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How can Britain be more strategic in relation to its energy security?

The Council on Geostrategy asks five strategic experts how the United Kingdom (UK) can be more strategic in relation to its energy security

Josh Buckland, former Government Energy Advisor

Energy security is not a single issue, it is many. Do we have enough power stations? Where does our gas come from? How do we protect energy connections with international partners? How do we get access to the critical materials for clean technologies? A more strategic approach therefore rests on one thing – being more joined up.

What does this mean?

First, we need to join-up energy governance. His Majesty’s (HM) Government’s Future System Operator should not just focus on planning the electricity system, but the whole energy system. This includes how we store energy not just as electricity, but also in other forms, like hydrogen. The energy regulator, Ofgem, also needs to bring the regulation of electricity and gas systems together.

Second, we need to join-up beyond our borders. The energy security of the UK relies on how we maximise the value of the North Seas as a shared energy resource. This can only be done if we collaborate – this does not have to mean completely align – with our closest neighbours.

Finally, we need to join-up short and long-term thinking. Immediate technology choices should be linked to our technology research and development priorities. A joined-up deployment plan for what will happen pre-203o, then out to 2050 is a must, which includes how we supply the materials needed to deliver it.

Sam Hall, Conservative Environment Network

Russia’s full-scale assault against Ukraine sent energy prices soaring to ten times their normal level at the peak of the crisis. The UK’s dependence on gas for heating and power meant we were particularly vulnerable to this energy warfare. HM Government rightly responded with a range of policies to boost homegrown energy supplies. 

But other levers to improve energy security have not been pulled. New onshore wind in England remains effectively banned. Perhaps more importantly, there has been little progress on reducing demand for gas through insulation and heat pumps, where rates of installation remain sluggish.

While Labour’s policy of ending new fossil fuel exploration in the North Sea is a tempting wedge issue for the Conservative Government to exploit, domestic oil and gas cannot make us energy secure. North Sea production is in terminal decline and makes up a tiny fraction of global reserves, meaning it cannot free the UK from the malign influence of petrostates. 

Heading into this winter with energy prices expected to remain high, a much stronger push to reduce gas consumption would be a prudent strategic move for the UK and the best way to reduce reliance on hostile powers. 

Jack Richardson, Onward UK

Fossil fuels are providing rapidly diminishing energy security. The North Sea oil and gas basin is running out of extractable reserves; the UK is becoming more reliant on shipped gas bought from international markets. Coal is on the way out, its place as the most emitting fuel makes it unacceptable. The UK never gave shale gas a chance because the size of the prize is estimated by ministers and policymakers to be small, outweighed by the political costs.

Clean energy is the way forward from here. And it will mostly be renewable given neither of the main political parties in Britain seem able to crack the financing challenge for nuclear. But we need to ‘firm up’ intermittent renewables if we are to achieve energy security. That means scaling up batteries and hydrogen electrolysers; new interconnectors and grid infrastructure to solve grid constraints; and demand side flexibility like vehicle-2-grid charging.

Without this, the idea of moving off fossil fuels for heat and transport is a pipe dream. HM Government needs to streamline the planning system, do licensing rounds for floating wind, and establish the Future Systems Operator. It should also fast-track key strategic decisions and provide a clear role for hydrogen in the energy system.

James Rogers, Council on Geostrategy

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries Britain unleashed a scientific and technological revolution which made it the most powerful country on Earth. Coal, powering steam engines, was the foundation of British strength. Coal powered up the factories and furnaces which enabled a few million British factory workers to outproduce far larger rivals and shape the world in their own image. Industrialisation also ushered in an age of plenty, providing a standard of living unrivalled in history.

HM Government is committed to upholding the UK’s position as a scientific and technological superpower. But if this objective is to be realised, the UK needs to be able to generate clean, cheap and plentiful energy. In particular, electricity will become more important due to the development of electrical vehicles and power-hungry computing infrastructure harnessed by artificial intelligence.

In the interim, scaling up renewables is, obviously, one way of moving away from old-fashioned fossil fuels, sovereign supplies of which Britain has used up. As are measures designed to reduce energy waste. Yet, these measures will not, by themselves, be sufficient. Grids must be balanced when the wind is not blowing strong enough or the sun is not shining. 

Instead, HM Government should work with likeminded countries to initiate a new Tube Alloys/Manhattan- or Apollo-style programme to develop a working fusion power plant. A race is already on. The first country to develop near-unlimited clean, cheap, sovereign energy will usher in a new revolution not unlike the industrial, which will provide it with unrivalled international influence.

Rian Whitton, Bismarck Analysis

Britain has a serious current account deficit. In 2022, it was 3.8% of GDP, up from 1.5% in 2021. Our deficit, which is serviced by increased borrowing, comes from two things: our lack of manufacturing competitiveness (especially versus Europe), and our increasing reliance on foreign sources of energy. 

Electricity imports in particular are skyrocketing. From 2010 to 2021, electricity imports grew from 2.1% to 9% of British electricity generation. An exception occurred in 2022 when Britain was a net exporter of electricity. This was due to a glut in liquid natural gas imports and a lack of gas storage, which left the UK selling excess supply to Europe. In early 2023, Britain returned to being a net importer of electricity.  

Greater importation has seen British industrial electricity prices become the most expensive in the developed world. These prices render any industrial strategy aimed at bolstering manufacturing dead on arrival. Manufacturers will not be keen to invest in countries where they are propositioned to ration their energy over the winter.

What can be done? More gas storage through the reopening of the Rough site is desirable. Batteries are an unfeasible method of storing energy. Replacing a day’s worth of gas balancing capability with batteries costs over £1 trillion. This situation was caused by the reduction of reliable baseload power from coal and nuclear plants. If it is to be solved, the expansion of new nuclear and gas infrastructure has to be moved to the top of the list of government priorities.

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1 thought on “How can Britain be more strategic in relation to its energy security?”

  1. Charlotte Fenton

    Interesting to read your thoughts on these matters though there is a significant difference between energy distribution and energy generation; and how it’s security needs can be addressed. The question I would begin with is
    “who’s responsibility is it actually protect the infrastructure of the distribution network and the means of generation?” because building a strategy around this provides a very interesting mix of results.
    Dr Charlotte E Fenton

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