Queen's Speech: New energy policies must not distract from environmental priorities

The Queen’s Speech reflects a shift in energy policy emphasis from low carbon to energy security and economic growth. These don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but, according to the time horizon being considered, one set of policies can distract from the longer-term priorities.

The Government is keen to capitalise on possible new oil and gas resources, though the scale and nature of these is far from certain. Fossil fuels will be a significant part of the UK’s energy system for the next 10-15 years. For as long as they are, allowing domestic production to compete with imports appears sensible – within any environmental boundaries.

However, achieving the longer-term 2050 targets will require new technologies to come forward after 2030, especially for transport and heating. The risk is that by building new and expensive carbon-based energy infrastructure with long payback times, short-term economic growth will take precedence over the climate.

While access to local supplies of oil and gas increases diversity and thus improves security, the prices will be set on an international scale, so domestic shale gas discoveries by themselves don’t necessarily herald cheaper energy in the UK.

For electricity, again the focus is on meeting short-term capacity demands from existing technologies. Subsidies for renewables have always been designed so that they drive down costs to be competitive with conventional generation.

Another factor has come into play, though, which accelerates the removal of such subsidies – an apparent reluctance to build new on-shore turbines. Though public attitude surveys show most of the population is supportive of wind power, there is of course a multiplicity of ‘publics’ and elected governments will always be mindful of ‘their’ constituency.

This must not distract the Government from pursuing alternatives that can meet the needs of peak capacity and base-load – energy storage within local smart systems and nuclear (including small modular reactors) being two examples that we consider to be priorities at the Birmingham Energy Institute.

Notable by its absence is any mention of demand-side measures. The Green Deal has not been successful, but improving energy efficiency is critical to achieving carbon targets and lowering bills. Reducing the energy demand for heating and cooling in particular needs better-designed policy instruments.

It is to be hoped that the Government responds positively and quickly to recommendations from the Committee on Climate Change when it publishes its advice on the 5th Carbon Budget (which runs from 2028-2032) in December.

By the end of this Parliament, there will be little time to turn the super-tanker around.

Dr Jonathan Radcliffe, Senior Research Fellow (Energy Storage), University of Birmingham