When Whitehall wants to put out new information without mass coverage the technique is quite simple: ministries publish the data without any press release or calls to journalists.
And so it was a few weeks ago when Decc, the energy department, published figures predicting where Britain’s future energy supplies would come from.
At a stroke of a pen, officials quadrupled their predictions for unabated gas from 8GW to 28GW; in layman’s terms, about 8 new power stations to around 28.
As such, tomorrow’s announcement by George Osborne about a new dash for gas will not come as a surprise to the industry. Ministers have been open about the need for a vast increase in gas, in part to replace the ageing nuclear reactors and coal-fired power stations coming to the end of their life.
Here are the Decc statistics: Firstly, Annex I of this spreadsheet shows you the 2012 forecasts for new energy capacity in its different forms. You can see the much lower estimate for new gas in the same spreadsheet for 2011, also in Annex I.
The stats show how Decc still does not believe that new nuclear will be truly transformative – in size terms – by 2030. The department expects nuclear to provide only a relatively modest amount of new capacity (at 9.9 GW). (Interesting to note cost problems at EDF’s site in northern France, announced yesterday.)
Tomorrow’s gas strategy statement is politically important and was insisted on by the Treasury as a way to reassure potentially nervous investors in the industry. But it does not mean that Osborne has somehow over-ruled the Lib Dems and his greener colleagues to prevent a massive increase in renewables.
Look closely at the statistics and you will see that the predictions for renewables are even more ambitious; some 42 GW – ie the equivalent of around 40 gas-fired power stations. Useful context, suggesting that the argument between gas and green energy is still not seen as an either-or debate within the coalition.
UPDATE: Interestingly, the total figure for new capacity ahead of 2030 has also been raised substantially. In late 2011 Decc predicted the need for an extra 64GW. In late 2012 the figure was up to 84GW.
Why? 1] Because the department has reworked its forecasts to presume a greater demand for electricity – as a result of more electrified railway lines and electric cars. 2] Because of the need for back-up capacity for the “intermittency” issues of wind power.
Decc is arguing that its predictions from 2011 were not “robust” and it was never happy with its own data; because it did not factor in the number of power plants closing in the period. “We have never been satisfied with the validity of this incomplete modelling,” said one spokeperson. Decc said that ministers had “repeatedly” pointed to 20GW of new unabated gas-generating capacity by 2030 – although this has now been revised upwards to 26GW.
(The difference between the 26GW and 28GW depends on whether the ministry is modelling UK emissions or those of Great Britain.)
The department insists that most of the new gas will “largely replace closing plant” and is therefore consistent with meeting the 4th carbon Budget – and achieving partial decarbonisation by 2030 (to 100g/kWh).