Are we doing enough and fast enough to build the clean energy system we need?

Sue Ferns · 24 November 2023

In the last week or so the government has made a series of major announcements on energy policy, writes Sue Ferns, Prospect Senior Deputy General Secretary, but is enough being done, and with the urgency required?

As the UN warns the world is failing to meet our climate goals, the need for rapid progress on building a clean and secure energy system remains as urgent as ever.

Here’s what the recent announcements mean for workers across the energy sector.

1. Government has woken up to the importance of electricity networks

Alongside this week’s Autumn Statement, the government published its response to the recent independent review by Electricity Networks Commissioner Nick Winser.

Ministers have largely accepted the recommendations of the Winser review, which set out a package of reforms to halve the time it takes to deploy new electricity transmission infrastructure.

Prospect has long called for a more strategic approach to developing the UK’s energy system. The government has now committed to long-term ‘whole system’ planning of network infrastructure coordinated by the Future System Operator, which is due to be established next year.

Government hopes a new Connections Action Plan along with bill discounts and wider ‘community benefits’ for those living near transmission infrastructure will prevent grid capacity and connections being a barrier to the clean energy rollout.

2. But still no action on the energy skills crisis

For several years Prospect has been warning about the growing workforce and skills crisis in our electricity networks.

Prospect’s recent survey of energy members found widespread issues of understaffing, overwork and low morale in transmission and distribution companies. Two thirds (69%) of networks workers report skills shortages or gaps in their organisation and four out of five (82%) say staffing levels are too low in their workplace.

The Winser review concluded skills shortages are ‘becoming a constraint on delivering net zero’ and a recent report from the International Energy Agency warns that ‘skills shortages threaten to slow the ramp up of clean energy technologies’.

But while Nick Winser urged the government to launch an urgent review of engineering and technical skills, we are yet to see a strategy to ensure we have the skilled workers to deliver a clean energy system.

3. Support for offshore wind but wider reforms needed

Last week the government confirmed it will increase the maximum price for offshore wind projects in next year’s Contracts for Difference round. This follows September’s disastrous auction which set prices too low in the face of inflation, high interest rates and supply chain pressures and failed to secure a single winning offshore wind bid.

Contracts for Difference are a vital mechanism for driving investment into renewables but need wider reform to avoid the ‘race to the bottom’ dynamic that has led to employment in the sector growing much slower than promised.

The government is consulting on proposals to assess Contracts for Difference bids on a range of factors including supply chain and skills investment rather than rewarding low prices alone. If designed well, this could help ensure the renewables rollout delivers good jobs in the UK.

4. Nuclear roadmap promised by the end of the year

It was disappointing to hear no mention of nuclear development in the Autumn Statement, given the need to ensure Sizewell C gets to financial close and make progress on Great British Nuclear’s new build programme.

The government has said it will publish a roadmap this year setting out how Great British Nuclear will help deliver the UK’s target of 24GW of nuclear capacity by 2050, along with consultations on siting and funding the next generation of nuclear reactors. Earlier this week Ministers announced a new partnership with South Korea to strengthen cooperation on nuclear and other clean energy technologies.

Given the many false starts on nuclear over the years, it is important that we begin to see real action on the UK’s much-promised nuclear renaissance.

5. The UK needs a real industrial strategy

The Autumn Statement fell well short of the response to President Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act that the Chancellor promised earlier this year. The government continues to resist developing an industrial strategy to support clean energy industries and create high-quality jobs.

A new ‘Green Industries Growth Accelerator’ promises £960 million over the course of five years to support clean energy manufacturing. But given it hopes to develop supply chains in carbon capture, electricity networks, hydrogen, nuclear and offshore wind, the money is unlikely to go very far.

As Prospect set out in our recent report ‘Delivering good clean energy jobs’, the government needs to take a much more active role across the energy sector. We have developed a series of proposals on investment, job quality, skills, and worker voice to ensure the clean energy transition drives benefits to communities and workers around the UK.


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