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4 October 2019

Fusion? Have UK Conservatives lost touch with renewables?

The UK Conservative party seems to be heralding plasma furnaces and atomic fusion power, the reaction that power our sun, as the answer to renewables, but leaders may have got a little confused here over timeframe and messaging.

The UK political parties are fighting it out for the hearts and minds of the electorate in the run up to what everyone thinks is a Brexit election. The labour party has called for a zero emissions policy to be brought forward to 2030, so the Conservatives need to tell everyone they are thinking about almost entirely free power that fusion represents.

The trouble is that effective fusion, by everyone’s first guess, even the Chinese authorities who are throwing a lot more money at it than the UK, believe that fusion power won’t be harnessed much before 2050, perhaps 2040 at the earliest. While we are waiting for that to happen, wouldn’t money better be spent on making wind power or solar more efficient.

Despite this, the Conservatives have pledged £220 million this week to support research into fusion. Yes, but what is it going to do about renewables? Because much of that needs to be done, busted and installed before the 2040, the earliest optimistic date for an entirely new technology that has yet to be harnessed.

The initial £220 million investment, announced at the conservative party conference this past weekend, has been dedicated for the 5-year development phase of the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) project, seeking to provide the grid with nuclear derived electricity by 2040.

CEO of Oxford-based researcher First Light Fusion, Nicholas Hawker, has optimistically claimed that nuclear fusion will emerge within a decade to provide clean unlimited baseload.

However, with commercial nuclear fusion seeming a distant prospect to many industrial experts, the focus placed upon fusion within the Conservatives outlined proposals is arguably an exciting distraction in times of ever-increasing despondence regarding climate policy.

In fact, with the UK currently on track to meet only one of the 25 indicators required for 2050 net-zero carbon targets, ‘headline’ policies from both major parties seem to be beyond realistic, with the labour party agreeing last week to bring forward the already challenging 2050 target to 2030.

Nuclear fusion has been ‘a-decade-away’ for decades. Frustration has been clear amongst climate activist groups, with Friends of The Earth’s chief executive Craig Bennett pleading the Conservatives not to “throw money at tech-fix pipe dreams”, questioning why allocated funds had not been directed towards already delivering methods of solar and offshore wind.

Alongside the nuclear announcements, business secretary Andrea Leadsom outlined her party’s plans to invest £1 Billion into the automotive industry with the purpose of “green growth and a future mobility” as well as the planting of one million trees, largely adhering to recommendations provided by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). There was no mention however of any commitment to additional renewable methods, despite heavy pledges made last week by the opposition party to expand the UK’s offshore wind portfolio to 52GW by 2030.

With the UK government’s investment in renewables showing limited levels of urgency, despite ever increasing capacity, questions must be asked of how seriously the Conservatives are in tackling climate change head on or are Piers Corbyn’s whispers of ‘Climate-change nonsense’ stuck in the ear of Boris Johnson.