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UK clean power targets are unfeasible, experts warn

Energy experts have warned that Labour would struggle to hit its target to decarbonise the electricity system by 2030 given the scale of the challenge ahead, with the Conservative party’s 2035 target also in doubt.

Labour’s ambition is a key part of its wider plan to invest tens of billions of pounds on the shift to net zero through a debt-fuelled “green prosperity plan”, which will be set out in a speech by shadow climate secretary Ed Miliband on Monday.

Sir Dieter Helm, professor of economic policy at the University of Oxford, who has advised the government on energy policy over many years, said neither parties’ goals were likely to succeed on the current trajectory.

“It is reasonable to assume on the current path that the 2035 target will not be met and the 2030 target is simply implausible,” he warned in an article published on his website last week.

Helm said: “It could be [met], but not on the current path and not without quite a lot of consumer and taxpayer pain. It will take much more intervention by government to turn this around.”

Both political parties want to rapidly strip emissions out of the electricity system as part of the push towards net zero carbon emissions across the economy by 2050.

Labour aims to decarbonise the sector by 2030 if it wins the next general election, while the government wants to do so by 2035, with 95 per cent of this achieved by 2030.

But experts fear the required rapid development of new wind farms, nuclear plants and large-scale batteries will be held back by slow grid connections, planning permits, skills shortages, supply chains and other factors.

Senior industry figures cast doubt on the feasibility of the targets for cleaner electricity, warning there needs to be a major policy overhaul if they are to be achieved.

Tom Glover, UK country chair for RWE, the UK’s largest power producer, said the targets “are ambitious and will be a challenge to achieve” and the government needed to take urgent steps to support developers if it were “to have any chance of delivering this”.

Chris O’Shea, chief executive of Centrica, the owner of British Gas, also applauded the ambition in Labour’s targets, but added: “You’re always trying to get the balance right between having a very stretching target and having an impossible target. 

“How would I feel if I was a new government at the start of 2025 and I had to deliver that in five years? I’d feel energised, motivated, slightly stressed.”

About 56 per cent of the UK’s electricity came from low carbon sources last year. The rest came mostly from gas-fired power stations, which will need to be replaced or switched to run on hydrogen or combined with technology to strip out their carbon emissions.

Adding to the challenge, electricity demand is set to soar, potentially 50 per cent by 2035, as households and businesses are encouraged to swap gas-fired boilers and petrol cars for electric equivalents.

Generation capacity will need to more than double by 2035 under current targets, according to projections from the Climate Change Committee, which advises the government.

Both the National Audit Office and the parliamentary business, energy and industrial strategy select committee have recently warned over the feasibility of the targets.

Labour’s Miliband told the Financial Times that the target was “deliberately stretching” but said it was achievable, according to independent analysis. 

The party aims to reform the planning system and regulation, as well as create a publicly owned clean energy company, GB Energy, among measures to help hit the target.

“This is the essential plan that Britain needs . . . but we won’t achieve it on the basis of the dither, delay and foot dragging of this Conservative government,” he said. 

The government said: “Our commitment to decarbonise the UK’s electricity system by 2035 remains resolute and on track. We are decarbonising faster than any other G7 country whilst keeping the economy growing.”

Since 2010, the UK has increased the amount of renewable energy capacity connected to the grid by 500 per cent, the second highest amount connected in Europe, the government added.

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