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Chris Huhne halts ‘dash for gas’ to keep UK on course for carbon targets

The number of gas-fuelled power plants if left unchecked would break legally binding targets, says energy secretary

The UK’s “dash for gas” will be halted by the government because if unchecked it would break legally binding targets for carbon dioxide emissions, Chris Huhne, energy and climate change secretary, said on Monday evening.

“We will not consent so much gas plant so as to endanger our carbon dioxide goals,” he told a fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrats party conference in Birmingham.

The number of gas-fuelled power plants is increasing rapidly because they are fast and cheap to build compared with alternatives. They also create about half the carbon emissions of coal-powered plants and have been seen as a “transition fuel”, helping smooth the path to zero-carbon electricity.

But climate change campaigners have warned that too much gas capacity is being built, meaning either the carbon budgets intended to help tackle global warming would be broken, or the gas plants would be left as stranded assets.

“The secretary of state’s statement is a welcome recognition by the government that there are constraints on the deployment of gas as a climate-effective solution to our future energy needs,” said David Nussbaum, chief executive of WWF UK. “The government should be looking at the deployment of renewables, that already must be at 30% by 2020, at increasing rates during the 2020s.”

In 2010, there was about 27 gigawatts of gas power capacity in the UK, with 4GW of new plant under construction, and 8 GW having been given planning permission. The installed capacity of all types of electricity generation is 75GW. In 2018, National Grid predicts there will be around 45 GW of gas plant on the system.

An analysis by the Green Alliance in June of the consequences of the dash for gas, showed that even if 4GW of planned capacity was never built by 2030,16GW of gas capacity would still be “stranded” – built at a capital cost of £10bn but not used for its planned lifespan because of the need to meet carbon targets. In that scenario, 8GW of the capacity in use would require carbon capture and storage technology (CCS) to be fitted to meet carbon targets. The coalition government has committed to building demonstration plants to develop CCS, but no contracts have yet been awarded.

Huhne said he saw a potentially large role for gas power plants fitted with CCS. “If the gas price tends towards that in the US, I would expect to see lots of abated gas. It could be the cheapest form of low-carbon energy.” Some in the energy industry have criticised the lack of certainty over which technologies would be backed by government through its electricity market reforms. But Huhne said: “It is essential to have the ability to bend and respond” to both changes in the costs of low-carbon technologies and the gas price.

Gas prices have risen sharply for UK household in recent months and on Monday Huhne pledged to make it easier for consumers to get a better deal from the “big six” energy companies that deliver 99% of the UK’s electricity.

But globally gas price rises have been curbed by increasing supplies of unconventional gas, driven from shale by hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. Exploration has begun in the UK near Blackpool in Lancashire and has attracted protests but Huhne said no new regulation of fracking was needed, despite controversies about its safety elsewhere.

“I recommend you look at the film Gasland, which is a bit of a wake-up call,” Huhne said. “There are some extremely alarming pictures of people setting fire to their taps because of methane gas bubbling up.”

He said the problem in US was because gas fracking had been exempted from clean water regulations by the then vice president Dick Cheney. “We have not exempted fracking from any environmental regulations in this country and we do not intend to. I am confident that our environmental regulations are strong,” he said.

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