The 2024 UK general election will likely go down in history as one of the least surprising in all time. With the left-wing Labour Party granted a sure-fire win from the earliest opinion polls to the final count, the only uncertainty has been how great a majority it would have and what its priorities would be upon taking office.

Second among five Labour missions for a better Britain is making Britain “a clean energy superpower” to cut bills, create jobs and deliver security with cheaper, zero-carbon electricity by 2030, accelerating the country’s trajectory towards reaching a legally bound target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

While 14 years of Conservative government have seen important gains in clean energy policy, including a focus on offshore wind that has seen Britain outgunning all other markets bar China, the latest administration, under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, has been accused of taking a retrograde stance on climate. 

Incoming PM Kier Starmer aims to reverse this with his clean energy superpower pledge. “The clean energy transition represents a huge opportunity to generate growth, tackle the cost-of-living crisis and make Britain energy independent once again,” says Labour’s manifesto. 

The key points of Starmer’s energy plan include:

  • Working with the private sector to double onshore wind, triple solar power and quadruple offshore wind by 2030. 
  • Investing in carbon capture and storage, hydrogen, marine energy and long-term energy storage.
  • Introducing a new Energy Independence Act for energy and climate policies.

Another important part of Labour’s strategy is to create a publicly owned company called Great British Energy that will partner with industry and trade unions to deliver clean power by co-investing in leading technologies, support capital-intensive projects and deploy local energy production to benefit communities across the country. 

To support this, Labour will endow Great British Energy with £8.3 billion over the next parliament. “Great British Energy will partner with energy companies, local authorities and co-operatives to install thousands of clean power projects, through a combination of onshore wind, solar and hydropower projects,” says Labour.

The party’s plan for Great British Energy involves harnessing Britain’s sun, wind and wave energy to save £93 billion, deliver 100% clean electricity by 2030, cut energy bills “for good,” create “thousands of good local jobs,” deliver energy security, make the UK energy independent and “build an energy system for the future.”

Other parts of Labour’s energy mission include investing an extra £6.6 billion to upgrade 5 million homes, protecting water, nature and farmers, improving climate resilience across the country, introducing a carbon border adjustment mechanism and making the UK “the green finance capital of the world.”

One further and no-less vital piece of this wide-ranging mission is an energy system reform that Labour says will overcome current grid connection issues. “The national grid has become the single biggest obstacle to the deployment of cheap, clean power generation and the electrification of industry,” says Labour. 

“With grid connection dates not being offered until the late 2030s, important business and infrastructure investment is being stalled or lost overseas. Labour will work with industry to upgrade our national transmission infrastructure and rewire Britain.”

On energy policy, “there are clear differences of approach and emphasis” between Labour and the Tories, according to the director of University College London's Institute for Sustainable Resources, Jim Watson. “There are clear differences in the speed and scale of change we should expect after the election,” he says.

Labour’s ambitious targets for grid decarbonisation are warranted by the growing severity of the climate crisis, he says, “though delivering on near-zero carbon electricity in six years will be very difficult indeed. The important question is whether there will be stronger incentives to accelerate progress towards this goal.”

Another question is where these incentives are headed. Labour is seeking to maintain the previous administration’s commitment to new nuclear power and has also pledged £1 billion for carbon capture and storage (CCS). Both could potentially help the UK get over the line in terms of decarbonising the grid. 

The Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant, currently under construction, could add 3.2 GW of clean power to the system, enough to cover about 10% of UK demand, while CCS could theoretically let British gas stations run without emissions. 

But Hinkley Point C developer has already signalled that the reactor will not be operational before 2030, and the industry’s record of cost overruns and delays does not bode well for it helping to meet Labour’s target. 

CCS is subject to similar doubts, with no projects in operation today and a current ambition for just 5 million tonnes of CO2 removal by 2030—little more than a twelfth of the UK electricity system’s emissions in 2022. So, Labour’s best bet for getting even close to its target is to stick with mature renewables: wind and solar. 

Even these are not without their challenges. Solar is cheap but cannot power the country through the UK’s short, cloudy winter days. Offshore wind offers scale and high capacity factors but remains more expensive than onshore production—and progress on the next generation of floating platforms is woefully off the mark.

Onshore wind is cheaper and quicker to build, but this form of generation has effectively been impossible to develop in England for the best part of a decade because of a Tory rule allowing a single objection to paralyse a project application. 

Although the restriction was loosened in 2023, onshore wind consenting is still difficult, and no new plans have been accepted since the rule change. Now Labour aims to make it easy to build onshore wind again, which could help deliver the huge amount of low-cost, low-carbon energy the UK needs. 

Even this will not be enough, however. Solar and onshore and offshore wind are intermittent sources of generation. To make this non-firm power dispatchable will require continued investments in energy storage, with lithium-ion battery systems currently the cheapest and easiest option. 

Battery storage will also be key in allowing a large buildout of renewables to take place without a wholesale—and time-consuming—upgrade of the grid. By storing excess energy until there is spare capacity on the electricity network, storage helps maximise limited grid availability. 

With the time available and the scale of the challenge, going for the cheapest, easiest and most effective options should be a priority. Right now, these are variable renewables and battery storage. The Labour government has a mammoth task ahead—and should not waste a minute in getting started.

Publish date: 05 July, 2024