As the statutory target to eliminate fuel poverty in Scotland has come and gone, will a new strategy do any better?
The Scottish Government has published a consultation paper on a new fuel poverty strategy for Scotland. The consultation looks at the existing approach and legislative framework and sets out proposals for a new Fuel Poverty Strategy in Spring next year. Targets will be enshrined in a Warm Homes Bill later in 2018.
The number of households in fuel poverty fell slightly in the latest Scottish House Condition survey thanks to falling fuel prices. However, still almost one third of homes suffer under the current definition and the numbers are likely to rise again with the latest fuel price increases.
The new definition excludes housing costs and is intended to focus attention on low income households, rather than the 47% of the current fuel poor who are not income poor. There will still be challenges in reaching the standard heating regime because households self-disconnect, due to low incomes. Cuts in social security will exacerbate this. While the new definition is certainly more complex, it does target efforts on the right group. Although with insecure work, varied incomes are more common and many households are likely to fall in and out of the definition.
There are three main elements to tackling fuel poverty – the price of fuel, energy efficiency/use and household income. The first is largely reserved, although energy policy is a factor. Energy efficiency is devolved and household income has devolved and reserved elements, including social security.
This means the strategy rightly has a focus on energy efficiency. Ambitions are fine, but investment is better. The Scottish Government cut funding to £45m in 2007/08; largely because they thought the problem had been resolved. It has now recovered to £129m, although this is well below the £200m Energy Action Scotland warned was needed to meet the 2016 target.
There are some particular challenges in Scotland. Not only are we a cold country, but fuel costs in rural areas are significantly higher. Typically, £2,200 in remote rural areas, compared to £1,400 in the UK as a whole. There are particular challenges in island communities. We also have large areas off the gas grid, which matters for heating.
It is also important that we retain efficient area based schemes that strengthen communities, rather than just micro targeting individual households. The proxies used to identify fuel poor households generally work, but need to be flexibly applied to reflect local needs.
The consultation paper is again strong on ambition. Objectives like ‘Households are able to enjoy a warm home’ is hard to disagree with. Achieving this apparently requires plenty of partnership working and linking in to other strategies. While this is probably true, it does feel rather process driven – hard targets, programmes and investment are in short supply.
A number of the organisations currently working in ‘partnership’ complain about short term funding. They build up expertise and services and then the funding comes to an end. Publicity, online and telephone services have their place, but for hard to reach households it requires an advisor in the household. There has been an improvement in skilling staff like social workers and community nurses, since some of the early schemes UNISON did with the Keeping Scotland Warm partnership. However, we could do more in signposting people towards specialist advice. Local authority services are under particular pressure due to cuts.
The new statutory target is to eliminate fuel poverty (new definition) by 2040, with a review at 2030. There is considerable scepticism of the description of this as ‘ambitious’, given the long timescale. We should have learned a thing or two during the past 16 years, to make another 23 year target a bit excessive.
The problem is that achieving this target depends on a range of variables, particularly fuel prices and incomes. None of these are likely to be addressed without a serious political commitment to eliminate poverty more generally.
Green energy has received considerable public subsidy. Is this just a short term start up, or will it be necessary in the long-term?
The Scottish Government has announced that twelve projects aimed at creating local, green energy solutions have been awarded a total of £2.6m through a Scottish government support scheme. These include district heating schemes and projects in remote areas. Dr Sam Gardner, acting director at WWF Scotland, said: “A transformation in how we heat our homes and offices, how we travel to work and school, and how we power our industries will generate many social and economic benefits.”
Ofgem has also announced that ScottishPower will get regulatory funding (which means the consumer pays) to upgrade the existing grid to cope with new technologies. It comes as electric cars are increasing in popularity, with forecasts that by 2025, one in six cars sold will be an electric model. With the Scottish and UK governments also pledging to phase out the sales of new petrol and diesel vehicles, it has sparked concern that the existing electricity infrastructure could be overwhelmed.
Scottish Renewables argues that green energy is delivering significant economic and social benefits north of the border. They point to 7,500 jobs linked to wind energy. UK Government figures show new onshore wind projects would be cheaper than new gas plants, and almost a third cheaper than the price agreed for the new Hinkley Point C nuclear power station. That means using a mix of renewable technologies, including onshore wind and solar power, is the cheapest way of modernising our energy system.
