Is Johnson’s wind announcement more than hot air?

“It was offshore wind that puffed the sails of Drake and Raleigh and Nelson,” Boris Johnson reminded Conservative Party members at this week’s virtual conference. He was evoking a past of global exploration and military victory to announce Britain’s latest push for world leadership: this time in the field of clean energy. In ten years’ time, according to the Prime Minister, every kettle, washing machine and car will “get their juice cleanly and without guilt from the breezes that blow around these islands”. But what is he actually promising?

£160m for ports and factories

There is to be £160m invested in ports and factories across the country to support the manufacture of wind turbines. This has already been welcomed by NOF, the business development organisation for the energy sector. However, this sum should be seen in context. In January last year, a European Commission report found that the UK was giving more money to subsidise fossil fuels than any other country in the EU, spending over £10bn a year.

It is important to note that the report was based on 2016 data, and that a significant part of what the EU calls a subsidy came from the cut in VAT on domestic gas and electricity. The government has argued that this constitutes a tax cut rather than a subsidy.

Offshore wind target rising to 40GW

Johnson announced that the offshore wind capacity target would be “rising from 30 gigawatts to 40 gigawatts” in the next ten years. However, the Conservatives’ winning election manifesto in December had already committed to increase the offshore wind target to 40GW by 2030, so this is not a new pledge.

Floating windmills

As well as fixed arrays for offshore wind generation, the plan is to build floating wind turbines and to have “15 times as much as the rest of the world put together”. Floating offshore wind is a relatively new technology, but one that is gaining pace, and the UK is already at the forefront of this. In 2017, the world’s first commercial floating wind farm went into operation off the Aberdeenshire coast. Hywind Scotland has been operating at over 50% capacity ever since. France is probably our main competitor in the field of floating wind at the moment, but other countries are investing too, and aiming for 15 times the capacity of the rest of the globe put together is a very ambitious target.

60,000+ new jobs

The announcement of 60,000 new “green-collar” jobs is great news for a country with a rising unemployment rate and growing uncertainty over which jobs will be viable long-term. According to Johnson’s speech, all these jobs will be created by the investment in offshore wind alone, then there will be other opportunities for green jobs in a variety of different areas such as solar power, carbon capture and storage (CCS) and retrofitting homes. It is likely that the first jobs directly created by the offshore investment will be in north-east England, which is already a hub for wind energy.

Net zero by 2050

The investment in offshore wind is part of the strategy to get the UK to net zero by 2050, a target which has already been enshrined in law. Investing in offshore wind is an important and cost-effective step, but no amount of investment in clean energy will get us to net zero without other measures: a transition away from fossil fuels, serious investment in CCS, stronger energy efficiency measures and so on.

Proving the haters wrong

In his speech, the Prime Minister recalled how wind farms have been criticised in the past: “I remember how some people used to sneer at wind power and say that it wouldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding.” It’s not surprising that he is now happy to prove them wrong, but who is he talking about? It turns out that in 2013, someone used this exact expression in an interview with LBC, before going on to talk encouragingly about fracking. The name of this doubter? One Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. Sometimes the saying that “your harshest critic is yourself” proves to be true in surprising ways.