Boris Johnson is to put nuclear energy at the heart of the UK’s new energy strategy, but ministers have refused to set targets for onshore wind and vowed to continue the exploitation of North Sea oil and gas.
Amid deep divisions among senior Conservatives, the strategy will enrage environmentalists, who say the government’s plans are in defiance of its own net-zero targets and neglect alternative measures that experts say would provide much quicker relief from high energy bills.
The prime minister will launch the plan on Thursday, after a period of intense political wrangling set against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has convulsed energy markets and sent home energy bills rocketing.
Whitehall sources said rows over the strategy between No 10, the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) continued right up until the eve of publication, with an insider describing the process as “chaos”.
The cabinet eventually agreed that atomic energy would form the backbone of the strategy, and up to eight new reactors are planned.
Targets for offshore wind and solar power generation will also be raised, in a push for 95% of Great Britain’s electricity to come from domestic low-carbon energy sources by 2030.
But the plans risk infuriating environmental campaigners, after the opportunity to remove barriers to more onshore wind farms appeared to fall victim to Tory in-fighting, new North Sea drilling won the government’s blessing, and ministers appeared to open the door to fracking.
Opposition parties were scathing about the strategy. Two former energy secretaries from Labour and the Liberal Democrats branded it “ludicrous” and “hopeless” for failing to expand onshore wind power or tackle energy efficiency.
Ed Miliband, the Labour climate change secretary, said the energy relaunch was “in disarray” and would do nothing to help the millions of families facing an energy crisis now. “Boris Johnson has completely caved to his own backbenchers and now, ludicrously, his own energy strategy has failed on the sprint we needed on onshore wind and solar – the cheapest, cleanest forms of homegrown power,” he said.
Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader and another former energy secretary, added: “The Conservatives’ failure to help people cut their bills with an urgent energy insulation programme, the failure to back super-cheap onshore wind and the failure to back properly new technologies like tidal power and hydrogen is a total betrayal of families and pensioners across the UK.”
The energy strategy outlines a wide-ranging plan to boost domestic energy production through a range of power sources. They include:
Increasing nuclear capacity from 7 gigawatts to 24GW
Offshore wind target raised from 40GW to 50GW (from 11GW today)
Solar could grow five times from 14GW to 70GW by 2035
An “impartial” review into whether fracking is safe
Up to 10GW of hydrogen power by 2030
Johnson said the plan will “reduce our dependence on power sources exposed to volatile international prices we cannot control, so we can enjoy greater energy self-sufficiency with cheaper bills”.
“This plan comes in light of rising global energy prices, provoked by surging demand after the pandemic as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“This will be central to weaning Britain off expensive fossil fuels, which are subject to volatile gas prices set by international markets we are unable to control, and boosting our diverse sources of homegrown energy for greater energy security in the long term.”
While some renewable domestic energy sources won backing, the wind industry’s hopes of getting the green light to double onshore capacity to 30GW appeared to have fallen victim to opposition from within the Conservative party to new projects, particularly in England.
Communities who live near planned new projects could be offered incentives, such as guaranteed lower energy bills, but the plan does not include targets for increased generation.
Cabinet colleagues have been at odds over whether to reform planning laws to spur faster development of onshore windfarms, which can take as little as a year to build and start contributing to the grid, but were described by transport secretary Grant Shapps as an “eyesore” at the weekend.
Shapps and chief whip Chris Heaton-Harris, a longstanding opponent of onshore wind, are among a group of MPs who have sought to thwart a major rollout in England, with Michael Gove and business minister Kwasi Kwarteng – whose brief includes energy – among those to have pushed back.
The business department is also understood to have been thwarted by the Treasury in a plan to channel £300m of budget underspend into a rapid rollout of energy efficiency upgrades that could aid homeowners in bringing down their bills.
Solar won significant backing from the government, which said planning rules could be relaxed to favour development on non-protected land, enabling capacity to increase up to fivefold, from 14GW to 70GW. The target for hydrogen power will be doubled to 10GW by 2030 “subject to affordability and value for money”.
Overall, “clean” energy sources could provide up to 40,000 new jobs, reaching a total of 480,000 by 2030, the government will say.
But alongside the push for renewables sit plans that will alarm opponents of further oil and gas exploitation.
The British Geological Survey will conduct an “impartial” review of whether fracking for shale gas can proceed safely, a move likely to spark fury among environmental campaigners about the controversial technology, particularly after a moratorium was imposed on the process in 2019.
New North Sea oil and gas projects are also likely to be accelerated, although the strategy sets out proposals to limit emissions as much as possible.
Nuclear power forms the centrepiece of the energy strategy. Ministers expect to begin a competitive selection process as early as next year for a new round of nuclear projects, although tensions between Downing Street and the Treasury over the cost of new projects, which are expected to require government investment, have yet to be resolved.
The target of producing 25% of Britain’s electricity from atomic energy is likely to require tens of billions of pounds of new investment from private companies, with the state providing guarantees under a new “regulated asset base” funding model.
A £120m “Future Nuclear Enabling Fund” will be launched this month in the hope of kickstarting projects, while a new body called Great British Nuclear will oversee the plans.
National Grid has predicted that peak electricity demand will hit 85GW by 2050, up from 60GW today, because of factors such as the electrification of vehicles and home heating.
The government said it could approve up to eight new reactors to help reach a target of generating 24GW of the total from nuclear power plants, which typically have more than one reactor.
Some of the increase can be achieved by extending the life of the Sizewell B reactor, while the Hinkley Point C project is due for completion in 2027 and Rolls-Royce has the government’s blessing for small reactors nicknamed “mini-nukes”.
Major projects that have already been through some form of planning, such as Sizewell C and Wylfa, on Anglesey, have been singled out by the government as among the first to win support.
The target also implies new plants at sites whose locations have already been approved but where no plans are under way, such as Oldbury in Gloucestershire or Moorside (Sellafield) in Cumbria.
While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted global discussion on how to reduce reliance on Kremlin-controlled oil and gas, it appears to have cooled the government’s resolve to limit the UK’s own fossil fuel production.
Drilling for oil and gas in the North Sea is at odds with the government’s own net-zero targets. The government will justify the plans by saying that local exploitation of hydrocarbons emits less carbon than importing supplies from elsewhere.
Ministers have also commissioned a new study to examine safety concerns about fracking, which polls have shown is deeply unpopular with the public.