There has been no shortage of Scottish Government planning support. Two-thirds of wind farm developments, which are rejected by local councils, have then been pushed through by Scottish ministers on appeal. A total of 17 applications were refused by local authorities over the past year, but 11 of these decisions were then overturned by ministers.
The drive for localised community wind schemes has slowed down on financial grounds. Cuts in support from Westminster have resulted in a lot of planned schemes being mothballed due to uncertainty over their financial viability. The problem is proving a major stumbling block in the drive to increase the amount of green power going into the mix.
A group of Scottish academics argue that falling costs for renewable energy developments, means projects could now be set up without subsidies if Scottish ministers were to provide long-term guarantees, over 15 to 20 years, based on a the wholesale price of electricity. They claim this would pose little risk to taxpayers, but could offer a big boost to communities trying to raise money to fund investments with long-term paybacks.
However, the real boom is in offshore wind, which is winning the big contracts at a price 10% below the cost of Hinkley Point nuclear plant. Although there is some doubt how many will actually be built. The problem is that these contracts are being awarded to the big energy players, further concentrating energy in the hands of the few.
Onshore wind is now an established technology, the same cannot be said for wave power. Research from the University of Strathclyde says plans to exploit wave power as the energy of the future has been undermined by a string of “failures” despite £200 million of investment. Matthew Hannon said: “The report’s findings are aimed primarily at government and industry in a bid to help improve the effectiveness of future wave energy innovation support in the UK and accelerate the technology’s journey towards commercialisation.”
Hannah Smith, from Scottish Renewables, called on government to “provide a viable mechanism to ensure the sector’s continued development”, adding failure to do so “would risk losing Scotland’s lead in this global industry”. In other words, this technology does need financial support.
The UK government has also snubbed an application to provide support for the expansion of the MeyGen tidal development off northern Scotland casting the future of the project into doubt.
In this context the authors of a new TUED working paper argue that inadequate levels of investment in renewable energy across the world are a major obstacle standing in the way of the transition to a new, renewables-based energy system. They argue that we must deal with the systemic and institutional roots of low investment. These roots trace back to the privatisation and liberalisation of electricity markets that began in the UK in the 1980s, became EU policy in the 1990s, and have since come the dominant policy approach in many parts of the world.
In short, the market alone will not deliver the green energy future we need to meet our climate change obligations.
Will the planned merger of SSE and NPower retail businesses do anything for the failing energy market?
SSE and Innogy have agreed to merge Innogy’s British retail business Npower with SSE’s household energy and energy services business to form a new independent retail energy company. The merger will turn the Big 6 into the Big 5, reducing competition in the sector.
Details on the merger are in short supply with even the staff being given some pretty bland information. The main trade union, UNISON, said:
“This bolt from the blue will have left many of the companies’ employees feeling decidedly anxious. With the merger only just announced, there’s no detail yet as to the number of jobs that may go, the posts most affected, or the sites at risk. But staff at SSE and NPower, although feeling understandably nervous as to what the future holds, should rest assured that UNISON will leave no stone unturned as it works to protect jobs across the two companies.”
We do know that the new company will not be controlled by either Innogy or SSE. Innogy will hold a minority stake of 34.4% n the business, while SSE plans to demerge its 65.6% stake to its shareholders upon completion of the transaction. SSE’s business retail division won’t be included in the deal.
The companies deny that the proposed price cap was the driver, but accept that it might have quickened the pace. This doesn’t quite match with media briefings. A source quoted by Reuters said the management at Innogy are “no longer willing to accept the losses” from its retail arm Npower. The Telegraph was told that, with the government proposing a cap on energy bills, SSE executives viewed their supply business as “more trouble than it’s worth”.
Some argue that given the growing share of the market going to smaller providers this merger isn’t very important. Ed Kamm of First Utility put his view rather bluntly:
“This smacks of two dinosaurs coming together to survive…It can’t be a good thing that the company with the highest percentage of SVT customers and the company with the highest SVT rate, are coming together.”
Rebecca Long Bailey, shadow secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy is concerned over the impact, she said:
“The energy market is broken in the UK. A merger of two of the biggest players which may diminish competition should, therefore, be subject to proper scrutiny. If the relevant legislative thresholds are met, then the Competition and Markets Authority should seek to satisfy themselves that there will not be a substantial lessening of competition through this transaction. This is why Labour want to set up local publicly owned companies to rival the big six and increase competition.”
