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Defending the power: can Britain secure its energy supplies? Sebastian Whale investigates

The offices of Jersey Electricity in St Helier, May 2021 | Alamy

7 min read

Recent French threats over the electricity supply to Jersey have made a concerning truth clear: in the globalised world of energy, it’s easier than ever for foreign powers to exert control over each other.

Even your allies can threaten to use energy as a strategic weapon, as French politician Annick Girardin, the imposingly-titled minister of the sea, reminded the world in May. “Let’s not forget that France has many levers, notably on the supply of electricity by undersea sea cables to Jersey,” she said.

The episode, which arose from a dispute over post-Brexit fishing rights, brought the issue of energy dependence into sharp relief. In 2018, French energy giant EDF supplied 94.9% of Jersey’s electricity. “In many ways, with globalisation being the trend over the last 20 years or so, we take harmonious international relations for granted,” notes Conservative MP Peter Aldous.

But many flashpoints, even in recent history, have centred on oil and gas supply. In 1973, members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries imposed an oil embargo on countries perceived as supporting Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Today, Kremlin critics claim Russia is attempting to blackmail the European Union into sanctioning the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that runs from the Baltic to Germany by limiting gas supply to Europe.  

The shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources presents an opportunity for the UK to reset its dependence on potentially hostile states by investing in domestic production. And some Tory MPs fear that a failure to act could allow countries such as China to harness a comparative advantage on new technologies, and, in doing so, acquire leverage over Britain.

A group of Tory backbenchers has urged Boris Johnson to accelerate hydrogen as a means of enhancing the UK’s energy security, fearing China’s domination of the supply chain on electric vehicles. Speaking to The House, MPs also called for a rethink of Beijing’s involvement in the UK’s nuclear sector.

“All forms of dependence create some form of relationship that you may not wish,” argues Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and founding member of the China Research Group (CRG). “You should be careful of being dependent on countries that don’t share your values.”

For the past year, Tugendhat and his colleagues in the CRG have raised issues relating to the Chinese Communist Party, from the treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province to Huawei’s involvement in the UK’s 5G network, which they helped thwart last summer. Five CRG members, including Tugendhat and former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, have been banned from entering China.

Among their concerns is the state-owned China General Nuclear Group (CGN), which has a minority stake in Hinkley Point C power station in Somerset and Sizewell C in Suffolk, along with EDF, the majority stakeholder. But it’s Bradwell B in Essex, where CGN owns a majority stake and plans to build a nuclear reactor, that’s proving the most contentious.

They can shut us down at the drop of a switch if they wanted to

“If you’re putting money here and you’re getting a return, well, I don’t care where your money is coming from particularly. If it’s technological, that gives you actual forms of control, leverage or influence, then that’s a different matter,” says Tugendhat. 

Duncan Smith fears the UK has become reliant on China for nuclear technology. “They can shut us down at the drop of a switch if they wanted to,” he says, arguing the UK has become “supine” in the face of a “disgusting, really appalling regime”. “We’ve forgotten all the lessons of the past,” he adds.

The nuclear power plant deals, struck in 2015, were part of David Cameron’s push to tighten relations with China. His successor, Theresa May, ordered a review of Hinkley Point amid concerns about national security and rising cost. Richard Harrington, the former Tory MP who served as a business minister from 2017 to 2019, says May’s government was “itself in a dilemma” over CGN. He told The House that Downing St cancelled his planned ministerial visit to a CGN factory in China in August 2018 on national security grounds. “In the end, I didn’t go because No 10 under Theresa was saying don’t,” he says. 

The decision to approve Bradwell B is still to come, though The House understands that the security services are concerned about the proposals. A BEIS spokesperson says: “Nuclear power has an important role to play in the UK’s low-carbon energy future, as we work towards our world-leading target to eliminate our contribution to climate change by 2050.

 “All nuclear projects in the UK are conducted under robust and independent regulation to meet the UK’s rigorous legal, regulatory and national security requirements, ensuring our interests are protected.”

The UK has pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and, in April, set a new deadline for a 78 per cent emissions cut by 2035. As part of the measures, the Prime Minister announced a ban on new cars and vans powered wholly by petrol and diesel from 2030. Duncan Smith argues the “rush” to electric cars will carry high financial and political costs, with China responsible for half of the world’s electric vehicles and more than 70 per cent of its batteries. 

“The question for the government is: either you go for an incredibly expensive outlay for electric vehicles, which is impractical and has the downside of putting you completely and firmly in the lap of China, or you recognise the UK is one of the top three countries in the development of hydrogen-powered vehicles but needs a big shot in the arm to get it over the line,” he says.

For its proponents, hydrogen appeals as you can utilise existing gas networks and infrastructure for distribution and production. Offshore wind farms could also generate green hydrogen, deemed more environmentally friendly than blue hydrogen made from natural gas. 

“We should absolutely be making the most of hydrogen and investing now and doing all that good stuff because there’s no point being the second mover,” says Tugendhat.

There are several early success stories, particularly in Aberdeen, which has a fleet of hydrogen-powered vehicles including buses, cars, road sweepers and waste trucks. BP and Northern Gas Networks have announced large hydrogen projects in the Tees Valley. In June, Norway’s state oil company Equinor set out plans to build the world’s biggest hydrogen production plant with carbon capture and storage technology near Hull. 

The UK has pledged to achieve 5GW of low-carbon hydrogen capacity by 2030 as part of its Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution (a target matched by the Scottish government, which one industry insider says could feature in debates around the future of the union). The government is expected to publish a Hydrogen Strategy later this year.

The UK has reduced its overall energy dependence in recent years, falling from 48 per cent in 2013 to 35 per cent in 2018. “I would like to see us deepening our independence as much as possible. Let’s not overstate that, it’s not totally possible, but it is something I think we can do more of,” says Tugendhat.

The government’s Ten Point Plan emphasises offshore wind and nuclear, which Peter Aldous, the MP for Waveney, believes are “stepping stones” to hydrogen. “If you get them right, that creates the opportunity to bring forward hydrogen projects that then enhances our energy security as well,” he says.

Alun Cairns, the chair of the APPG on energy security, argues a diversity of energy sources helps reduce issues surrounding dependence. “The broader the base of the energy supply and the better interconnectivity of the network, the more reliable and stable and secure it is,” he says.

Though domestic efforts on battery production are in the works, critics say the UK missed the boat on electric vehicles. Which is all the more reason why some MPs believe Britain must act quickly on hydrogen.

Duncan Smith concludes: “We should be looking to maximise our capability in the hydrogen arena as an alternative fuel source, rather than running down the road, well-travelled and trodden by China, so we end up staying deeply in their debt.”

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