Miliband's challenge: can you freeze energy bills and cut carbon at the same time?

The Labour leader may need to move some of the cost of energy efficiency schemes from consumer bills to taxation.

Ed Miliband has made a seemingly impossible promise. Energy bills will be frozen while the UK invests billions to stop burning gas and coal for power. What was he thinking? Implementing his plan may be more radical than it seems.

For years the established energy mantra has been "choose your poison". Bills can go up with rising gas prices or the cost of new wind-farms, but either way, they’ll go up. As the prediction has morphed into reality politicians have tried to find a way out.

Fracking - it’s said - will flood the market with cheap gas or energy efficiency will be so effective, so quickly, that households won’t even notice the extra costs. Neither idea currently looks like it will work.In a recent submission to Parliament, Bloomberg argued UK shale gas would cost about what we currently pay - just to get it out of the ground. And if what you are trying to do is cut global carbon emissions, fracking seems an odd way to go about it given that shale gas is a fossil fuel that releases carbon pollution when burned.

Officially, at least, the government still thinks home insulation will mean bills are lower in 2020 than they are now. Yet that can only happen if households have spent to insulate their homes (or consumers have been charged through their bills to subsidise it). The Green Deal was meant to square that circle, but it is manifestly not (yet) working.

Underlying the seemingly intractable problem is a silent assumption that all the costs of energy policy should be paid for almost entirely through bills, at market rates, with the help of the big six. It’s hard to freeze bills and invest billions if you insist that every cost you impose must be passed directly on to the consumer at rates of interest higher than the average mortgage.

It’s especially difficult if you insist on putting implementation for your policies into the hands of an group of firms who have very little to gain but much to lose if things go wrong. And it’s almost impossible if consumers don’t see any way of sharing in the profits on the investments they are paying for. These assumptions have their own logic, but it isn’t about freezing bills. If Miliband wants to fulfil his promise, it’s that set of assumptions he may have to break.

Some of the costs levied on bills go straight to the Treasury. The government’s Carbon Price Floor, for example, drives up the cost of power, supposedly in a (so far unsuccessful) attempt to make coal more expensive than gas. It’s expected to raise around £2bn for the Treasury by 2017, and more after that. But, if you are committed to cutting carbon out of the energy mix, a carbon tax on power plants is hardly a long term deficit fix.

Miliband could scrap it - replacing it with regulation to phase out carbon emissions from coal plants. Or he could use the money to pay for efficiency schemes - or simply to give every household a flat rebate on their bills.

More controversial would be measures which effectively move some of the cost to taxation, rather than bills, arguably a fairer way to pay for new infrastructure since it would enable the government to protect the most vulnerable people in society such as the fuel poor. The main way to do this would be to underwrite loans at low rates of interest - something the Germans already do. Loans for the government’s Green Deal energy efficiency scheme start at around 6 or 7%.

Reducing them to something closer to inflation would cut the cost to households and reduce the need to subsidise insulation measures through bills. The same logic applies to investments in clean energy.The cost of borrowing money helps determine how much consumers pay for the power but right now it can be too high, partly because investors worry about the government changing its mind.

Instead of paying investors to make up for their uncertainty the government could take on more of the risk itself (through the Green Investment Bank, for example) reducing the cost of borrowing and encouraging stability in energy policy. And just as we currently use taxpayer money to fund roads the treasury could invest in a new north sea grid which could benefit the whole economy and lower the costs of energy.

R&D and the development of new heat and sea based technologies could also come from taxation. The investment is relatively small and doesn’t just benefit bill payers - if they work - the technologies could provide exports for the whole economy, indeed we already fund renewable heat this way.

But cutting costs can’t just be about taking risk away from the private sector, or switching the burden away from bills. It could also be about challenging the perceived monopoly of the big six utilities and institutional investors by encouraging the UK’s regions and individuals to invest in its new energy infrastructure. By comparison, in Germany most of the investment in clean energy comes from individuals and local authorities and not the transnational energy giants. This needn’t be just about village based community projects. Why shouldn’t the City of Newcastle, for example, be an investor in the wind farm which provides it with power and jobs? Some policies are there - but not the funding.

Local projects, backed by residents through crowd-sourcing schemes, cooperatives or local authorities may also face fewer delays, driving down costs. And if local authorities, communities or individuals invest in clean energy then the returns go back to those communities - opening up the potential for the money to be used to cut bills further.

New entrants may be particularly important if the existing energy retailers become reluctant investors as a result of policies to freeze bills. In the short-term, a spike in the price of gas - due to war overseas, for example - will put pressure on energy firms to push up bills.