It is certainly the case that profit margins in the energy retail sector are tight and therefore companies might wish to focus on more profitable parts of the business. Although the regulator has their eyes on some of these as well, networks in particular. However, given the dominance of the big suppliers and the weakness of the market, it is right that the competition elements are addressed by the CMA.
There is no shortage of activity on energy policy and we haven’t even heard the outcome of the Scottish Government’s energy strategy consultation.
Let’s start with fracking. The Scottish Government has announced that the existing moratorium would continue ‘indefinitely’, which is an effective ban given their planning powers. This follows a similar ban on underground coal gasification. It will be the subject of a vote in the Scottish Parliament, but that should be a formality, as only the Tories support fracking.
Claudia Beamish MSP still has her members bill which would put in place a stronger legislative ban. The problem with using planning powers is that the moratorium could be overturned very easily, unlike legislation. I suspect the government has decided to go down the moratorium route to avoid compensation claims from INEOS, who now have drilling licences that they can’t use. However, as the minister said, fracking, “cannot and will not take place in Scotland” – and that is the practical effect.
The overwhelming majority of people in Scotland will welcome this decision. A staggering 99% of the 60,000 respondents to the consultation supported a ban. Apart from INEOS, we had a grand rant from Jim Sillars, who claimed that people didn’t know about the consultation. Well, 60,000 respondents would indicate that claim is mince, not to mention the noise campaign groups having been making on the issue. Jim also expects trade unions to put pressure on the government to rethink the ban at the STUC. I wouldn’t hold your breath on that Jim, most unions are opposed to fracking.
And you won’t win us over with nonsense claims about how fracking will end fuel poverty. Scotland’s geology means so little fracked gas could be extracted that its use would be for industrial, not domestic heating. Even if it could be extracted in any quantity, the cost would be prohibitive. That is why the investment is drying up for drilling in England and the companies are going to the UK Government with their begging bowl.
The next big announcement by the FM was the establishment of a state owned national energy company. Details on this are a bit scarce, but the announcement points, at least initially, to a retail operation. This is not exactly an original idea, with operations like Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Our Power Energy run by housing associations and the People’s Energy Company based in Musselburgh.
A national energy company is something UNISON supported in its response to the energy strategy consultation. However, we envisaged a more radical option that involves generation and transmission as well as retail. We also support a big role for municipal energy – generating electricity, managing distribution grids, running energy efficiency schemes as well as retail sales. This is very common across Europe and seriously challenges the ownership model in Scotland, something the Scottish Government has been unwilling to do. The big energy companies’ reaction to the announcement last week, indicates that some modest retail competition doesn’t worry them very much.
The UK Government’s stop-start efforts to introduce a price cap on energy bills, has once more run into trouble. The minister claimed the cap would be in place this winter, a suggestion that was promptly contradicted by Ofgem. The legislation could take a year and then many months more for Ofgem to implement it. Shambles doesn’t even begin to describe this.
All the usual suspects have been dragged out to tell us how wonderful the market is – all we need to do is get into switching supplier. Meanwhile, in the real-world consumers are increasingly supporting real public ownership options as set out the Labour manifesto. The TUC joined that call at its recent Congress, unanimously backing a motion that supports returning the energy sector to public ownership and democratic control. The motion also called for a mass programme of energy conservation and efficiency, a just transition strategy and investigating the long-term risks to pension funds from investment in fossil fuels.
The last few weeks have seen some important energy policy decisions that could help reshape our energy strategy. However, that will only happen if we are bolder and resist tinkering around the edges.
Scotland may lack many resources, but water is not one of them. This summer was the third wettest since records began with rainfall up 50% on previous years.
Water is delivered to our taps by Scottish water, a public service of the type envisaged for the rest of the UK in John McDonnell’s speech to the Labour Party conference this week. Despite the extra costs of managing water and wastewater in Scotland, it does so at below average cost.
However, UK sales of bottled water continues to grow, exceeding cola for the first time this year. The total sales of bottled water are expected to increase to 4.7 billion by 2021. As Stephen Jardine put it in an excellent article in The Scotsman, “It is a remarkable testament to the power of marketing and our own collective stupidity.”
He actually spotted a bottle of Fiji Artesian Spring Water in a shop. Fiji is nearly 10,000 miles away!
