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The energy white paper shows momentum is building around net zero

The energy white paper is a welcome – and long delayed – step forward for UK energy policy

The energy white paper is a welcome – and long delayed – step forward for UK energy policy, writes Colm Britchfield

The publication of the government’s new energy white paper on Monday marked the end of a long wait for the UK energy sector. First announced in June 2018, the white paper was originally expected in summer 2019, but has been repeatedly pushed back since then, as a new prime minister entered office and the government’s programme was overtaken by a series of crises and competing priorities.

But despite the delay, the plan has landed at an opportune moment. The white paper builds on the prime minister’s ’10-point plan’, the national infrastructure strategy, the Climate Change Committee's 6th carbon budget, and the new UK NDC [1], and has started to bring cohesion to the net-zero plan that the UK will present to November’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow.

These developments, along with a flurry of strategy papers and consultations to come in 2021, add up to a real sense of momentum. The government now needs to act on its commitments, and resolve the remaining policy uncertainties as quickly as possible, to make real progress in the 2020s.

The government is getting serious about the scale of the energy transition

The white paper has raised the UK’s level of ambition across energy policy. The announcement that one new large-scale nuclear project will be brought to a final investment decision by the end of this parliament has reignited the UK nuclear debate on the front pages, but the most impactful government action will be elsewhere.

The white paper states that clean electricity will be the UK’s predominant form of energy, and that demand for electricity will potentially double by 2050. For the first time, government has started to address the substantial reforms to the electricity system that moving to a flexible system dominated by renewables will require. In almost 60 ‘key commitments’, the document lays out how heavy industry, buildings, and the consumer energy market will all be adapted to prepare for the transition to clean energy. The breadth of the white paper illustrates the fact that a successful energy transition underpins progress towards net zero in every other sector.

But much of the policy framework is still being developed

The new level of detail that this white paper brings is commendable, but lots of policy specifics are still uncertain. Of the government’s nine ‘key commitments’ to consumers, eight are either plans for consultations or calls for evidence. Across the document as a whole, 24 commitments – slightly under half – are for consultations, reviews, or plans to publish strategies in the future.

It is right that the government acknowledges that it does not have all the answers. There are many genuine uncertainties in the energy transition that policy makers have to deal with. But some of the problems under review have been around for a long time. A decision on the future (and possible breakup) of National Grid ESO is overdue.

It is vital that these consultations and reviews are turned around quickly. The white paper makes clear that most will happen in 2021, with some of the more complicated ones scheduled for 2022. When they are completed, their conclusions must be translated into policy action quickly. Any significant changes to the electricity system need to be underway by the mid-2020s to give network operators time to plan.

This does not leave much time to run trials and pilots – and it is essential that government starts running large-scale trials of technologies, like heat networks and hydrogen, by the mid-2020s to keep enough plausible options open for the 2030s. A central message from the CCC’s 6th carbon budget is that the transition will require a technology mix. The government needs to use this decade to figure out how to make the different parts of the mix work together.

Government must adapt to a new style of more active intervention in energy policy

The transition to net zero has already begun to end the decades-old energy policy orthodoxy that government’s role is to set out a broad market framework without explicitly directing things. The new white paper is the latest example of the government realising it will have to take a more active role in decision-making and co-ordination.

But to get this right, government needs stronger technical and commercial expertise, a more open approach to gathering and using evidence, and stronger scrutiny. Without these, government policy risks being swayed by companies that understand the technologies and markets better than civil servants are ever likely to, and making the wrong investment decisions. As government becomes a more active player in the energy system, it will need to do more of its thinking collaboratively, and in public.

The government’s new commitment in the white paper to open up its energy modelling processes is therefore very welcome. In previous years, government has sometimes been criticised for making decisions based on models that were difficult to scrutinise. By publishing the models used to inform its understanding of the energy system and its complex relationship to other parts of the economy, the government will give itself access to a wider pool of expertise and innovation, and make it easier for others to test its assumptions. This kind of technical announcement is unlikely to garner widespread coverage but is a hugely positive step, and something the Institute for Government called for in a recent report on the use of evidence in energy policy.

Just as announcing targets is easier than designing policy, making commitments is easier than implementing them. But after two years of waiting, we now have a serious, credible plan to transform the UK’s energy system in under 30 years.

  1.  Nationally Determined Contribution, the UK’s new commitment to cut emissions by 78% by 2030, relative to 1990.
Johnson government
Institute for Government

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