Power games

BryonyW4x3.jpgBryony Worthington on the Coalition’s misleading sleight of hand with the Energy Bill

The Lords Committee stage of the Energy Bill begins today, with the government facing a key question: are the measures contained in the bill going to be sufficient to restart investment in Britain’s energy infrastructure? 

Responding to some over-hyped claims that the lights are in imminent danger of going out, Ministers have been busy reassuring the public that this isn’t the case while attempting also to lay the blame for under-investment at Labour’s feet. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Under the last government, 26GW of new capacity was added to the system. Since the Coalition came into office, virtually all investment has ground to a halt. They have pulled the rug out from under renewables and high gas prices have deterred investment in new plant. The Energy Bill is their best effort at trying to reverse the situation but mixed messages from different Departments and Ministers are causing confusion. The Chancellor believes low carbon concerns should play second fiddle to a new dash for gas – the high prices somehow failing to penetrate his consciousness; the Environment Secretary doesn’t believe climate change is real; and the part-time Energy Minister has dismissed it as a question of ‘theology’. 

With two energy strategies now being played out, is it any wonder investors want legal reassurances before they commit millions to establishing supply chain business in the UK? That is why these investors and a host of other stakeholders (over 200 organisations) have asked for a clear signal that low carbon investment will continue to be supported post-2020 by including a carbon intensity target for electricity in the legislation. 

Pressure during the Commons stages has led to the addition of new clauses. Ministers however, must think investors are daft, since even a cursory reading reveals these clauses don’t set a target. On the contrary, they prevent one from being set – pushing the issue back until after the election, and even then leaving it to the discretion of the Secretary of State.

It is all clearly a ruse and one that will I hope be further smoked out. From the government’s replies to date, the fact that a target ‘may’ be set rather than ‘must’ is indefensible. If, as they argue, it is not about whether to set a target but when and according to what process, why the discretion? Some LibDem Peers are backing a Crossbench/Labour amendment to change this. Good for them – although it is actually their party policy. Something they might want to remind many of their colleagues in the Commons about.

We will also continue to press for the setting of a target as early as possible. The potential to significantly reduce the carbon intensity of our electricity system is already there. The Committee on Climate Change has shown that if all the existing plant were run according to how polluting they were, with the cleanest being despatched first, we could knock around 200g/kwh off the current 530g/kwh total. And it could be done almost overnight without having to build a single new power source. Having achieved that, the progress towards 50-100g/kwh could be delivered through the deployment of the cheapest and most appropriate low carbon power throughout the 2020s.

President Obama recently said that the Republican Party’s scaremongering about the costs of addressing climate change was based on an assumption that the nation’s industrialists, engineers and financiers would fail to find solutions. The same is true of the Conservative Party here. They just can’t conceive the possibility of a fresh wave of investment in new technology, delivering a robust, environmentally sound energy system, fit for the 21st Century. 

But where the Tories fear failure, Labour sees acting decisively now as a guarantee of success. We are the only Party taking this issue seriously, and we do not want our hands tied behind our backs by this legislation. Ministers should be ashamed at having tried to pull off a misleading sleight of hand and we will push for further amendments to this Bill to ensure Britain’s investment in a low carbon future. 

Baroness Bryony Worthington is Shadow Energy and Climate Change Minister in the Lords

Published 2nd July 2013

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