Can Britain secure its energy supplies? Sebastian Whale investigates

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Jersey Electricity offices in St Helier, May 2021 | Alamy

Sébastien Baleine

7 minutes to read

The recent French threats to Jersey’s electricity supply have highlighted a worrying truth: in the globalized energy world, it is easier than ever for foreign powers to exert control over each other.

Even your allies can threaten to use energy as a strategic weapon, as the imposing French minister of the sea reminded the world in May. “Let us not forget that France has many levers, in particular on the supply of electricity by submarine cables to Jersey”, she declared.

The episode, which arose out of a dispute over post-Brexit fishing rights, highlighted the issue of energy dependence. In 2018, the French energy giant EDF supplied 94.9% of Jersey’s electricity. “In many ways, with globalization being the trend for the last 20 years, we take harmonious international relations for granted,” notes Conservative MP Peter Aldous.

But many hot spots, even in recent history, have focused on the supply of oil and gas. In 1973, members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries imposed an oil embargo on countries perceived to support Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Today, critics from the Kremlin say Russia is trying to blackmail the European Union into sanctioning the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that connects the Baltic Sea to Germany by restricting gas supplies to Europe.

The shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources offers the UK an opportunity to re-establish its dependence on potentially hostile states by investing in domestic production. And some Tory MPs fear that inaction could allow countries like China to exploit a comparative advantage over new technology and, in so doing, gain leverage over Britain.

A group of Tory MPs urged Boris Johnson to speed up hydrogen as a way to improve UK energy security, fearing China’s dominance over the electric vehicle supply chain. Speaking to The House, MEPs also called for rethinking Beijing’s involvement in Britain’s nuclear sector.

“All forms of dependency create some kind of relationship that you may not want,” argues Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and founding member of the China Research Group (CRG). “You have to be careful not to depend on countries that do not share your values.”

Over the past year, Tugendhat and his colleagues at the CRG have raised questions relating to the Communist Party of China, from the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province to Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G network, which they helped thwart last summer. Five CRG members, including Tugendhat and former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, have been banned from entering China.

Among their concerns is state-owned China General Nuclear Group (CGN), which has a minority stake in Hinkley Point C in Somerset and Sizewell C in Suffolk, with EDF the majority shareholder. But it’s Bradwell B in Essex, where CGN has a majority stake and plans to build a nuclear reactor, that is proving the most controversial.

They can stop us on the flip of a switch if they wanted to

“If you put money in here and you get a return, well, I don’t care where your particular money is coming from. If it’s technological, it gives you real forms of control, leverage or influence, then that’s another matter, ”explains Tugendhat.

Duncan Smith fears the UK has become dependent on China for nuclear technology. “They can turn us off on the flip of a switch if they want to,” he said, arguing that the UK has become “in bed” in the face of “a disgusting and truly appalling regime”. “We have forgotten all the lessons of the past,” he adds.

The nuclear power plant agreements, reached in 2015, were part of David Cameron’s efforts to deepen relations with China. His successor, Theresa May, ordered a review of Hinkley Point amid concerns about national security and rising costs. Richard Harrington, the former Tory MP who served as business secretary from 2017 to 2019, said May’s government was “itself in a dilemma” over CGN. He told The House that Downing St canceled his planned ministerial visit to a CGN factory in China in August 2018 over national security concerns. “In the end, I didn’t go because number 10 under Theresa said not to,” he says.

The decision to approve Bradwell B is yet to come, although the House understands security services are concerned about the proposals. A BEIS spokesperson said: ‘Nuclear power has an important role to play in the UK’s low-carbon energy future, as we work towards our overarching goal of eliminating our contribution to change climate by 2050.

“All nuclear projects in the UK are conducted under strong and independent regulation to meet the UK’s stringent legal, regulatory and national security requirements, ensuring our interests are protected. “

The UK has pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and, in April, set a new deadline for a 78% emission reduction by 2035. As part of these measures, the Premier Minister announced the ban on new fully powered cars and vans. by gasoline and diesel from 2030. Duncan Smith says the “rush” for electric cars will come at high financial and political costs, with China responsible for half of the world’s electric vehicles and more than 70 % of its batteries.

“The question for the government is this: either you go for an incredibly expensive expense for electric vehicles, which is impractical and has the disadvantage of putting yourself completely and firmly in the fold of China, or you recognize that the UK is one of the top three countries in the development of hydrogen vehicles, but needs a big kick in the arm to cross the line, ”he says.

For its supporters, hydrogen is attractive because you can use existing gas networks and infrastructure for distribution and production. Offshore wind farms could also generate green hydrogen, deemed more environmentally friendly than blue hydrogen from natural gas.

“We should absolutely get the most out of hydrogen and invest now and do all of these good things, because there is no point in being the second engine,” Tugendhat says.

There are several early success stories, particularly in Aberdeen, which has a fleet of hydrogen vehicles including buses, cars, sweepers and garbage trucks. BP and Northern Gas Networks have announced major hydrogen projects in the Tees Valley. In June, the Norwegian state oil company Equinor presented plans to build the world’s largest hydrogen production plant with carbon capture and storage technology near Hull.

The UK has pledged to achieve 5 GW of low-carbon hydrogen capacity by 2030 as part of its ten-point plan for a green industrial revolution (a target matched by the Scottish government, which , according to an industry insider, could feature in debates about the union’s future). The government is expected to release a hydrogen strategy later this year.

The UK has reduced its overall energy dependency in recent years from 48% in 2013 to 35% in 2018. “I would like us to deepen our independence as much as possible. Let’s not exaggerate it, it’s not quite possible, but it’s something that I think we can do more, ”says Tugendhat.

The government’s ten-point plan emphasizes offshore wind and nuclear power, which Waveney MP Peter Aldous says are “stepping stones” to hydrogen. “If you understand them correctly, it creates the opportunity to highlight hydrogen projects that also improve our energy security,” he says.

Alun Cairns, President of the APPG on Energy Security, argues that a variety of energy sources help reduce dependency issues. “The wider the energy supply base and the better the interconnectivity of the grid, the more reliable, stable and secure it is,” he says.

Although national efforts on battery production are underway, critics say the UK has missed the boat on electric vehicles. All the more reason why some MEPs believe Britain must act quickly on hydrogen.

Duncan Smith concludes, “We should be looking to maximize our capacity in the area of ​​hydrogen as an alternative fuel source, rather than running on the road, well traveled and trampled by China, so we end up staying. deeply in debt.

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