Skip to content

Miliband’s Decarbonisation Policy Won’t Work

September 26, 2014

By Paul Homewood


Ed Miliband gave an impassioned speech to Labour Party activists before the 2015 General Election


In his party conference speech on Tuesday, Ed Miliband, as well as promising to create a million new green jobs (perhaps he can wave his magic wand and create 1 million blue and red ones too!), also said, and I quote (from the New Statesman’s full transcript):


That is why Labour will have a world leading commitment in government to take all of the carbon out of our energy by 2030.


This has variously been reported as “take all of the carbon out of electricity” in other sources, for instance here and here. As Miliband stumbled through the speech with no notes, and  even forgot to mention the deficit, it may be that he meant “electricity” and not “energy”. In any event, we’ll assume he meant electricity for the moment.

What would be the implications of this for the UK’s power supply?


No fixed plans have been formulated for how Britain can meet decarbonisation targets, either by Miliband when he pushed through the Climate Change Act as Energy Secretary, or by the current Government. And I am quite sure that Miliband has no such plans now either. Instead, DECC have laid out a number of scenarios, a sort of mix and match of what may be achievable as technology and economics change.

Bearing this in mind, I can only offer some basic scenarios myself.


Let’s start with an analysis of how the UK’s electricity was supplied last year.


  TWh %
Coal 124 35
Oil 2 1
Gas 94 27
Nuclear 65 18
Hydro 4 1
Onshore Wind 17 5
Offshore Wind 11 3
Solar 2 1
Bio 16 4
Others 3 1
Imports 14 4


We can, with some confidence, make certain assumptions:



1) CCS, or Carbon Capture & Storage, will not be available by 2030 in any commercially viable sense. We cannot know this for certain one way or the other. However, it is clearly not sensible to base the country’s energy strategy on unproven technology.

2) All current nuclear power stations, bar Sizewell B, are due for closure by 2023 or earlier. Although there have been moves in the last few months to try to extend some of their lives, it seems unlikely any of these will still be going by 2030.

Sizewell B has a capacity of 1.2GW, and the new Hinkley Point C (still awaiting for EU authorisation for subsidies) will have 3.2GW.

Given the extremely long and complex planning processes, large subsidies required, political controversy and long construction times (Hinkley Point’s will be about 10 years), it is not unrealistic to assume that just two more reactors are built with similar capacity to Hinkley Point by 2030.

This would give us total nuclear capacity of about 12GW.

(As an aside, if Miliband was serious about massive and quick expansion of nuclear, which he would need to set in motion soon after the election, I assume he would have offered it as a definite strategy by now. The history of the Blair and Brown Governments would suggest that, instead, there will be much prevarication.)

3) Hydro is obviously pretty much fixed, and the general impression is that there is little scope for much more onshore wind, so I have assumed an increase in capacity from the current 8GW to 10GW.

4) Solar, it has to be accepted, is to all intents and purposes a busted flush. It contributes so little that even a tripling of capacity will make no significant difference.

More importantly, solar contributes even less during winter months, when demand is highest. In Q1 this year, for instance, solar ran at only 4% of capacity.

For the purpose of this exercise, therefore, solar will be ignored.

5) Because of environmental issues, and the fact that it is not “carbon free” anyway, biomass is regarded as only a short term solution, and it seems unlikely there will be any more significant expansion beyond those already planned.

I therefore assume a capacity increase of 25%.

6) Imports are constrained by the ICT’s to France and Holland, which already running close to capacity. Unless investment is made to expand this capacity, then there is little room for increased imports. In any event, there is the question of how much spare capacity France or Holland would have during periods of high demand or low wind output.



If we now look at demand, the average last year was 40GW, although winter demand will typically run at 45GW. Peak demand, of course, is much higher still, often reaching 60GW. Current capacity is listed by DECC as:


Coal 23
Gas 35
Oil 2
Nuclear 10
Hydro 4
Onshore Wind 8
Offshore Wind 4
Others 6


It should also be noted that, if the Carbon Plans are followed through, demand for electricity will increase as transport and domestic heating are decarbonised. The Committee on Climate Change have estimated that demand could increase by 30%  by 2030 as a result. This would push peak demand up to 80GW. With an appropriate safety margin, we would then be looking at, say, 90GW.

