Zero Carbon Now ?

There shall be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repenteth than over ninety-nine just persons. It’s good to see the Prime Minister contradicting his 2013 statement that “wind farms couldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding.” Or, presumably, an Eton mess.

So I’m delighted that he intends to invest £160m for all UK homes to be powered and heated by offshore wind within ten years. However…

A report by the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) points out that at current rates it will take 700 years to hit zero-carbon heating. The PM’s plans are based on current electricity usage. Renewables now account for 40% of the UK’s electricity. But electricity accounts for only 12% of UK energy use. That leaves 95% of UK energy not coming from renewables. Demand for electricity will increase as we shift from gas heating and hot water to electricity. Not to mention the move to electric vehicles. That’s going to cost a wee bit more than £160 million.

UKERC’s report also stresses that relying on consumers to replace their central heating systems won’t cut the mustard either. There’ll need to be a mixture of regulations for new homes and financial incentives. The government’s new Planning White Paper says new houses must be “zero-carbon ready”. I met with Robert Jenrick last week, Secretary of State for Housing, and asked why “zero-carbon ready”? Why not zero-carbon now? Parliamentary legislation should be judged on actions, not aspirations.

On the positive side, he did listen to me on MMC housing. That’s Modern Methods of Construction. Basically, engineered timber that’s fireproof, warm, quick to build and extremely strong. And of course, locks away carbon in its structure. A typical new build house releases 65 tonnes of carbon. A typical MMC house locks away 27 tonnes.

So, what does “investing in offshore wind” mean in practice?

The Tyne has companies building and transporting turbine jackets – the massive criss-cross steel legs that sit in the sea. They’re fixed to the seabed and support the turbines. The further out to sea they are, the windier it gets, which is what you want, but that does present engineering challenges.

It’s extremely difficult to get a crane big enough to haul a horizontal jacket to vertical in the middle of the sea. So jackets have to be transported upright. The problem is the National Grid cables cross the river at Jarrow, 84m above the water level. So yards on the Tyne can’t bid for work on these large new turbines. They simply won’t fit underneath the cables.

If the cables ran under the river instead of over it, we could make our region the world leader in offshore wind manufacture. It’ll cost £100m to run the cables under the Tyne. We have the expertise – from design through fabrication to installation – right here on the Tyne. All £100m of that project could be delivered by companies in our region, creating local jobs

.I’ve spoken to the companies involved, and they are unanimous in their support. If the government releases the funding, we could get cracking right now.

But what would make more of a difference than anything else is for government to enforce the local content regulation. In order to site wind turbines in UK waters, electricity generating companies are supposed to give 60% of the work to UK firms. They don’t. Enforcing this could make more of a difference than anything else. There’s a £40 billion pipeline of work in this sector already.

Eight of the companies on the north bank of the Tyne, upstream of the electricity cables, directly employ over 2000 staff and have an annual turnover of more than £500m. This is small potatoes compared to the number of jobs and money that could be created- and kept – in our region. They’ve all told me they would invest heavily if the UK government enforced the local content regulations and moved the cables underground.

We’ve submitted this plan to the government, as part of the comprehensive spending review.

So come on Boris, complete your Damscene conversion, blow the skin off your chequebook, and invest in the North East.

Published originally in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 12.10.20