Boris Johnson stresses that offshore wind has ‘massive potential’, sparking speculation that Number 10 is cooling on proposals to ease planning restrictions
The government’s much anticipated Energy Security Strategy has been thrown into yet more confusion, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared to yesterday indicate he was unlikely to back proposals to relax planning restrictions on new onshore wind farms.
Media reports had suggested one of the key planks of the new strategy – which aims to slash the UK’s imports of gas and oil from Russia in response to the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine – would be a relaxation of planning rules that remain a major barrier to the development of new onshore wind and solar farms.
But speaking to the Liaison Committee of MPs in Parliament yesterday afternoon, Johnson hinted strongly that the focus of the new strategy was more likely to be on new offshore wind and nuclear projects.
“In the UK we have failed for a generation to put in enough long-term supply and it’s been one of those colossal mistakes,” Johnson said. “Renewables are fantastic and offshore wind – and I stress offshore wind – I think has massive potential. But so does nuclear.”
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng is understood to be pushing for a relaxation of planning rules, arguing that onshore renewables are now the most cost effective form of new power generation, as well as the fastest projects to deliver.
Early drafts of the Energy Security Strategy, which have been repeatedly delayed, are understood to include 2030 targets to increase solar capacity from 14GW to 50GW, offshore wind from 11GW to 50GW, onshore wind from 15GW to 30GW, and nuclear power from 7GW to 16GW. However, industry insiders have warned such a major increase in onshore renewables development would be impossible to deliver without a relaxation of current planning rules.
However, some members of the Cabinet have voiced opposition to any move to boost onshore wind development, complaining about the impact on the landscape and fearing the move could prove electorally unpopular, despite repeated polls that show a vast majority of people support onshore renewables development.
The FT reported that allies of the Prime Minister had said Johnson was still “open to looking at onshore wind”.
But the comments mean almost every part of the planned Energy Security Strategy – which was first promised almost a month ago as part of an emergency response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting energy security threat – are now shrouded in uncertainty and subject to tussles within government.
The Strategy had been expected last week, but was reportedly delayed over Treasury concerns over how to fund the Prime Minister’s plans for a huge expansion in new nuclear capacity. Similarly, there are widespread concerns that the Treasury is reluctant to back plans for an expansion of energy efficiency programmes, which could offer one of the fastest mechanisms for curbing energy imports.
Meanwhile, the Cabinet is said to be divided on whether to end the moratorium on fracking in the UK, and while the government does seem certain to announce new North Sea oil and gas licenses, green groups have warned such an approach risks breaching the UK’s carbon targets and will take decades to have any meaningful impact on domestic energy security.
Industry is also awaiting clarity on whether the Strategy will include new measures to help bring forward carbon capture and storage and hydrogen projects, amidst reports that the Treasury is reluctant to sign off on any new spending.
The on-going uncertainty comes in the same week as a fresh flurry of surveys highlighted the scale of public support for an expansion in the UK’s renewables capacity, including its onshore wind farm fleet.
A survey from Octopus Energy found that 87 per cent of people said they would support having a wind turbine in their postcode area if it means half price electricity, while a similar poll from renewables developer Vattenfall found 61 per cent of respondents thought renewable energy was the most effective solution for guaranteeing UK energy security. Moreover, just under a third said planning decisions should be speeded up for all types of new energy project and only two per cent of consumers opposed a simplification of planning processes.
Today also saw the government publish the results of its own tracker poll on the public’s response to climate and energy issues, revealing that 80 per cent of people support onshore wind and only four per cent oppose it. It’s also one of the cheapest new forms of energy generation.
In related news, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) today launched a new inquiry to examine how the UK can reduce its reliance on oil and gas and protect households from soaring fossil fuel prices.
“The government’s Energy Security Strategy is sorely needed as many households across the country struggle with an ever-increasing cost of living crisis,” said EAC chair Philip Dunne. “As speculation mounts over what will be included in the strategy, our committee is wasting no time exploring how to secure domestic energy supplies, accelerate the UK’s transition to net zero and protect households from eye-watering fossil fuel prices.
“Security of energy supply is absolutely vital. There will be a continued role for oil and gas in the coming three decades as we make the transition to net zero. But how much of the UK’s oil and gas reserves can be exploited while limiting global temperature rises to 1.5C in line with the Paris Agreement? Can we make better use of resources in the North Sea for our own domestic energy supplies to reduce reliance on imports? Should the government continue to provide tax breaks or financial support to the fossil fuel industry? Can we turbocharge renewable energy installations and energy efficiency improvements to power and heat homes affordably? We will be exploring these questions, and many others, as we dive into this issue.”