Given the assumptions I have made above, (and with of course no fossil fuels), we would be looking at this scenario.


Nuclear 12
Bio 4
Hydro 4
Imports 2
Onshore Wind 10
Sub Total 32
Balance to Fill 58
Required 90


With no fossil fuels to fall back on, the 58GW required to fill the gap could only logically come from offshore wind. This would mean a 15-fold increase in offshore wind capacity from current levels.



Unfortunately, of course, the wind does not always blow. Even based on average demand of 52GW [ i.e 40GW + 30%], we would need 30GW of back up capacity for when there is no, or little, wind output. If we need back up during winter peak demand, we would be looking at double this figure.

So, the simple question for Miliband is where will this back up come from, if not gas or other fossil fuels? Demand management, where heavy industrial users are paid to switch off during periods of high demand, may save a small amount of energy, but it is unlikely to be much. DECC statistics show that electricity supplied to all of industry in 2013 was 98TWh, which would equate to 11GW. Many of these are not heavy users, and others will not find it appropriate to join the scheme, so it is hard to see more than a couple of GW being shaved off at times of high demand. This would be a useful balancing tool for emergencies, but is no answer to the fundamental lack of reliable capacity.

It is hard to see how demand can be reliably met without having a huge amount of gas capacity paid to be on standby, nearly twice as much as the current capacity.


Another issue is the position of gas power plants within the current capacity market mechanism. The present strategy is to pay gas power plants, and others, to provide standby capacity. Some of this can be supplied by mothballed plants, but it is also hoped that it will encourage new plants to be built. Any hint that all fossil fuel plants will be taken out of the equation by 2030 will surely discourage any new plants from being built, as they will need much longer than a decade to recoup capital costs.

This could wreck the Government’s present strategy, as this new gas capacity will be vital as coal power is progressively withdrawn via the Large Combustion Plants Directive and nuclear capacity closed.


Surplus Output

There is one further problem. If we really do put down 58GW of offshore wind capacity, what happens to the surplus output when the wind blows and demand is low? Nuclear cannot be switched on and off, and certainly any contracts signed will not allow that. This basically means that the bulk of wind output will not be required for long periods.

As an example, when demand is 40GW, and nuclear/hydro/bio are contributing 20GW, only 20GW will be needed from wind, less than a third of the implied capacity. Wind farms simply will not find it economical to operate at such low levels, which presumably means they will be paid huge subsidies, on top of existing ones, to switch off. All of which, of course, will have to be paid for by the long suffering consumer.




It is clear that Miliband has not thought through this policy, simply preferring to spout meaningless sound bites. Unfortunately, the UK will have to pay for the consequences.

  1. mitigatedsceptic permalink
    September 26, 2014 1:37 pm

    Salmond has put in place a similar policy for Scotland and a study recently demonstrated that the number of windmills would have to be doubled and that there would be a substantial surplus looking for an export market. Sorry I have lost the reference.

    • manicbeancounter permalink
      September 27, 2014 10:06 pm

      The assumption was that an independent Scotland would sell the surplus to England.

  2. September 26, 2014 2:08 pm

    Politicians worldwide lost contact with reality after they started in 1947 to use science as a tool of government propaganda – the same year George Orwell started to write his warning to the public, “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

    See: “Solar energy,” Advances in Astronomy (submitted 1 Sept 2014)

  3. R2Dtoo permalink
    September 26, 2014 2:19 pm

    How can you supply (guarantee) an export market with unknown and fluctuating supply? That would be like selling food to hungry folks, and then saying, sorry – no food this week. This issue was addressed in Canada decades ago when the U.S. wanted to buy our water. The need for a consistent and adequate supply could result in a shortage of water in Canada. Once folks get used to a supply they demand consistency. Droughts happen, the wind doesn’t blow- nuff said.

  4. Fred Mora permalink
    September 26, 2014 3:38 pm

    Just a small correction: Nuclear power plants (at least made after the 70s) can and do operate in load-following mode, which allows them to fluctuate their output from 50 to 100% through the day. Several plants in France operate that way.

    It doesn’t invalidate the point of the article, though.


