Britain is not “moving fast enough” to build sufficient low-carbon energy infrastructure to reduce the country’s dependence on volatile gas imports, the chief executive of SSE has warned.
Alistair Phillips-Davies said solutions already existed that would allow Britain to end its “over-reliance” on expensive imported gas “and the regimes that control it”.
But he argued that there were too many blockages holding up the country’s progress, such as the time it takes to secure planning permission and other necessary consents for offshore wind farms.
“There is broad political and public support for clean, homegrown energy,” Philips-Davies told the Financial Times. “We have the strategies and policy papers we need. We just need to see more urgency behind efforts to clear the barriers, greenlight projects and get clean infrastructure built.”
Although most of SSE’s activities are in the UK, Philips-Davies warned that international competition was heating up as the US and Europe also pursue ambitious clean energy programmes, with generous support schemes such as the $369bn US Inflation Reduction Act wooing investors and developers.
“If the UK doesn’t act quickly, others will,” Philips-Davies said. “The US and Europe are racing to catch up.”
In the months after Russia marched into Ukraine last year, the UK government set bold new targets for technologies such as offshore wind, solar and nuclear power to increase the country’s energy security and reduce its exposure to volatile international energy markets.
The UK imports more than 60 per cent of its gas, which is used to heat homes and also fuel gas-fired power stations.
However, energy companies are becoming increasingly frustrated at the obstacles preventing them from delivering targets such as a fivefold increase in offshore wind capacity to 50 gigawatts by 2030.
“It can take more than a decade to deliver a wind farm currently — that’s far too long,” said Phillips-Davies.
Ministers last year promised to speed up planning processes but energy companies report very little progress.
Once projects have received relevant planning permissions and other consents, another problem is grid connection, according to Chris Hewett, chief executive of trade body Solar Energy UK.
He said that while 10GW of large solar projects currently had planning permission in Britain, a “significant proportion” had been told by electricity grid operators that they were unlikely to get connection dates until the second half of the decade or even the early 2030s, which is delaying construction.
“The restrictions on the grid are a drag on economic growth across the whole country,” Hewett said, blaming a combination of grid operators’ own processes and the regulatory regime whereby grid owners have to seek permission from Ofgem for their investment programmes.
Energy groups are hoping the government will take heed of recommendations made last week by Chris Skidmore, Conservative MP and former science and universities minister, who was commissioned to review the UK’s 2050 net zero emissions target. Skidmore urged reforms to local and national planning rules to “unleash” cheaper forms of electricity generation.
SSE is a big developer of offshore wind in Britain but is also vying to build one of the the UK’s first gas-fired power stations fitted with carbon capture and storage technology. It is also working on power stations that could run on low-carbon hydrogen, which does not produce carbon dioxide when burnt.
The UK business department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.