UK Leaders Say New Gas-Fired Plants Needed for Energy Security

Officials in the UK said the country will need to build new natural gas-fired power plants beyond 2030 in order to ensure a reliable supply of energy and avoid blackouts. Energy Security Secretary Claire Coutinho on March 12 said gas-fired units able to provide baseload power generation will be needed as a backup to renewable energy resources, including solar and wind. The units also presumably would be able to burn hydrogen as part of the UK’s and Europe’s decarbonization strategy.

Coutinho, who leads the UK’s Dept. for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ), on Tuesday discussed a review of the country’s energy system currently being conducted by the Conservative government. The Review of Electricity Market Arrangements, or REMA, was launched in 2022 to reform the UK’s electricity market.

The review calls for more baseload generation, including from nuclear power and renewables, and also from natural gas, as a way to increase energy security. Critics, though, have said building new gas-fired power plants is not in line with the country’s target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

Reuters news service reported that Coutinho would tell a group of officials at Chatham House, a British think tank, that “Without gas backing up renewables, we face the genuine prospect of blackouts … We will not let ourselves be put in that position. And so, as we continue to move towards clean energy, we must be realistic.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Tuesday said in a statement: “We need to reach our 2035 goals in a sustainable way that doesn’t leave people without energy on a cloudy, windless day. I will not gamble with our energy security.”

Sunak, in commentary for the Daily Telegraph newspaper, wrote, “It is the insurance policy Britain needs to protect our energy security, while we deliver our net zero transition.”

Criticism of Plan

Doug Parr, policy director at Greenpeace UK, criticized the move, saying in a statement: “The government’s cunning plan to boost energy security and meet our climate goals is to make Britain more dependent on the very fossil fuel that sent our bills rocketing and the planet’s temperature soaring.”

Britain currently receives about one-third of its electricity from gas-fired power stations. Renewable resources, led primarily by wind power and including solar, hydropower, and biomass, produced about 40% of the country’s electricity in February, according to National Grid, the UK’s electricity system operator. Nuclear power is responsible for about 15% of the country’s power generation.

The UK has just one remaining coal-fired power plant, the 2,000-MW Ratcliffe-on-Soar facility in Nottinghamshire, which is scheduled to close later this year.

DESNZ officials also have said the agency will propose a location-based, or zonal, strategy to determine how much electricity users should pay, with different rates for power consumption. Customers living farther away from generation sites would pay more than those located closer to power-producing facilities. Wholesale electricity prices in the UK are currently set on a national level.

“A significant proportion of our energy is located away from areas of high demand … different wholesale prices could better match supply and demand and bring down costs for people across the country,” DESNZ said in a statement. The zonal electricity pricing strategy is used in other European countries, including Sweden, Norway, and Italy.

Commitment to Energy Transition

Both the Conservative and Labour parties in the UK have said they are committed to moving the country away from fossil fuels for power generation, while recognizing the need to maintain a reliable source of power. The Conservatives, in addition to proposing more gas-fired generation, also recently moved to approve more oil and gas exploration in the North Sea.

The Labour party, meanwhile, recently hired Mark Carney, a former Governor of the Bank of England, the Bank of Canada, and the creator of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, to help find private investment to support a transition away from fossil fuels.

Officials have said that even with government support for more gas-fired power plants, it is not certain any would be built because of higher gas prices in Europe after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Officials also have cited permitting costs, along with European taxes on carbon emissions, as reasons developers may find it difficult to secure investment in new gas-fired facilities.

Convert to Low Carbon

Government officials have conceded that any new gas-fired plants would need to be “able to convert to low carbon alternatives in the future such as carbon capture and hydrogen to power.”

The UK’s Green Alliance, a think-tank that advocates for renewable energy, said Tuesday’s announcement “flies in the face” of the the country’s commitments to ensure a net-zero power grid by 2035, and an overall net-zero economy by 2050. Other renewable energy supporters also expressed their disappointment.

“We know we don’t need new gas capacity in order to ensure that the lights stay on while we also look to meet net zero,” said Ana Musat, Renewable UK’s director of policy, in an interview with the BBC.

Advocates for renewable energy have decried moves by the Conservative government that they say threaten the net-zero target. The UK last year moved a planned national ban on the sale of new gas- and diesel-powered vehicles back five years, from 2030 to 2035. The government also said a planned ban on oil and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG)-fired boilers to heat homes would be delayed to at least 2035; the original ban was scheduled to take effect in 2026.

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

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