An ill wind and a lot of gas

Features editor

Even for those of use used to dealing with mixed messages from politicians in the UK’s tangled energy environment, today has to mark some kind of record. On one hand, we have the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announcing 10 per cent cuts in subsidies for on-shore wind farms, after a long tussle with the Treasury which wanted deeper cuts; DECC also said that gas should pay a significant part in UK electricity generation beyond 2030. On the other, the Commons Committee on Energy and Climate Change — the cross-party body of backbench MPs which is supposed to keep a check on the activities of the Department — has issued a report saying that the UK should end fossil fuel subsidies and cut back even harder on carbon emissions.

The Committee’s report also says that the government should work harder on convincing the public that it’s worthwhile investing in low-carbon technology. We can only wish them good luck with that, seeing as we’re far from sure what signals the government thinks it’s sending. There’s no explanation from the DECC as to why it’s cutting subsidies for onshore wind farms, apart from some vague statements about energy investment and jobs creation, with no reference to what these jobs might be. The suspicion that it stems from the hostility of rural MPs to wind farms because of their unpopularity with constituents is strong, and that’s hardly commensurate with convincing voters that low-carbon technologies are a worthwhile investment.

Meanwhile, the message about gas also sends a confusing message. If, as the Committee says, the UK needs to be setting the pace in carbon reduction, then why say that, because the price of gas might come down, we ought to be using more of it? The report says that the decrease in industrial activity owing to the recession is reducing emissions, and therefore the current target of a 20 per cent cut on 1990 levels by 2020 is no longer challenging, and that 30 per cent is a more appropriate target. Can we meet that if we’re using more gas after 2030? Do we need more technology in order for the two goals to be compatible? What’s being done to put such technology in place? In the internecine strife between government departments, between Liberal Democrat aspirations at DECC and Conservative dogma at the Treasury, any comprehensible message is being lost.

An outside observer could be forgiven for thinking that the UK doesn’t actually have an energy policy, just a series of groups with different interests pulling in different directions. Where these announcements leave the policy for new nuclear is anyone’s guess, and the companies who want to build and/or run nuclear power stations must be wondering what is going on. And as for any mention of carbon capture and storage — surely a vital component of any plan involving fossil fuels of any type, no matter what their cost, past 2020 — well, you’ll look in vain.

In short, it’s a mess, and it’s sad but true that this can’t be a surprise to anyone. There have surely been enough studies, enquiries and White Papers on energy policy for the government to know what messages it ought to be sending out. Today’s messages aren’t a help to anyone.