The UK has taken a global lead in becoming the first major economy to commit to an ambitious net zero target.
The Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan sets out the route ahead to reach that destination. It highlighted which technologies we need to prioritise, the infrastructure we need to invest in and how, at the same time, we protect our environment.
It also set out the scale of the challenge facing the UK over the next thirty years. To get to net zero means changing whole systems – not just decarbonising our existing electricity grid but increasing supply to displace gas as the main fuel we heat our homes with, for example. Only 5% of our hydrogen is produced by electrolysis with the majority derived from natural gas. If hydrogen is the fuel of the future, then we need to produce it sustainably.
As the UK moves away from fossil fuels, more and more pressure will be put on demand for electricity. As we phase out internal combustion engines and buy cars with batteries that need charging then that will put enormous pressure on the national grid’s capacity. Ripping out gas boilers and installing heat pumps will further ramp up electricity demand.
The challenge therefore is how do we produce more electricity in a cleaner, greener way whilst at the same time not risking power cuts at times of peak demand?
Nuclear power must be central to answering that question. From Hinkley Point to Heysham, Hartlepool to Hunterston, nuclear power currently generates nearly a fifth of the UK’s energy needs. It does not rely on the wind blowing or the sun shining and provides the UK with the baseload of energy it requires to keep the lights on.
But our nuclear fleet is aging. By the end of 2030, despite some extensions to operational life, all but one of our currently operating nuclear power plants will have been decommissioned. As we seek to manage the increased demand for energy, we cannot be in a position where at the same time nearly 20% of our generation is coming offline. And while offshore wind, amongst other renewables, is incredibly important to our energy mix, it does not provide the same reliability as a power station.
A commitment to nuclear in the Ten Point Plan was therefore welcome. But a dose of realism in also necessary. Small and advanced modular reactors such as those Rolls Royce are developing, will, in time, be fantastic examples of British innovation and expertise. But they are still at an early developmental stage and are unlikely to be ready until at least the 2030’s.
We must get on with building large scale nuclear. Hinkley Point C is in the process of being built but that one power station is not enough. Indeed, experts suggest we need at least 10GW of nuclear to get to net zero by 2050 in addition to Hinkley Point C’s 3.2GW.
There is only one other nuclear power station currently on the launch slipway – Sizewell C. As an exact replica of Hinkley Point C, it is “oven ready” to coin a phrase! All it needs is for the Prime Minister to fire the starting gun.
At a time when the UK desperately needs employment, large scale infrastructure projects like Sizewell C will be a shot in the arm for the economy with 25,000 jobs including 1,500 apprenticeships across the country.
But if we wait any longer, this nuclear supply chain and the skills associated with it will begin to whittle away. We cannot allow this to happen.
Tackling climate change is the challenge of this generation. It means taking ambitious decisions and demonstrating global leadership. At COP26 next year we need to demonstrate to the world that we are not merely talking about the Climate Emergency but are taking decisive action.
The Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan gives us the blueprint for this project which will drive the UK forward on its journey to net zero, while at the same time giving us the economic and employment boost we need post-pandemic.
That means starting with the things that are on the table now – like giving the green light to Sizewell C.
Rt Hon Robert Goodwill MP is a former DEFRA Minister and a Member of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee.