Despite what you might read on a placard, the UK has a good record on tackling climate change. There are areas where we need to do more but since the Coalition government came to office in 2010, the UK has led the way among major economies by reducing C02 emissions 50 per cent more than any other G20 country. This was emphasised when the UK went over a week without using coal – the longest period since the industrial revolution. And our C02 emissions per person are at the lowest level since 1858.
This is a record that deserves defending and one that demonstrates that Conservatives need not conform to the coal-guzzling, climate change-denying stereotype from across the Atlantic. However, despite this record the government hasn’t got everything right, and it needs to recognise that there is more it can do to decarbonise the UK and put the individual at the heart of our work to tackle climate change.
We must do this by recognising that the age of the big monolithic energy industry is ending. Whereas in the past the costs of extractive equipment have put home-grown, small-scale energy production well beyond the means of ordinary people; today small-scale renewables are not only possible, but preferable and deliverable. Instead of a market where individuals are on one side of the fence, consuming energy provided by huge energy companies, now those individuals – and their communities – are straddling that fence, playing the role of both producer and consumer – they have become “prosumers”.
Renewables have enabled this new world to come into being. I was recently invited to meet a local community group that had installed something called an Archimedes’ Screw. Slightly uncertain about what I was stepping into, I was relieved to discover this was a small-scale hydro power scheme which is capable of powering 77 local homes, improving the habitat of local fish and eels as well as generating a financial return which will be reinvested into the local community for the next 40 years.
This is a far cry from the old days of big energy companies monopolising the energy sector. It is also a fundamentally conservative principle, a people-powered energy policy which starts small and works within communities and sees the National Grid as a network for individuals to contribute.
However, recent changes to policy have thrown up a huge degree of uncertainty and the government must answer some detailed questions if this potential is to be fulfilled. The renewables industry has grown substantially since 2010, but it remains vulnerable to shifts in policy.
The biggest of these shifts has been the end of the feed-in tariff. This scheme guaranteed payments to those who generate their own electricity – be it through solar, wind or other renewables. This programme saw solar PV installed on nearly a million homes since 2010. It was clearly a huge success and the closure has had a substantial impact on the renewables industry – for instance 30-40 per cent of solar firms are contemplating closure, and international players are leaving the UK market.
That is why MPs from across Parliament are asking for a fair minimum export price for energy sent to the National Gird. This will ensure that prosumers are not ripped off while the industry and any new regulations are implemented. It will also encourage suppliers to get their systems in place in readiness for market-wide, half-hourly settlement, which will help accelerate the smart energy transition.
It is also why I’ve been asking about SMETS 1 meters – the earlier kind of Smart Meter, which are in 17 million homes. They cannot yet relay export data to the Data Communications Company. This limits a prosumer’s ability to get paid for the energy they export to the National Grid.
This certainty, that a fair price would be paid for electricity, would be a shot in the arm for a sector that sorely needs it. The recent announcement by Octopus Energy to offer a Smart Export Guarantee shows it is not unreasonable to expect suppliers to offer a fair payment and that some will without government intervention – this intervention would simply give greater certainty to prosumers.
I look forward to the government’s response to its recent consultation. However, many in the sector need swift action if we are to avoid squandering our past successes. They are teetering on the brink and the certainty an announcement would bring would be hugely beneficial for a sector that not only creates high-skilled jobs but also is central to our fight against climate change.
The government must also look to the future. The opportunities for new technologies to improve our energy sector are numerous. If we can apply machine learning to energy efficiency we can dramatically reduce consumption – in 2016, Google used its Deepmind programme to reduce its own consumption by 40 per cent through machine learning algorithms.
Likewise, there are suggestions that its partnership with the National Grid could improve grid efficiency by up to ten per cent. However, to achieve such efficiencies will require breaking down regulatory barriers and embracing open access data in the energy sector. It may not be in the interests of the public and private monopolies who currently run things, but it is in the interests of both the public and the planet.
If we can combine certainty for the present with innovation and embracing the future, the UK can remain a world leader in renewables and combatting climate change. We can also offer reassurance for the public, who are rightly concerned by the risks of climate change. If we do not take this chance then we will find ourselves dictated to by countries who have stepped up to the task, we can either lead the international consensus, or be led by it but there is no escaping it.