Energy UK conference 2023: keynote speech by Claire Coutinho

Energy Security Secretary Claire Coutinho on our approach to energy security and achieving net zero

The Rt Hon Claire Coutinho MP

Good afternoon everyone.

It’s a pleasure to join you today.

You are lucky to have such a strong champion in Emma [Pinchbeck].

Before I met her, someone described Emma to me as ‘pretty candid’.

Now I’ve got to know her a bit, I can confirm they were absolutely right.

So I’m delighted to give my first keynote speech as Energy Secretary to this audience.

And hopefully offer a few candid views of my own.

I feel incredibly privileged to be in this job.

Simply put, this is the most exciting sector to be in right now.

Energy also brings together the 3 key policy areas I’ve worked on my whole career.

Investment, jobs and economic growth.

Net zero and the wider environment.

And helping disadvantaged families and communities, something I’ve always been passionate about.

We cannot thrive as a country without affordable, reliable, abundant energy.

We cannot prosper or protect our population without energy security.

Nor can our children flourish if we don’t decarbonise energy, and ensure that the whole ecosystem survives intact for the next generation.

That’s a huge responsibility on all our shoulders.

So as the new Secretary of State, my pledge to the industry is to work with you as closely as possible.

And to listen.

To make sure our ambitions chime with your capacity to deliver and grow.

In fact I’ve already spoken to hundreds of you since taking up the job to make sure we are changing policy with the realities you face in mind.

I feel enormously optimistic about the energy sector.

At a local level it supports millions of jobs around the country.

Offshore wind jobs in Humber, Cornwall and East Anglia.

Nuclear jobs in Somerset and Suffolk.

Oil and gas jobs in Scotland.

And jobs throughout the supply chain.

Energy is helping revitalise communities that played an instrumental role in Britain’s industrial growth, yet declined for much of the 20th century.

And it is increasingly important for us to think long term in light of rising global instability at a time when much of the world is transitioning to clean energy.

I can’t help but feel that this is the most important sector when it comes to changing our world for the better. I know you do too.

So it’s fitting we’re in this building today.

The home of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

Where so many great energy figures from history are celebrated.

From famous names like Watt and Faraday.

To less well-known figures like John Smeaton, for example commemorated with his own room.

A man who could be described as one of the fathers of renewable energy.

250 years ago, Smeaton was designing groundbreaking waterwheels and windmills that turned natural energy into motion, transforming production of food and textiles and paving the way for the Industrial Revolution.

He reminds us, that the energy pioneers of the past not only had brilliant minds.

They had good timing too.

They had the opportunity which presents itself when creative minds meet eras of phenomenal progress.

These transitions don’t happen very often. The Renaissance. The Industrial Revolution.

And now we are on the brink of perhaps the most important transition of all, when centuries of change are being compressed into years.

And what’s exciting, is Britain’s potential to shape this transition and seize this opportunity, through our own innovation and investment.

Of course we’re conscious of what other countries are doing to stimulate green investment, particularly the US and Europe.

I’ve made investment my top priority.

I’ve also tasked my department to prioritise investment decisions.

And we’re looking across government at how we can further accelerate investment in green industries. 

But how many other nations are spending £20 billion to get their carbon capture and storage industry up and running?

No other technology offers Britain bigger or more exciting potential for our green energy future than carbon capture.

We will only succeed in the energy transition if we double down on sectors with the greatest opportunities.

The greatest opportunities to decarbonise.

To help polluting industries go green.

And to grow our economy.

Make no mistake, carbon capture and storage is one of those sectors.

So we’ll be publishing a long-term vision for CCUS later this year.

But we’re also investing in our world leading offshore wind sector,  delivering enough offshore wind to power the equivalent of every home in Britain by 2030.

I am committed to a successful AR6, a round that includes offshore wind in which sustainably priced projects will be able to compete.

And we’ll be publishing the administrative strike price for the next round in November.

In addition, we’ll generate enough solar energy to power over 28 million electric vehicles by 2035.   

We’re spending £700 million to boost fusion technology.

We’re backing space-based solar projects.

And Britain’s nuclear revival is well under way.

With Hinkley Point C in Somerset set to provide enough secure, low carbon electricity to power around 6 million homes.

And Sizewell C in Suffolk, a sister project featuring the most powerful electricity generators in the world, to supply another 6 million homes.

We’ve launched Great British Nuclear to deliver our programme.

Its first priority to accelerate the development of Small Modular Reactors.

And as we announced the other day, we’ve chosen 6 companies to progress to the next competitive stage to design and build the UK’s first SMRs.

Bringing all our work together is the Energy Bill – the vehicle for delivering the energy strategy.

To turbocharge British technology.

To liberate £100 billion of private investment, scaling-up green jobs and growth.

And to make Britain energy secure.

Yet I also recognise that there are profound challenges.

From COVID-19 to Ukraine and the shocking events of the last few weeks.

It’s been an uncertain few years.

For the energy industry.

For families and households.

And yes, for governments too.

You’ve told me about the issues you face and what we need to do to lead the energy transition.

For example, many of you have spoken about practicalities and how we can unclog the system and how we can give you as much of a long lead time as possible.

That’s why the most important announcement we have made recently is prioritising grid connections, and reforms to infrastructure and planning.

