The row over Sizewell led the headlines, but there is so much more to the Energy White Paper and its promise to deliver a decisive shift away from fossil fuels
Whisper it, but I'm not sure the inevitable reignition of the row over the UK's nuclear plans is the most important part of the long-awaited Energy White Paper.
It is easy to see why the controversy surrounding the plans to build a new nuclear power plant at Sizewell led the headlines yesterday morning. Here is a point of real disagreement with deep feeling and legitimate good faith arguments on both sides. It ticks the drama and tension boxes that make for interesting news. It remains a fascinating and complex debate.
But for me it risks distracting from the huge sweeping significance of this Energy White Paper and the exciting new phase of the UK's green industrial revolution plans.
The precise level of nuclear power in the UK electricity mix in 2040 is an extremely important discussion with potentially costly implications, but it is not as significant or impactful as the Business Secretary declaring the government's official energy strategy is to engineer "decisive and permanent shift away from our dependence on fossil fuels". Now, that's news.
The reality is the government was always going to keep the door open for new nuclear in the UK. If you start from first principles, the UK has to either develop a 100 per cent renewables grid with lots of enabling energy storage, smart grid innovation, and likely hydrogen generation, or develop a grid with lots more renewables and all those enabling technologies, but also complemented by some nuclear and/or carbon capture capacity, ideally with sustainable biomass, to help manage those occasions when renewables output is low for a sustained period (and perhaps help meet surging demand for power to produce zero emission hydrogen). Anyone who asserts with confidence what the precise grid mix will look like in 2040 almost certainly has a bridge to sell you.
Yes, new nuclear looks eye-wateringly expensive when set against new renewables capacity currently, and as such the government would be very wise to drive the hardest of bargains in its upcoming talks with new developers and be willing to pursue alternative clean power trajectories if necessary. But it is also true that every credible model suggests there is a point where the costs and complexities of managing a grid with 80 per cent plus renewables does get very challenging. Building out renewables capacity as fast as possible should be the top priority, but it would be remiss of the government to rule out other zero emission power sources at this point. We may yet need them.
And that is what is so exciting about the Energy White Paper. Here is a credible, coherent, and, dare I say it, holistic plan for building a zero emission energy system that promises action on pretty much every single front that can enable that core goal of a "decisive and permanent shift away from our dependence on fossil fuels".
There's increased investment and new policy interventions either confirmed or on the way relating to energy efficiency, green heating, hydrogen, CCS, renewables, biomass, EVs, smart grids, governance and regulatory reform, and, yes, nuclear.
There is a lot of fine point policy detail to be consulted on and finalised and lots of areas where problems remain or the government's proposals still look underpowered. For example, the Environmental Audit Committee's revelations today on the continuing problems with the Green Homes Grant scheme are a timely reminder of how hugely difficult it will be to improve the energy efficiency of the UK's building stock. Similarly, the continuing failure to give regulators an explicit net zero mandate, reform the tax system to better incentivise clean technologies, and use every tool in the box to turbocharge renewables development remain hugely frustrating.
But when looked at in the round the Energy White Paper is the policy equivalent of the macro investment signals provided by this weekend's Climate Ambition Summit with its various national climate action pledges. It says huge changes are coming, clean technologies are set to dominate the decades ahead, and they can be deployed in a way that minimises costs and boosts the economy. That's the real story, here, regardless of the eventual decision on new nuclear's role in this transition.
A version of this article originally appeared in the BusinessGreen Overnight Briefing newsletter, which is available to all BusinessGreen subscribers.