What's with the UK’s “boneheaded” energy policy?
As Europe’s windiest country, the UK could be at the forefront of the green energy revolution. Instead, the government is prioritising fracking and nuclear energy over renewables. There is a method to their madness - but it is neither ecology nor the economy. The real reason is the deep influence of lobbies and the military on UK energy policy.
A group of “knitting nanas” led the anti-fracking protests at Preston New Road. Signs and banners fought it out to find the best word game, from "Frack off" to "Not for Shale." The movement was creative, lively, and determined: protests were held in front of the site for months. "Some people even left their jobs to camp there full time,” says Claire Stephenson, an activist from the group Frack Free Lancashire. And yet on October 15th, the site reopened. After a seven-year pause, hydraulic fracturing was back in the UK.
British energy policy verges on the absurd: despite being one of the best-situated countries in the world for the production of renewables, investments in clean energy dropped by 56% in 2017. Onshore wind projects have been de facto banned since 2015. Meanwhile, fracking has resumed, and the UK is pursuing an ambitious civil nuclear policy, notably with the construction of the Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station.
"If you look at it from a purely financial point of view, what [the politicians] are doing is completely boneheaded," says Peter Wynn Kirby, Environmental Specialist at Oxford University. “You’d have to be crazy to launch nuclear projects right in the middle of the 21st-century energy revolution.” While the cost of solar energy and wind are falling, the price of nuclear power is increasing. As for shale gas, long touted as an economic boon for the UK, many studies now question the potential windfall. Meanwhile, the end of subsidies in the green energy sector will cost the British public one billion dollars over five years on their electricity bills, according to a study by the NGO Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit.
It’s no wonder that popular opinion sways in the direction of renewable energy. 85% of people support it, while only 38% are in favour of nuclear, and 18% for shale gas. To bury this embarrassing statistic, the government dropped the question of whether or not the respondent supported fracking from public attitude tracker polls as from August 2018.
Secret meetings with lobbies
Unlike British citizens, fossil fuel and fracking lobbies have no problem getting their voices heard. The number of meetings held with the energy minister far exceeds that of lobbies in the renewables sector - even when you only take into account those recorded in the transparency register. The Guardian recently revealed that in May, Claire Perry failed to record a meeting with Cuadrilla and other major fracking companies on the transparency register. During the private meeting, Perry announced her wish to create a “‘UK model of fracking” to export across the globe". The meeting held with wind power executives on the same day was, however, duly recorded.
"When you find out that some meetings are not even recorded in the transparency register, it makes you feel like you’re not fighting on even ground,” Claire Stephenson, from Frack Free Lancashire, commented on these reports. “We have no chance against the shale gas industry." Just one month after the meeting, the government announced measures making it easier to build new fracking wells and sidestep community resistance. Companies no longer need to obtain a building permit from the local council before they drill.
"England's energy policy is very opportunistic, there is no long-term vision," says Duncan Connors, an economics and energy policy specialist at Durham University. The idea that there is money to be made short-term in shale gas is what underpins government policy, he says. "In the long run, renewables will also bring in a lot of money, but that doesn’t fit into their frame of vision.”
For now, there is still a limit to wind and solar energy: the need to store energy to compensate for uneven weather conditions. Kirby argues that this “isn’t a real problem,” in a few years, there will be batteries powerful enough to store the surplus energy and retransmit it. "The smart thing to do now would be to invest resources into conducting research into making these storage options a reality,” he says. In the UK, Green energy gets twelve times less R&D funding from the government than nuclear power.
The crossover between civil and military nuclear interests
This statistic that caught the attention of Andy Stirling and Philip Johnstone, two energy policy researchers at the University of Sussex. They decided to look into why the UK was so attached to its nuclear program, despite poor economic profitability and environmental risks. "We wondered why, unlike many other technologies, nuclear power never became obsolete," says Johnstone. After delving into fifteen years of official documents, they "found evidence that the need for skills in the military nuclear sector has a big influence on civil nuclear policy."
The National Audit Office’s 2017 report had already suggested that civil nuclear enthusiasm was linked to the military. The reported pointed out serious flaws in the economic case for new nuclear, but highlighted “unquantified”, “strategic” reasons why the UK still prioritises nuclear over the alternatives. In a 2014 report written by military advisers, it is written black on white that the MoD needed to “seek imaginative methods to better engage with the emergent civil new build programme on nuclear matters to the benefit of defence.”
A "democratic issue"
"When we think about the crossover between civilian and military nuclear, we tend to think above all of the material element, like in the early days of nuclear power: the first British power plant was used to supply plutonium to the weapons sector," says Johnstone. But there is a more subtle and equally essential overlap: that of skills and personnel, who go from civilian to military, and back again. An ambitious civilian nuclear program provides skilled labour and research to the military sector, allowing them to conceal part of their expenses.
For Kirby, this is a "democratic issue". "At a time when resources are limited, billions are being invested in energy that has lots of disadvantages, and what's more, this is actually financing a disputed nuclear weapons program. It seems obvious that a public debate is needed on the matter.”
Anti-frack activists also feel that the government is flouting democracy. "The fact that Westminster can make these decisions for us, that they go against the decisions of the local community is unacceptable," says Claire Stephenson, adding that there has been a significant increase in police brutality resulting in many injuries among protesters.
In August, Simon Blevins, Richard Roberts and Richard Loizou became the first environmental activists to be jailed since 1932. They were then released - after it was revealed that the judge who had sentenced them had financial interests in the shale gas industry.
(This article was originally published in French in Reporterre )