumers and the climate.

This Committee said a step change in policy was needed to ensure low-carbon flexible capacity could be delivered in line with the UK’s energy security and net zero ambitions. It recommended the government commit to a strategic energy reserve to mitigate against energy supply shocks; deliver an energy system plan to allow infrastructure developments to progress in a more coordinated manner; and set an explicit target for energy storage.

The Energy Secretary’s proposals for new gas power plants and report by the House of Lords’ Committee serve as a stark reminder of the tricky balancing act this government and future administrations face to ensure the UK has sufficient affordable and secure electricity for its needs while also meeting its legally binding duties to meet net zero.

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