The next 20 years, starting now, will see colossal investment in overhauling Britain’s ageing electricity infrastructure, as old coal and nuclear power stations are closed, and the grid gets updated. A vote in Parliament this week on a clean power target amendment to the government’s Energy Bill will determine what sorts of new kit we will get.
The battle lines are drawn over competing visions of the future. A fossil-fuelled, Treasury and George Osborne future, involving tripling the amount of electricity we get from gas, or a low-carbon future, involving ramping up the power we get from Britain’s near-limitless resources from the waves, water, wind, tides and sun.
At stake are living standards, jobs and the economy, and climate change. Domestic fuel bills will soar if we stay chained to volatile global gas prices - it is spiralling gas price rises which have been responsible for the majority of people’s electricity and gas bill rises in the last decade. The independent committee on climate change’s analysis shows that Osborne’s dash-for-gas will cost bill payers £25bn more in the 2020s than developing low-carbon energy. At a time of squeezed living standards, households are handing over larger and larger shares of their income to the big six energy companies. Only a massive programme of energy efficiency that gets the UK off the fossil fuel hook can protect ordinary people.
There are hundreds of thousands of jobs in the green economy, one of the few sectors to grow in recession-hit Britain. But its future is uncertain. A huge coalition of more than 200 leading businesses, energy investors, trade unions and charities, including household names like Asda and Microsoft, as well as leading manufacturers like Siemens, Mitsubishi, Alstom, are saying a decarbonisation target in the Energy Bill is essential to give companies the confidence to invest in low carbon energy and the supply chains to build it.
If Osborne gets his way, there is no question that the UK will breach its legally binding climate change targets. The difference between the Chancellor's vision and low-carbon power is staggering. Osborne’s plans involve increasing the amount of gas-power in the 2020s to the equivalent of over 30 new gas power plants. This amounts to over 500 million extra tonnes of carbon dioxide: equivalent to every car and taxi on the road for eight years, or every flight for 16 years.
Where will Osborne’s gas come from? North Sea gas reserves are falling fast. So we can either massively increase our energy dependence on gas imports from countries like Qatar, or we can try and plug the gap with shale gas – but for that to provide more than a fraction of our needs we would need thousands of wells across the country. Both these options look like political poison. A recent article on ConservativeHome, "The right-wing consensus on shale gas is about to be blown apart", concluded: "shale gas must also have a huge physical presence across large swathes of rural England. .. it will have political consequences – bigger than wind farms, bigger than HS2 and bigger, even, than greenfield housing development".
All economies need to get off fossil fuels and fast. Electricity is the place to start. MPs get to decide this Tuesday. Nearly 300 MPs from across all parties back the decarbonisation target. The vote will be close. Full turn-out from Labour (who back the target), and a few more Conservative and Liberal Democrats (whose policy it is to support the target but whose leadership is currently siding with Osborne) will help put the UK at the forefront of a clean energy revolution. As Sir John Ashton, the UK’s former climate change envoy said this month: "I can’t myself see how any MP who votes against the target will thereafter be able credibly to claim that they support an effective response to climate change".
Simon Bullock is senior campaigner on climate change at Friends of the Earth