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Don’t like the answer? Change the question. How the UK quietly pulled the plug on clean energy

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When the USA, once the high watermark of human progress, isolated itself as the only country outside of the Paris Agreement, it caused consternation, nonetheless the international community buoyed by the falling cost of wind, solar & batteries, remained absolutely steadfast. More disturbing perhaps then was the white-washing of references to climate change on the official websites of the administration in Washington as they tried in vain to slow the global energy transition.

Naturally, there are a number of us in the UK who would say, ‘that couldn’t happen here’ but, under the cover of the thick political fog that has beset Britain over the last two years a stealthy retrenchment on renewables is indeed well under way. In 2010, Cameron and Clegg’s coalition government gave the public a voice in the energy debate by launching the Public Attitudes Tracker. This year that survey is to be canned, reconstituted or ‘consulted-out-of-existence’, almost certainly because it makes excruciatingly uncomfortable reading for the current government.

While the Conservative Party have been keen to crow about the UK’s world-leading status as a ‘clean growth leader’ when you analyse the successes they were largely the result of the policies implemented by the green-leaning Liberal Democrats, specifically Greg Barker and Ed Davey. It is no exaggeration to say that these policies have been variously diluted, knee-capped and strangled since the election of 2015 when David Cameron’s husky-hugging rhetoric** came to an abrupt end. The number of policies negatively effected is almost too numerous to detail but the near outright ban of onshore wind, an 87% cut to the solar feed-in tariff*** as well as the almost overnight closure of the Department for Energy & Climate Change deserve honourable mentions.

Throughout this time though, countries around the world, especially the most progressive nations, have increased their deployment of renewables as these technologies have become the cheapest  on offer and consequently public perception of clean energy has continued to improve. So when the government introduced a question into the quarterly survey about a technology they were keen to see in operation, (fracking for shale gas) they probably did not like the answer.

Since Wave 1 of the Public Attitudes Tracker**** in 2010 until now, all support for Renewable Energy has consistently been between 75%-82%, while opposition has lingered at a lowly 3-5%. Compare this with Nuclear Energy, which as of the latest survey has support of 35% and opposition from 22% and it becomes clear that Renewable Energy has as near as unequivocal support as is possible. When the same question was first posed on ‘Hydraulic Fracturing for shale gas’ in 2013, it polled even more poorly than Nuclear with 27% in support, 21% opposed. Undeterred, government began to force it on communities and as the risks became clearer, support for shale gas slipped further to 16%, while opposition has increased to 32%. In short, support for Renewable Energy has an appeal that all of the other competing technologies can only dream of.

The court of public opinion can of course be given too much weight, but seen alongside the twin challenges of climate change and air pollution, the global acceleration of renewable deployment and the cost reductions it causes, plus the growing role of corporations who see the huge financial opportunity, the energy transition is seemingly unstoppable. So why then does the UK continue to resist this reality? Missing our air pollution targets by a mile, on track to miss our carbon targets (especially around heat), renewable energy is such an obvious answer, it is almost as if some unseen force is holding us back. That invisible force is of course those powerful individuals and businesses whose financial interests are inextricably entwined with the established energy system.

Take the existing energy suppliers for example, it is in their interest to maintain a status quo that relies on gas for heating, as well as gas and nuclear for power. This is why for incumbent businesses the opportunity to unearth gas literally from beneath the buildings it would flow into is utterly irresistible. Naturally, they have then used their vast financial resources to lobby for hydraulic fracturing. These vested interests also go some way to explain why the UK is amongst the more progressive nations when it comes to the introduction of electric vehicles. To be clear this is actually a positive step, especially if the grid resumes its ‘greening up’, but make no mistake that it is the car-makers in the UK that are in the driving seat on electrification, batteries and autonomous driving, not the policy-makers.

A story that always sticks in my head and illustrates the Conservative Party attitude to renewables took place in the immediate aftermath of Government announcements to almost decimate the UK solar feed-in tariff (by 87%). Amber Rudd, the then Secretary of State for DECC, was in India with Prime Minister Modi waxing lyrical about ‘our ambitious plans for renewable energy’. Tellingly though the transcript***** shows that the bulk of what she spoke about was financing India’s plans for renewables through the City of London. It was the moolah, not the solar, that was the object of the UK’s desires.

The abolition of the Public Attitudes Tracker****** has been a long time coming, but that doesn’t make it any less objectionable. Without it, so many questions on energy will continue to go unanswered. The single, unifying answer though is that the government’s strategy on energy is woefully short-sighted. At best they are out of touch unable to see the once in a generation financial opportunity, at worst they are out of control, too close to corporate sponsors to be independent. Either way if you don’t like the answer, maybe it’s time to change the question; in terms of energy policy, it’s time for a change of power.

With thanks to the original content of Business Green, The Guardian, MyGridGB, Solar Power Portal & publicly accessible materials on BEIS.gov.uk.

Solar Power Portal & publicly accessible materials on BEIS.gov.uk.

[Sources below].

1                     http://www.mygridgb.co.uk/

2                     https://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2016/apr/20/david-cameron-hug-a-husky-green-legacy-10-years

3                     https://www.solarpowerportal.co.uk/blogs/long_read_a_better_fit

4                     https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/energy-and-climate-change-public-attitudes-tracker-wave-24

5                     https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/clean-energy-is-the-energy-of-today-and-tomorrow

6                     https://www.businessgreen.com/bg/news/3026841/beis-proposes-energy-climate-and-fracking-opinion-survey-overhaul

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