A two year freeze may be possible - by forcing firms to buy more of their gas on long term contracts. The main risk, for companies, would be that their customers switch away - but the industry isn’t exactly known for it’s fast customer turnaround. Labour has also suggested the cap may be moved in the event of extreme events like a war.

More storage, greater European regulation of the market, and moves to split firms up so they don’t buy and sell gas from themselves may help - as would the very retro and highly unlikely notion of state support at times of price spikes. Whilst gas is a big part of our energy mix action, these measures may keep prices stable on average - but the ride will be bumpy - both up and down. Ultimately, freezing bills probably means not just changing how we fund our energy infrastructure but changing what we use to generate the power and the heat we need.

Damian Kahya is editor of Greenpeace Energydesk

Ed Miliband gives a radio interview next to a giant ice cube representing Labour's energy price freeze at the party's conference in Brighton last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Damian Kahya is editor of Greenpeace Energydesk

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General election 2017: Why don't voters get more angry about public spending cuts?

In 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts. By 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. What happened?

The shape of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s pitch to the country is clear. The overarching theme is a “rigged” system, a Bernie Sanders style anti-establishment campaign. 

This started with a clear economic focus, but will build out to public services and state support more generally: first, the switch to under-funded schools, and we’ll soon see the NHS emerge as the primary target. As the shadow Health secretary Jon Ashworth said, Labour believes the public has reached a “tipping point” in their concern about waiting lists and accident and emergency services.

And this focus makes perfect sense for Labour. It just won’t work as well as they might hope.

Why does it make sense? Firstly because there is record pessimism about the future of the NHS. Our poll from March showed that 62 per cent of those surveyed expect the NHS to get worse in the next five years, the highest we’ve measured – and by far the most negative outlook for any public service.

It also makes sense because this is one the very few important issues where Labour has a lead over the Conservatives. In our monthly issues index for February, more than half of voters said it was one of the most important issues facing the country, the highest level since 2002. And it’s always in the top three issues that people say determine their vote.

And Labour still have a lead on the NHS: 36 per cent say they have the best policies of all the parties, with the Conservatives on just 23 per cent.

So why will it not work well for Labour? 

First, Labour’s lead on the issue is nothing like it was, even in the relatively recent past. In 2012, 46 per cent thought Labour were the best party for the NHS, and only 16 per cent thought the Conservatives were. In previous decades, Labour was up above 50 per cent at various points. They’ve lost a lot of ground as the originator and defender of the NHS.

Second, while Corbyn is right to claim that issues like public services have more day-to-day impact on people, our relationship with Europe is uniquely dominant right now. Outside a major political upheaval like Brexit or an economic meltdown, there is no doubt that the NHS would have topped concerns over the winter, as we’ve seen it do many times before. We have a special relationship with the NHS, and when we feel it’s under threat it can trump all other concerns - as in the early 2000s, when more than 70 per cent said it was the key national issue. But instead, Brexit tops the list right, with the EU higher in people’s minds than at any point since we started asking the question in 1974.

In any case, it’s not even clear that a real tipping point has been reached in our health care concerns. While our worry for the future is extremely high, current satisfaction and overall ratings are still high, and not declining that much. This is shown across lots of surveys of individual health services: ratings are slipping, but slowly. And this is brought home by international comparisons – we’re the most worried about the future of our health service out of 23 countries, but we’re also among the most satisfied currently. We’re a country-level example of the “worried well”.

And this leads to a fourth point – expectations of public services seem to be shifting. The narrative of the necessity of spending cuts is so firmly embedded now that expectations of the level of service we can afford as a country may have moved for the long-term.

We asked in 2012 what percentage of planned spending cuts people thought had been made. Of course, this is an impossible question to answer definitively, but it is a useful gauge of how long a road people think we have ahead. Back then, people thought 40 per cent of planned cuts had already happened. Now, five years later, we think it’s still just 37 per cent. The idea of semi-permanent austerity has taken hold.

Of course, this could still provide a key leverage point for Labour, if people think there is a way to avoid this future. But the key point is that the cuts are not biting at a personal level for large proportions of the population, rather they are concentrated among quite a small proportion of people. So, back in 2012, 32 per cent said they had been affected by cuts to public services – by 2017 this had actually declined to 26 per cent. No cumulative, growing resentment at the personal impact of cuts - in fact, the opposite. 

And similarly, back in 2012, 61 per cent were concerned about the impact of future cuts on them and their families. But by 2017 this was down to 45 per cent. 

We are constantly scanning for the “tipping point” that the Labour MP Jon Ashworth has identified. It may come suddenly, and if it comes it seems most likely it will be the NHS that shifts the balance. But there’s no sign yet, and that makes Labour’s message that much more difficult to land. 

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