Our water generally tastes good and the Drinking Water Quality Regulator tells us it is very safe, excepting a few private supplies. Compliance with the standards set out in our legislation and in the EU Drinking Water Directive in 2016 was 99.91%.
One concern is that plastic microparticles are finding their way into our drinking water. Tiny pieces of plastic can find their way into seawater where they can be eaten by marine animals and so end up in human food. Even more worryingly, new research suggests plastic particles are also commonly found in drinking water. European nations including the UK, Germany and France had the lowest contamination rate in the survey, but this was still 72%. The average number of fibres found in each 500ml sample ranged from 4.8 in the US to 1.9 in Europe.
We don’t know what impact such particles have on the human body, but they could cause inflammation and act as a carrier for other toxins to enter the body. So, while we don’t have clear evidence that plastic microparticles in drinking water have a negative effect on health, we urgently need to find out more.
Cloudy water is a common consumer concern. This doesn’t necessarily mean the water isn’t clean, any more than crystal clear water means it doesn’t contain bugs. Researchers at Drexel University in the USA analysed existing studies from North America and Europe that investigated the link between drinking-water turbidity and acute gastrointestinal illness. Of the 14 studies included in the review, ten found an association between water turbidity (as measured at the water treatment plant) and the incidence of acute gastrointestinal illness. This means we should at least treat it as a proxy for risk.
The Scottish Government has published its fourth annual report on the Hydro Nation. While there are a number of worthwhile initiatives, it remains a long way short of the vision first articulated by Alex Salmond as First Minister. The report identifies a few, generally small scale, projects abroad. There is some academic research and a few technology projects, but nothing on the scale originally envisaged.
Finally, the Water Industry Commission has been setting out its thinking on the next price review. In particular there is a concern that insufficient attention being paid to asset maintenance. It says: “The price setting process has sought to ensure that the regulated company faces a hard budget constraint over the regulatory control period. While this has been very successful in improving operational efficiency, it appears that insufficient attention has been paid (by both regulator and regulated company) to futureproofing levels of service.”
It is doubtful if a base assumption of a 2% increase in prices will do much to address these concerns. Maintaining a high quality water service requires investment. Who knows, we might even rediscover some of that Hydro-Nation vision.
As we await a decision by the Scottish Government on fracking in Scotland, the debate rages on. One side arguing that we need new sources of gas rather than becoming dependent on imports, while the other points to the environmental impact and the need for another dirty fuel when we have abundant sources of clean energy.
This week a new factor has been added to the mix. John Underhill from Heriot Watt University says that both sides assume that fracking would actually work in Scotland and other UK sites. They pay little attention to whether the country’s geology is suitable for fracking. The implication is that because fracking works in the US, it must also work here. When in fact, Professor Underhill argues that the UK’s geological history suggests this is probably wrong.
He explains why in an article in The Conversation. In short, the geology of the UK is very different to the US. This means that even where a shale source in the UK may have high organic content and thick and favourable mineralogy, the complex structure of the basins will be detrimental to ultimate recovery. The inherent geological complexity of the sedimentary basins has not been fully appreciated or articulated. As a result, the opportunity has been overhyped and reserve estimates remain unknown. We are some 55 million years late – geologically speaking!
Other recent studies have attempted to model risks like earthquakes. A paper, published in Geomechanics and Geophysics for Geo-Energy and Geo-Resources (perhaps not everyone’s bedtime reading!), tries to predict how far from a geological fault it is safe to frack a well without causing an earthquake. Given the length of time fracking has been going on in the USA, it’s surprising that there aren’t already guidelines that cover this kind of risk. However, it partly reflects our limited knowledge of the complex underground landscape and how fracking interacts with it. Because of the complexity and variability, a detailed understanding of the geology of what’s below the Earth’s surface is very incomplete.
The fracking industry is also struggling with 21st Century challenges like finance and public opposition. British banks are reluctant to finance the mostly small drilling companies and a briefing produced by Barclays sets out the environmental and wider public opposition to fracking. The industry group OESG set out their concerns in a meeting with the then UK government minister.
This reflects long standing doubts about the financial viability of fracking. Doubts which won’t be helped by further questions about the technical viability of fracking in the UK. MSP’s have already voted in favour of stopping fracking in Scotland and Scottish Labour MSP, Claudia Beamish has launched a members bill on the issue.
The bottom line remains that fracking advocates have failed to reassure the public on environment grounds, financial viability is doubtful and we simply don’t need another dirty fuel.
As widely predicted, UK government action on energy bills has turned out to be another damp squib. Ministers passed the buck yet again to Ofgem who have published plans for a ‘fairer and more competitive’ market. As if we haven’t heard that before!
As the Editor of Utility Week put it: “If the government is convinced that an absolute energy price cap for 17 million UK households is both expedient and desirable, it should take responsibility for delivering it – and sooner rather than later. The industry is not going to tie a noose around its own neck.”
Despite the abundance of energy supply in the UK, we still pay more than the European average. This Ofgem infographic shows how energy bills are broken down.
We are told the solution is more switching in an allegedly competitive market. However, there has been a warning that more small energy firms could go bust this winter because of increasing price volatility. David Bird of Co-operative Energy said that the regulator needed to set financial stress tests for new market entrants, to reduce the risk of firms folding and customers being left in the lurch.
On a more positive note it looks as if there may be some action on charges for pre-payment meters.
Santander has recently highlighted how much of our declining pay packets go on largely unavoidable household bills. It looked at bills for gas, electricity, water, etc – and found they have risen far ahead of average wage rises. Since 2006, average pay packets in Britain have gone up by 19%, while the average gas bill has risen by 73% and electricity by 72%.
These are very large real rises, and all the grimmer for families and pensioners on very tight budgets – not to mention public sector workers suffering years of pay restraint. These are must pay bills that leave families with harsh choices about what to cut elsewhere.
This bitter pill is made all the less easy to swallow when the boss of one of Scotland’s biggest energy companies has been given a 72% pay rise, soon after arguing against consumers having their bills capped to save them £100 a year. The company also increased the price of its standard variable tariff by 6.9%.
Alistair Phillips-Davies, the chief executive of SSE will be paid £2.92m in 2017 after receiving the maximum possible bonuses for leading a “robust performance” by the supplier last year. The pay rise is even bigger than the 40% rise awarded to the chief executive of the Scottish Gas owner, Centrica.
Former energy minister Brian Wilson is not as convinced as the First Minister that ScottishPower is “an exemplar to our world-leading energy sector” as she opened their new HQ in Glasgow. He argues: “Such testimonials should be tested rather than asserted. Neither ScottishPower nor SSE have built a single power station since privatisation. Scotland has been turned from exporter of electricity to importer. These companies have been the biggest beneficiaries of onshore wind subsidies – without building a single turbine in Scotland. I’m not sure that is such an “exemplar” record, even leaving aside what customers think of them.”
Then we can add energy networks into the mix. They have been accused of exploiting consumers to enjoy a £7.5bn windfall of unjustified “sky high” profits. Citizen’s Advice reckon the companies that transmit electricity and gas around the UK, including National Grid, were reaping average profit margins of 19% from their monopolies. That compares with the 4% margin that big six suppliers make selling power and gas to householders. They have called for a one-off £285 rebate to every household. Don’t hold your breath on this one, but the companies can expect a tougher price controls next time around.
In a useful analysis of the issues the HofC library argues that the key issue for Parliament will be how to make consumer markets such as energy work effectively. Can consumers be encouraged to find the best deal or does Government need to be more active?
The simple truth is that markets have failed, not least because consumers have better things to do than spend hours battling the complexity of energy pricing. Government intervention is long overdue.
We may not be short of water in Scotland, but that’s no excuse for losing more than a third of drinking water before it reaches the taps.
According to the latest figures from Scottish Water, 500 million litres a day are lost. This is despite a six-year, £3.5bn upgrade programme that is due for completion in 2021. There has been year-on-year decreases in leakages and Scottish Water has consistently exceeded its targets. However, these figures just shows how much we still rely on Victorian infrastructure for this essential public service.
If it keeps raining and the reservoirs are full, why does it matter? Well, as Scottish Green Party leader Patrick Harvie says “It’s not just a waste of water, it’s a waste of energy and money that’s gone into getting that water where it needs to be and in the right conditions. The challenge is immense when you’re dealing with Victorian infrastructure.”
Patrick Harvie added: “There’s a huge amount of further investment needed. The leakages have been cut, but that shouldn’t be a reason for complacency. It’s one of the many reasons why we absolutely have to keep Scottish Water in the public sector and resist the efforts to flog it off, privatise it or change it’s structure in some way.”
