Judith Blake on a distracted government’s failure to deliver a truly ambitious plan for energy
Between the exceptional heatwave and the knock-on impacts of the ongoing illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine, you probably couldn’t pick a more appropriate time for an Energy Bill second reading debate to highlight the scale of the task ahead.
Such new legislation is both necessary and welcome. But for the millions of households facing the catastrophe of soaring energy costs, this bill is a missed opportunity to tackle both the scale of the issue and the wider cost-of-living crisis. A missed opportunity also to bring forward emergency energy efficiency measures and to deliver on green energy – and bring down prices in the short-term. I’m afraid this Bill will do nothing to buck the Conservative’s record of failure on these issues.
There is, however, another issue at hand in that the current Prime Minister (and Cabinet) bringing forward the Bill will have been replaced by the time it gets to Committee stage. And while the selection of Boris Johnson’s successor is some weeks away, candidates are busy putting internal party politics ahead of climate science and the future of our country.
Most of the current Bill is uncontroversial, but it’s little more than a pick and mix of minor steps in the right direction when consumers – and the planet – need an ambitious leap. Parts 1 to 3 and the five relevant Schedules address leveraging investment in clean technologies. That sounds great until you realise that 97 of the 111 clauses (and the schedules) relate to carbon dioxide and hydrogen. The other 14 clauses do relate to new technology, including ten dedicated to low-carbon heat schemes which the Secretary of State ‘may make provision for’. Hardly the green energy sprint!
The next six Parts of the Bill relate to energy system reform and include some interesting ideas. The Future System Operator consultation, published earlier this year, set out what we already knew – that the present approach towards delivering Net Zero is lacking. So, the establishment of an Independent System Operator and Planner (ISOP) for the electricity and gas supply sectors is particularly welcome.
Missing, however, is a real push on energy efficiency. Homes are still being built today that don’t meet minimum standards of efficiency; and will, in time, require significant retrofitting if they are to meet legal standards. (An incoming Labour Government, incidentally, would deliver an energy efficiency revolution to insulate 19 million homes in a decade, cut gas imports by 15%, and cut bills by up to £400.)
As for smart meters, we’ve heard time and again how the rollout is being developed, facilitated, or extended but the provisions in this Bill don’t seem to change anything. Smart meters can put consumers in control, allowing them to adopt energy efficiency measures, save money, and offset price increases. There are also wider benefits, not least in helping reduce a reliance on imported fossil fuels. That is exactly what we need right now, so why are Ministers not mandating the rollout and continuing to dither.
These are just a few of the areas that need to be addressed, and Labour will be looking to do so during the later stages of the Bill should the Government fail to listen at Committee. We know from earlier versions of the Energy Security Strategy that agreement could be reached on several areas, not least onshore wind and solar. Hopefully, the next Prime Minister won’t abandon such ambition in their rush to secure votes from more sceptical party members.
Baroness Judith Blake of Leeds is a Shadow BEIS Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @_judithblake
Published 18th July 2022