New analysis: renewables ‘critical’ to do ‘heavy lifting’ on UK’s energy security as North Sea’s role diminished

Rise in British renewables will play a much larger role in bolstering the UK’s energy security than potential new domestic oil and gas production. [1]

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By Jess Ralston

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New analysis from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) has found that the rise in British renewables will play a much larger role in bolstering the UK’s energy security than potential new domestic oil and gas production. [1]

As things stand, the UK is set to become more dependent on foreign energy imports over the next five years as the North Sea’s output continues its decline. The report finds that the regulator’s (North Sea Transition Authority) own statistics [2] show new oil and gas licences would do little to counter the rise of imported energy. A combination of renewables, insulating homes so they need less energy to heat them, and switching from gas boilers to heat pumps and from petrol to electric cars can halt the rise of energy import dependence, maintaining or even boosting the UK’s current level of energy self-sufficiency.

Even if new North Sea licences were to yield the maximum projected amount of oil and gas, without new clean technologies the amount of energy that we use that’s reliant on imports would be 25% higher in 2030 than today – energy security would be a quarter worse by that measure.

Based on current trajectories, renewables and other net zero technologies will improve the prospects for energy security, such that the amount of energy that we would use that’s reliant on imports would be just 10% higher in 2030 than today.

But faster uptake of net zero technologies has the potential to maintain the current level of import dependency by 2030, even without new oil and gas licences, and to then bring it down and improve UK energy security compared to today. By 2030, energy security could have improved from today’s level with an accelerated deployment of renewables.

Doubt has been cast over how much oil and gas new licences would produce. Analysis by the campaign group Uplift suggests that in the past decade, hundreds of new licences have been issued yet to date they have produced just 16 days’ worth of gas [3]. Over the same period, despite the new licences, the number of jobs supported by the oil and gas industry has more than halved to around 215,000 [4].

The UK currently imports about 60% of the gas we use. A faster shift to clean technologies would cut the UK’s exposure to volatile gas markets which have driven up energy bills over the past two years leading to taxpayers needing to subsidise them, with the government providing at least £50bn for bills and wider cost-of-living support in just one year. [5] The OBR has said that similar crises in future could add the equivalent of 13% of GDP to the national debt. [6]

Dr Simon Cran-McGreehin, Head of Analysis, at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, said: “The UK could be in reverse gear on energy security over the next five years. If you want more of the UK’s energy made in the UK, and as the North Sea continues its inevitable decline, British wind and solar energy make by far the biggest difference, doing the heavy lifting on British energy security. According to the regulator’s own figures, new North Sea oil and gas would make a marginal difference. Switching to renewables, electric heat pumps and insulating homes so they waste less energy will move us away from gas. Anyone who has paid an energy bill in the past two years knows the risks of being dependent on international gas markets which largely dictate the price we pay here in the UK, and energy bills are set to rise again as we head into the winter.

“With the North Sea declining and a need to scale renewables, the importance of helping oil and gas workers transition to offshore wind farms is clear. Research suggests 90% of jobs can be transferred, but a clear plan from Government and industry commitment would be needed.”

Previous ECIU analysis has found that the maximum amount of gas that could be produced by new licences per year would equate to the output of just one offshore wind farm. [8] However, new licences are not guaranteed to result in new gas production. It is estimated that new licensing, on which Labour proposed to introduce a moratorium, will provide just 4 days’ worth of extra gas a year on average between now and 2050 [9].