Leakage from the pipes isn’t an excuse for us as consumers to waste water. Many of us will have had smart meters installed to measure our gas and electricity usage. Water infrastructure is often overlooked when smart metering issues are considered or discussed and the sector has arguably been slow to harness the power of new technology. It is often seen as an “invisible utility” which is taken for granted, except during a period of drought or during pollution incidents.
There is evidence that smart meters could curb domestic water use, even if the take up so far has been modest. However, Scottish Water is not convinced and neither is the Scottish Government, which would have to fund them.
The biggest English water company,Thames Water, would face a supply shortfall of 133m litres per day by 2020, rising to 414m litres per day by 2040 if the trend for increased demand continues. As a result they have embarked on a smart metering installation programme that will see 414,000 smart water meters installed in London by 2020. By 2025 they will be dealing with 35 billion hourly meter reads every year.
In England and Wales, consumers have a right to have a meter installed and more than half have done so, claiming it makes them more water aware and results in significant savings on their bill. Research by the UK’s Water Industry Research body has found that the average family reduces their water usage by 10% to 15% after a water meter is installed.
Of course, the only people switching to a meter are those who think they will save money. Families with lots of young children and those with medical conditions (such as incontinence, weeping skin problems and renal failure) which necessitate high water usage are also likely to receive higher bills with a meter.
Another downside is that if there are leaks, you pay the cost of the leaking water until it’s fixed. There are some shocking examples of this with massive bills. One of the reasons water companies in England are so keen on metering is that they claim it helps them identify such leaks.
The advantage of the Scottish system is that charges are broadly progressive, being based on council tax bands rather than water use. Meters can put pressure on those who legitimately use large amounts of water to reduce their usage, with potential risks to public health. This has been the experience in the energy sector with self disconnection through pre-paid meters commonplace.
When the current infrastructure programme is completed and leakage reduced, it may well be that domestic meters will come back on the policy agenda.
As the Brexit negotiations begin, we shouldn’t forget the impact they could have on existing and future energy policy in Scotland. An issue that got precious little attention during the referendum campaign.
The UK currently operates within an EU wide regulatory framework, including the single electricity and gas market. Other directives cover energy services, security and the Euratom treaty on nuclear power. The main aim is to create non-discriminatory access to networks and the creation of wide area wholesale markets. It is claimed that the current integration results in savings of around 5% of costs, with full market coupling and shared balancing resulting in further gains of 2.3% of wholesale electricity costs.
Leaving the EU does not change the UK’s key energy policy objectives that include low prices, energy security and environmental targets. The use of interconnectors to mainland Europe is an important link to energy markets and for energy security. At least eight cables are being laid to trade power between the UK, Ireland, France, Belgium, Denmark and Norway, tripling the existing number of UK interconnectors. Huge investment has been committed to the projects under way, and ones even further afield have been suggested, such as a cable to bring Iceland’s volcanic power to Scotland.
Another question mark will be over the single electricity market in Ireland and integration into the GB system. There are related concerns over freedom of movement for energy workers, withdrawal from the EU carbon pricing system (ETS) and collaboration on energy research. MP’s have been particularly critical over the consequences of withdrawing from nuclear cooperation through the Euratom Treaty.
This slide gives National Grid’s fairly pessimistic take on the consequences.
The ‘no deal’ approach would mean a reversion to WTO rules at best, but the WTO would provide very little help in terms of energy market access. It might be possible to include energy in trade deals with Canada and the USA, over energy sources like LNG, but energy is realistically an issue with close neighbours.
Equally, if we remain within the system then the tricky issue of judicial oversight rears its head. It is hard to envisage a deal that does not bind the UK to ECJ decisions.
Brexit also has implications for the Scottish Government’s independence plans. Scotland is a net energy exporter, but it also increasingly relies on imports from England, particularly when the wind isn’t blowing. The counter to unionist claims that Scotland would be cut off from the GB system, is EU market access requirements. However, if the UK isn’t bound by those directives, then neither would a future rUK government. Of course in the short term there is probably a joint incentive to reach a deal. The longer term might be more problematic.
As with other areas there are also opportunities with Brexit. Outwith the EU the UK could develop different subsidy regimes, state intervention and redesign the wholesale market. All is not well with our energy market and it could be argued that we could be more flexible outwith it.