    • September 26, 2014 5:45 pm

      Yes fair comment. The real point is that they will not invest in new plants unless there is a guaranteed return based on high utilisation.

      • September 26, 2014 9:16 pm

        It needs a redesign, a special safety case and licensing to permit load follow.

  5. Keith Willshaw permalink
    September 26, 2014 3:55 pm

    One of the better policies of the old CEGB was diversification of supply. They realized that total dependence on one fuel source (coal at the time) was a recipe for disaster so built nuclear and oil fired stations as well. If we end up totally dependent on gas, the majority of which is imported, we may as well hand the President of Russia the keys to the kingdom.

  6. Simon C Striebig permalink
    September 26, 2014 5:13 pm

    It’s a bit worrying that if he gets elected they may actually try to implement this crock .

    Didn’t they learn anything from P.F.I. ? “It seemed so cheap at the time” .

    Future Govt’s are going to have to dissolve the contracts and pay compensation . The Govt getting involved in the nitty gritty is a recipe for disaster .

  7. September 26, 2014 9:24 pm

    Note that Tony Blair, when signing up to the EU renewable energy directive, also didn’t know the diiference between energy and electricity. Truly we are ruled by idiots.

    I believe the AP1000 and ABWR are virually cleared for construction and operation in the UK. An AP1000 could be constructed in about 4 years and would be much cheaper and safer than the EPR, Why Ed Davey agreed to pay massive subsidies to a dynosaur plant like the EPR (the basic design is a copy of a Westinghouse reactor of the 60s) is a mystery (like most things the Government does, there is no sense or logic to it).

  8. TomO permalink
    September 27, 2014 1:20 am

    I’m clean out of insults to lob at this buffoon.

    What is the primary utility of electric power ? Obviously … it’s there on demand at the flick of a switch (and that is why we pay a premium for it) – this utter berk seems unaware of this fact. He probably thinks solar panels that power “thousand of homes” do so at night – that’s if he thinks at all – he’s so dense he could bend light.

    I can’t begin to elaborate my utter contempt for this guy and the collection of blithering idjits and phoney shysters he’s surrounded himself with.

    As to “the executive” of public servants we are equally well served there for the most part and then there’s the systemic corruption.

    This all could make Swift’s cucumbers and sunbeams look like a paradigm of sanity.

  9. September 27, 2014 9:14 am

    But on the other hand, the UK energy industry has “the potential to be a massive success story”, according to Caroline Flint in a speech to the CBI, back in July:

    “This transition to a low-carbon economy, fuelled by the sun, the sea, the wind and the waves, has the potential to be a major source of wealth and prosperity for decades to come, creating jobs here, exporting expertise and technologies abroad, and making our economy smarter and leaner.”

    The sunlit uplands beckon!

  10. September 27, 2014 9:26 am

    Apologies, just noticed I’d put the date for that transcript in the year 2017 (by then, we’ll be using candles and Coleman lanterns!), so have changed the link:

  11. Brownedoff permalink
    September 27, 2014 5:09 pm

    The missing 58GW – surely this will be supplied by the Capacity Mechanism – 53.3 GW according to DECC:

    “Following detailed recommendations from National Grid, the Government will procure a total of 53.3 GW of electricity generating capacity.”


    • September 27, 2014 6:03 pm

      Which is basically gas power stations!

      • Brownedoff permalink
        September 28, 2014 9:10 am

        But you are not supposed to say negative things that that, you should be rejoicing and pointing out that the Government is really procuring “generation equivalent to seventeen new nuclear power stations” which are clean and green like wind and solar.

        Pass the sick bucket, Alice.

  12. manicbeancounter permalink
    September 27, 2014 10:13 pm

    If 100% of electricity coming from renewables by 2030 means that expansion of shale gas will be halted, unless there is an expansion of gas for heating. But that would undermine the target to have total CO2 emissions at 35% of the 1990 level by 2030.

  13. September 28, 2014 9:42 am

    As an example, the table shows land-based wind having provided 5% of UK’s electricity last year.
    Is there any way of telling what percentage of that 5% was supplied when it was wanted or needed? As opposed to when it could not be employed and got further subsidies to shut down.
    Miliband of course was instrumental in signing up to Europe’s deranged carbon policy in the first place. He appears to have learned nothing since.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: