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Britain’s energy: less talk, more action

It's time someone took a decisive lead on solving our energy problems

By Prospect Team  

© Dirk Ingo Franke

This article was produced in association with Co-operative energy

Where will Britain get its energy from in future? The political implications of that deceptively simple question have been debated with force in recent years—but there has only been debate. The definitive action required from government has not been forthcoming, despite the urging of commentators and analysts who have proposed increased infrastructure spending to ensure that supply will be maintained.

Prospect held an event at the Conservative Party Conference to examine the question of Britain’s energy infrastructure, supported by Co-operative Energy, the home energy supplier.

Ramsay Dunning, the General Manager of Co-operative Energy, accepted that the energy market needed to be challenged. He set out the three components of the problem it faces, which he termed the “energy trilemma”: affordability of supply; sustainability; and the carbon impact.

An energy mix must be found that satisfies these three factors—on the last of these three, Dunning commented that Co-operative Energy has “made a commitment that all the electricity we supply to customers will have half the national average carbon content.” On the question of which technologies would be best to provide this energy, Dunning termed himself “agnostic,” although he also mentioned that Co-operative is broadly supportive of renewable energy sources.

Michael Grubb, Professor of International Energy and Climate Change Policy at University College London, reminded the crowd that energy efficiency had a part to play in solving Britain’s energy problem. He also noted that demand for electricity had declined in the last seven to eight years—but despite such advances, the question of where energy comes from was unavoidable.

Innovation was valuable, said Grubb, in finding new sources of energy. But, he said wryly, the “innovation fairies are not about to change the laws of physics”—the basics of electricity production are unlikely to undergo any substantial leap forward any time soon.

He also though that there was likely to be a “hollowing out” of the energy system, with much more generation conducted at a community level. He thought that this would be a viable approach for villages and small towns, but not cities, which he said would always need big external sources of production.

Grubb also pointed out that there was a crucial misunderstanding on the subject of finding new ways to generate power, both at local and large-scale levels. There is a misconception, he said, that the trade-off in Britain’s energy mix is between gas and wind energy. This popular assumption is mistaken. The real tension is between the objections to onshore energy generation and the cost and insecurity of moving generation offshore.

In this Grubb is surely right—that there is a reflex objection to fracking the English countryside or of erecting avenues of wind-turbines. If the electorate will not tolerate this despoliation of Britain’s landscape, will it be willing to stump up the money for higher energy costs that would arise from moving that generation offshore? There needs to be an honest account of how much this would cost and Grubb said that the difference in price between on and offshore production would be 6p per unit and 10p respectively. A way to circumvent the problem would be to fall back on international fossil fuel markets said Grubb, an alternative which, he noted, lacked appeal.

At the heart of the political attitude to energy, we have not decided whether electricity is a commodity or a social service, said Malcolm Grimston, the Senior Research Fellow at Imperial College London. For that reason he said, there was confusion as to whether the ultimate responsibility for the electricity supply resided with government or with the electricity companies. In his view, governments should take back responsibility for building the right energy mix for the future, because at the moment, Britain is not building anything like the required amount of generation capacity. Only government could deliver.

Dunning, however, sounded a note of caution. “I would be very concerned,” he said, “when it’s energy or anything else—when you leave it to government to just take those big decisions, they’re making decisions over technology and so on, I would be concerned what scope that left for innovation.”

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