In summary, those who support the current market based approach argue that the UK negotiators should focus on barrier-free trade that would maintain the ‘benefits’ of the internal market and high-level cooperation on energy matters. Sceptics point to the extra cost and inflexibility of the current system and argue that a lighter touch engagement with the EU would free up the UK to adopt a different approach.
Not for the first time, energy policy has received very little attention in this election campaign. In Scotland, key elements are reserved so you might expect a bit more attention to be paid to it, rather than debate devolved issues that MPs have no real say over.
The Tories are not proposing any major changes to their current energy policy, other than over energy prices. The radical change is in Labour’s manifesto, which attacks privatisation and fuel poverty, based on three key principles:
- To ensure security of energy supply and ‘keep the lights on’.
- To ensure energy costs are affordable for consumers and businesses.
- To ensure we meet our climate change targets and transition to a low-carbon economy.
None of these are particularly controversial; the radical meat comes later in the manifesto.
Labour would introduce an immediate emergency price cap to ensure that the average dual-fuel household energy bill remains below £1,000 per year. The SNP manifesto also has a price cap commitment. This was 1970’s socialism according to the Daily Mail, until the Tories started to use similar language. In practice the Tory manifesto commitment has been diluted to a targeted cap. So much so that the industry now welcomes it.
The big Labour idea is to take energy back into public ownership to deliver renewable energy, affordability for consumers, and democratic control. This will be done in stages, starting with the energy supply networks license conditions. Then by creating locally accountable energy companies and finally purchasing regional and national grids. As Stephen Hall, from Leeds University notes, this is not quite as revolutionary as it appears. This is happening in the US and Germany, often badged as municipalisation. It is a long way short of command and control nationalisation.
To help tackle other aspects of fuel poverty, Labour will insulate four million homes to help those who suffer in cold homes each winter. This will cut emissions, improve health, save on bills and reduce winter deaths. There should be Barnett consequentials for Scotland from this. Homeowners will be offered interest- free loans to improve their property and Landlord regulations will be changed in England. Labour is committed to similar measures in Scotland. As the Energy Saving Trust says:
“There’s no sugar coating it. From a home energy point of view the Labour manifesto is much more encouraging than the Conservative one.”
Labour will ban fracking because it would lock us into an energy infrastructure based on fossil fuels, long after the point in 2030 when the Committee on Climate Change says gas in the UK must sharply decline. Putting to one side the safety and environmental issues, we simply don’t need another dirty fossil fuel. The Tories are proposing incentives in England to promote fracking and the SNP are consulting over the current moratorium in Scotland.
Labour views emerging technologies such as carbon capture and storage as the way to help to smooth the transition to cleaner fuels and to protect existing jobs as part of the future energy mix. However, the manifesto is silent on the role of gas plants in delivering flexible generation. The current capacity market has not provided an incentive to build new plants; instead it has delivered the dirtiest possible coal and diesel generation.
The commitments to renewable energy projects, including tidal lagoons, are viewed as part of Labour’s industrial strategy, to create manufacturing and energy jobs, as well as contributing to climate- change commitments. With backing from a Labour government, these sectors can secure crucial shares of global export markets.
The Liberal-Democrats would also reverse Tory cuts to support for wind farms and solar PV. They also support energy efficiency measures. However, their support for community energy and new entrants into energy retail are firmly wedded to market solutions.
Under a Labour government nuclear will continue to be part of the UK energy supply, which puts them at odds with the SNP. Labour will also seek to retain access to Euratom, to allow continued trade of fissile material, with access and collaboration over research. As part of the Brexit negotiations, Labour will prioritise maintaining access to the internal energy market. This is also important to the SNP’s independence plans, which rely on access to energy systems outwith Scotland.
The SNP energy policy is currently the subject of a consultation and I have set out the UNISON response to that consultation here. In the event of a hung parliament, outwith the Tories, most parties could support the ambition in the paper and it is fair to say that Scotland has led the way on cleaner energy. Its weakness is the shortage of specific actions and milestones, a criticism shared by the renewables industry.
Most party manifestos express their support for renewable energy and energy efficiency. The radical shift in this election is the commitment to new ownership models in the Labour manifesto. The election of Labour government this week would mean big changes for the sector.
For a factual comparison of the party manifestos on energy and climate change, see the Carbon Brief’s helpful chart.