I am acutely aware that although we’re investing tens of billions in new energy projects, we don’t yet have the grid infrastructure to bring that energy to households and businesses.

At a time of rising demand, when we need increased electrification at pace it takes too long to build new grid connections.

So we’re going to introduce comprehensive reforms.

We’ll set out the UK’s first ever spatial plan for infrastructure to give industry more certainty.

We’ll speed up planning for the most nationally significant projects.

And we’ll raise the bar to enter the queue and make sure those who are ready first, will connect first.

The Holistic Network Design, published by the Electricity System Operator, is a blueprint for the connection of over 20GW of offshore wind.

We strongly supported Ofgem’s Accelerating Strategic Transmission Investment decision at the end of last year, allowing £20 billion to accelerate key transmission projects.

To speed up the consenting process for new network infrastructure, the government has consulted on revised energy National Policy Statements.

And we are bringing forward measures to boost development consent, including a fast-track process.

As you already heard earlier, Nick Winser has advised us on how the deployment process for electricity transmission infrastructure can be further ramped up, with an ambition to halve delivery times.

I’d like to thank Nick for all his work – and following his report, we will publish an action plan by the end of the year.

Releasing network capacity will help reduce connection times.

And we are creating a Future System Operator to sit at the heart of the energy system, looking across different fuels and technologies to plan the network and increase competition. 

All of this work will streamline planning and delivery and tackle the complexity and fragmentation of the current process.

Nothing will distract us from achieving net zero or driving forward renewables.

In fact, this country has led the world on tackling carbon emissions. And we’ll continue to do so.

Of all the major economies, we have set the toughest targets.

And thanks in no small part to the energy industry, we’ve exceeded all of them.

We’ve cut our emissions in half over the past 30 years.

We’ve boosted our share of renewables from just 7% in 2010 to almost half today.

We’re third in the world for attracting investment in clean energy – a pretty incredible achievement given our size.

But to realise our ambitions we must ensure that our energy plans are viable.

That’s what the Prime Minister’s net zero speech was all about last month.

A pragmatic approach, to make sure we deliver effectively, taking consumers and industry with us as we decarbonise.

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The truth is we can’t impose unaffordable extra costs on households.

Particularly at a time when millions of families are struggling with the cost of living.

Instead we need to bring consumers with us on the net zero journey.

The Climate Change Committee have assessed that there is no material difference in our progress to cut emissions by 2030 since their last report in June, yet these changes have the ability to make a real difference to the finances of households up and down the country.

I want people to feel nothing but unadulterated optimism when they think about what this means for them, their countries and their children’s futures.

We are absolutely committed to our targets.

But we will get there in a way that is fair on family finances.

We want a retail energy market which is resilient, competitive, and fit for the future. Most importantly, we want a retail energy market that delivers for consumers.

On that note, I welcome Ofgem’s move to ensure customers get the good service they deserve from their energy supplier, and that vulnerable customers are prioritised and protected.

You’ll be hearing more on that from Jonathan Brearley soon.

I also welcome the action which has been taken to put an end to the wrongful installation of prepayment meters in vulnerable households.

The responsibility is now with suppliers to stick to these new rules while also innovating, so consumers benefit from cheaper renewable electricity, and using their energy when demand is lower.

Although energy bills have been steadily coming down, 55% since the peak, we’re going to work closely with Ofgem to see how we can support those who are struggling.

We spent £40 billion last winter protecting communities and businesses, among the highest in Europe.

And those on means tested benefits will get further support this year with a £900 Cost of Living Payment to ensure struggling families continue to be protected. 

Looking to the future, we’re going to reform markets so they work for consumers much more effectively.

Rising costs have also hit the industry.

Particularly the price of materials and the cost of borrowing.

We’re doing everything we can to reduce inflation.

From the 10.7% rate in the final 3 months of last year, the CPI was down to 6.7% in August. With it expected to fall further still.

But the imperative remains.

We’ll need to continue innovating and reducing costs as an industry to stay competitive.

Finally - as well as generating new green energy tomorrow, we must make more efficient use of the energy we have today.

Last winter was incredibly difficult for millions of people.

We are already investing £6.6 billion in energy efficiency and clean heat this Parliament.

We’ve launched a £1 billion drive to help more than 300,000 households in most need to cut their energy bills by hundreds of pounds through the Great British Insulation Scheme.  

And we have committed to invest a further £6 billion between 2025 and 2028.

The share of homes in the highest bands has risen from 16% in 2011 to 47% in 2021.

And we’ve introduced more generous grants for heat pumps.

Grants available under the Boiler Upgrade Scheme increase from £5,000 to £7,500 on Monday next week, among the most generous in Europe.

Which means the first British customer will be able to get one for free under the scheme.  

So to sum up let me tell you again what you already know. There has never been a more exciting time to work in Energy.

This is exactly why the PM created a standalone department focused solely on energy security and net zero.

Our ambitions on net zero are undiminished, we continue to have world leading targets and we will meet them with the help of the talent, expertise and innovation in this room.

I am determined that this historic transition.

To a net zero economy, to an energy secure nation.

Is not only one that we can deliver.

It’s also one that we will deliver together.

Thank you.

Department for Energy Security and Net Zero
The Rt Hon Claire Coutinho MP