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Beyond 2015: How green can Britain be given its energy challenges?

Listen to the audio of our event with Co-Operative Energy at Liberal Democrat party conference

By Prospect Team  

Can any party deliver green energy after the next election? © John Womack

Prospect and Co-operative Energy hosted an event at Liberal Democrat Party Conference on October 8th 2014 to discuss how green can Britain be? The panel featured Lord Teverson, Chairman of the Arctic Committee, Stephen Lloyd MP, PPS to the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Duncan Hames MP and Co-operative Energy’s General Manager Ramsey Dunning.

Opening the discussion, Prospect’s Digital Editor, Serena Kutchinsky, identified the fact that energy policy has always presented a challenge to successive governments and perhaps particularly to this one, whose green credentials are increasingly being called into question.

“This is [still] the greenest government ever,” said Stephen Lloyd. “A fact that is entirely due to the work of the Liberal Democrats in government. We have fought against vested interests every inch of the way, particularly on the right, who’ve decided they’re not interested anymore.” Lloyd quoted the fact that spending on energy infrastructure, which stands at £200bn, is four times larger than any similar single government spend. He also stated that renewable electricity generation has more than doubled since 2010, and that the UK is now the third largest generator of renewables in the world.

Fracking dominated the early part of the debate, with Lord Teverson expressing his fears over the environmental and cost implications. “Shale gas is less bad than coal but it’s got a carbon content and ultimately we have to make sure we take gas, or unabated gas, out of the system as well,” he said. “Fracking won’t make a difference in terms of pricing I’m afraid, nor in changing the energy mix and the way that manufacturing works,” he added.

This view was supported by Ramsey Dunning who outlined Co-operative Energy’s stance on fracking: “We share a lot of concerns over the potential environmental impact and I think we’re probably more reserved than [Energy and Climate Change Secretary] Ed Davey on the proof of the minimisation of its impact.”

One possible solution to the environmental concerns raised by fracking is a global carbon emissions deal. “We led the world in the industrial revolution and started burning this stuff, and we would do well in leading the world through the transition to a low-carbon economy,” said Duncan Hames MP. He pointed to the global reduction in coal prices that the introduction of shale gas to the energy mix has triggered, and the risk of it being widely used in countries such as China which are experiencing rapid industrial change. “More use of coal is obviously bad news for the environment. That’s why it’s so important that we have a prohibition on unabated coal in this country, which Ed Davey has now set a date for, but the cost of coal will fall in other parts of the world too—we need a global solution.”

There was a slight reluctance among the politicians on the panel to confront the nuclear question, despite the party having backed the motion to accept its role in electricity supply at last year’s conference. Stephen Lloyd commented: “It’s not as if the Liberals have said ok, we’re all pro-nuclear now. We haven’t. But we understand that it needs to be part of the overall offering. On this and other matters, the Liberals have made some brave decisions which I’m sure will be rewarded at the general election as we sweep to victory.”

“Nuclear energy is a sort of least-worst evil,” said Ramsey Dunning, General Manager, Co-operative Energy. “The worst technology for us is coal and the certainty of the damage inflicted on us by the carbon emissions, there are still question marks around the long-term security of nuclear waste, but for now nuclear is a sensible portion of the portfolio.”

More excitement was reserved for the discussion of alternative renewable energy sources such as solar and tidal, which could reportedly provide 8 per cent of the UK’s energy needs by 2027. The example of a project for tidal lagoon at Swansea Bay was cited as proof of the value of adding more renewables to the energy mix.

“I am most excited about solar because there are characteristics of that technology which lead it to be able to continue to advance in terms of what it can offer us, in a way which is harder to say about some of our other renewable technologies,” said Duncan Hames. “I think that the time will come when we’ll look at panels like the ones on my roof and they will seem as antiquated as a black and white cathode ray tubes do today.”

The deprioritisation of government subsidies to more established renewable sources such as solar in the new Contract for Difference came under scrutiny. The panel considered the long-term implications of diverting investment to technologies such as tidal and offshore wind. Stephen Lloyd defended the government’s position: “Solar power’s collapsed in price compared to four or five years ago… I think it’s going to happen quite soon, where solar doesn’t even need a subsidy because the costs have come down so much that the market forces mean it’s cost effective. That’s how the Lib Dems are ensuring that we’ve got a sustainable green economy. There’s no point in giving more and more money away on a subsidy when it’s not necessary.”

The Conservative Party’s opposition to onshore wind, which Vince Cable had the previous day described as a “pathological aversion” was seized upon by Lord Teverson, himself a firm advocate of its economic viability.  “What do we get in the House of Lords every time wind comes up? I have the likes of Nigel Lawson in front of me saying it’s all a waste of time, and that global warming isn’t happening,” he commented. “I think the Conservative Party has got it into their doctrine—it wants a fossilised countryside that isn’t economic, doesn’t work, does traditional things, and doesn’t allow local economies to benefit from energy income and I think that’s severely negative. This summer Cornwall, where I live, has had more wind energy than at any time in its past and its also had one of the most successful tourist seasons. The correlation of those two points proves to me that wind energy is good for tourism as well.”

But, how achievable is the promise made by Ed Davey in his conference speech to increase the market share of independent energy suppliers to 30 per cent by 2020? Ramsey Dunning gave an optimistic analysis of the challenges facing independent energy generators, stating that he believed Davey was being “incredibly modest” in his ambition. Co-operative Energy now supplies about 220,000 households, but as Dunning pointed out the “stranglehold” that the Big Six maintains over generation, they own 70 per cent, still makes it tough for independents to compete. “While the Big Six were giving out the message ‘leave it to us’, it was a deterrent. I don’t think there was any evidence that they act as a cartel. But, the perception that they were, or could be, was enough to deter outside investment and competition.

“Last year, Co-operative Energy ran a community energy conference for the first time and the objective was to bring together the people who’d done it; the people who could make things happen, whether they were lawyers, whether they were financiers, whether they were technical people; and the groups and the leaders of the groups who wanted to do something. And it was very successful and the tone of it was sort of optimistic and ambitious. We repeated it again, it’s become an annual event, in September, and the tone of it this year was significantly different. It was people who weren’t ambitious and wanting to do something – they were going to do something and were coming to find out how do we overcome this next obstacle, and that’s incredibly encouraging I think, ” concluded Ramsey.

Listen to our audio of the event below:

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