The start of 2012 has seen a change in the Energy Secretary after Chris Huhne was replaced by fellow Lib Dem, Ed Davey. However, this is not all that is changing
Chris Huhne served as Energy Secretary from the formation of the coalition government in 2010. In that time he sought to emphasise the need for off-shore wind to help meet climate change targets while ensuring that nuclear energy proved its economic worth before pushing forward with the development of new power stations.
When he stood down, he was replaced by fellow Lib Dem and vocal supporter of wind farms, Ed Davey. Mr Davey is now the man in charge of leading the UK’s response to the energy gap, de-carbonisation of energy supplies, and working out how the UK will manage its long term nuclear waste issues.
One of the Mr Davey’s first acts as Secretary of State was to open the world’s largest wind farm, the Walney scheme off the coast of Cumbria. Walney has more than 100 turbines generating enough power for 320,000 homes.
Mr Davey used the occasion to stress that Britain should be proud of its wind energy sector, which has grown significantly over the last decade. However, his support for the sector came only days after around 100 Conservative MPs wrote to the Prime Minister calling for a cut in government support for renewable energy. They raised particular concerns about on-shore wind turbines damaging the countryside.
While politicians debate the merits of on-shore wind, energy companies continue to invest where they can get planning permission. The recent announcement that Sixpenny Wood wind farm, near Hull, will begin construction demonstrates that where there is support, projects can be financed despite the present climate.
The UK is the world’s eighth largest producer of wind energy, and in 2010 had more installed off-shore wind capacity than the rest of the globe combined. In January of 2012 the total built capacity of wind generators in the UK exceeded 6GW for the first time, thanks to an upgrade of Ormonde offshore wind farm in Cumbria.
RenewableUK revealed that this means that the UK effectively powers 3.3 million homes through wind farms. It also noted that a further 19.5GW of capacity is under construction, consented or in planning across the country, though more will be needed to meet the government’s renewable energy roadmap, which targets 31GW of capacity by 2020.
While Ed Davey will be keen to put his support for renewable energy into action, he will also face a significant challenge on nuclear new build.
Finance remains at the heart of plans to construct several new nuclear plant facilities across the country, and at the heart of securing government backing for a sector that the public is keen not to subsidise.
With major energy firms presently investigating how best to proceed with nuclear new build, attention has started to turn to the nuclear waste management funds that will help ensure the taxpayer is not left liable for the eventual decommissioning of the new reactors and sites.
The legacy of past nuclear development in the UK has yet to be fully resolved, though plans are being investigated for a deep storage option in Cumbria. However, in a liberalised energy market, and with tensions in politics about the balance between nuclear and rewnewables investment, it is crucial to government that industry finds a means of planning for its own long term consequences.
To resolve the concerns about public subsidy and nuclear legacy, companies are now assessing how funds, established early in the lifetime of a new plant, will be grown and maintained over decades so that they might meet the cost of decommissioning when the time comes.
This will prove critical to securing public and political backing for new nuclear build, which will now mean ensuring that Ed Davey is convinced that it will work.