Well, 125 days on my reckoning but the EI is only slowly instilling some discipline into its new President.
Looking back at the Energy Barometer, which we published just after the UK General Election, the strongest message from EI Fellows and Members was the call for policy clarity. We’ve had a rapid sequence of announcements on renewables and energy efficiency since May, each of which is clear enough on its own. But taken together, the package has left a deepened sense of uncertainty about where things are going. As I argued in a piece in the ENDS Report, we need a high-level clarification of what energy policy is trying to achieve. How are the three strands of energy policy – climate, affordability and security – woven together in the Government’s view?
The policy landscape had certainly become unnecessarily cluttered. Geological layers of policies that overlap, interact and contradict have accumulated. A spring cleaning of the policy cupboard is overdue, and some of the recent announcements make eminent sense in terms of good governance. Strictly zero-carbon homes are a mirage if realised through offsite “affordable solutions” that could have been better procured by other means (but don’t throw away the baby with the bathwater by weakening efficiency requirements!). Few will lament the passing of the financial model that underpinned the Green Deal. But there is a sense of confusion as to whether the Government is pursuing “better regulation” or rolling back the low-carbon agenda, the latter conclusion being the one that many may draw. Meanwhile, away from the domestic energy policy scene, the Government remains upbeat about its ambitions for this year’s Paris climate conference.
Perhaps the clearest message since May has been the unambiguous support for shale gas. Unfortunately, central government and local government are not singing from the same hymn-sheet, as Lancashire County Council demonstrated when they rejected Cuadrilla’s planning applications in June. Whatever central government says, this creates uncertainty for investors. And anyone could feel confused by the government’s approach to local energy decision-making – does central government have the last word (shale gas) or do local communities (wind)? Wise investors recognise that sociology as well as geology is an important development criterion. If anyone succeeds in taking forward shale in the UK, it is likely to be the company that chooses development sites in areas with an industrial heritage and businesses that can benefit from lower energy prices.
The pressing need is for the Government to articulate the overall aims and philosophy of its energy policy. And, as Steve Hodgson argues in his most recent Energy World editorial, it’s the ‘sustainable energy agenda’ – renewables and efficiency – that has been buffeted most by recent announcements. In building confidence, my own priority would be the management of the Levy Control Framework which caps subsidies for renewables and energy efficiency. Whether this constraint bites or not is hugely dependent on volatile wholesale energy prices. Clarity about how the government intends to respond to that volatility is top of my list. And a comment on Hinkley Point developments would also be good. “DECC says no fears of Hinkley delays, despite review” was the headline in Engineering and Technology Magazine last November.