Mike Dolley is former Deputy Director of Campaigning at CCHQ. He now runs Middlemarch Communications.
The weekend intervention in the renewable energy debate by UN scientist Jacquie McGlade may not be viewed entirely positively by those keen to dismiss it as yet another international bureaucracy seeking to stick its nose into Britain’s internal affairs. But she is at least British born and educated so hopefully her objectivity will be acknowledged.
If some newspaper reports are correct, we are about to face one of the longest and coldest winters for 50 years. With that comes a chance that we could see businesses forced to shut down to maintain our national grid supply and keep the lights on. In the sixth largest economy in the world, the damage to both our productivity and our international credibility would be devastating.
Let me declare an interest. In my commercial life I have represented clients in both the onshore wind turbine and solar farm sectors. Whilst neither is universally popular, they are significant industries with a role to play in addressing our on-going national energy need. And at a time when we are witnessing devastating job losses in the steel industry, it’s worth noting that the impact of Government legislation on the wind industry alone may well cost the best part of 10,000 jobs across the country – many of them high-tech and many in my adopted West Country home.
I have been blunt with my clients, telling them that their industry has contributed to its own demise with a reputation for un-coordinated, sporadic applications and a subsidy-chasing obsession. They have made themselves an easy target for their detractors. But as ever in life, a collection of wrongs doesn’t by definition make a right. As a nation we need to stop and think about where we are going energy-wise and how ultimately stupid we may be to so readily kill a renewables sector that had become the envy of the world. The demonstrable public willingness to buy into small scale schemes that benefit people personally should be celebrated as a success rather than being put to the sword by legislation.
Oil is cheaper than it has been for many years. Hovering around the $50 per barrel figure, Brent crude is just 40 per cent of the price it peaked at 3 years ago. That in itself of course threatens the viability of the very industry on which we place so much reliance, as job cuts and loss of confidence in Europe’s oil capital, Aberdeen, bear testimony. We have even witnessed the ludicrous spectacle of oil industry representatives demanding that they, too, should be added to the Government’s energy subsidy list. But oil won’t be $50 a barrel forever, as the peaks and troughs of a very volatile graph demonstrate. When it’s back over $100 a barrel we may well regret our willingness to take an axe to our renewables industry.
Volatility isn’t limited to oil price graphs. As commentators remind us every day, we live in a hugely volatile world. What on earth are we doing contributing to our own energy supply shortfall? I live 15 miles from Hinkley as the crow (or seagull) flies across Bridgwater Bay, and I’m delighted that it is to be recommissioned. We need a mix of energy sources and nuclear has a huge part to play. But latest estimates suggest that the French (yes, French) operators EDF may not have the facility online for perhaps ten (yes, ten) years. Many of the solar developers I’ve worked with can build and connect their farms in just ten weeks. And they can be removed just as quickly.
Over the ten years while we wait for Hinkley and other new generation plants to come on stream, that world volatility level just keeps rising. Wander into the village pub and ask who people see as the main architects of that volatility, and after ISIS and the (oil producing) Middle East problems you pretty quickly get to Mr Putin and of course the Chinese. ISIS are now financing their evil works with revenues from captured oil fields (one of the many reasons why other major oil producers are slashing prices). Mr Putin has the West by the throat as the world’s biggest producer of natural gas. In common with many, I struggle to see how it can make sense to involve the Chinese in the funding of our nuclear industry. Aren’t these the same Chinese we are currently engaged in cyber-war with?
It’s time for some rather more imaginative and less dogmatic thinking. Wind turbines aren’t by definition bad. It’s where they’re sited that matters. So, for example, locating a series of turbines around the port of Bristol makes eminent sense. And there are a multitude of other locations where they can be equally compatible, many in brown field former industrial sites. Solar offers even more scope for positive Government intervention. Why not link it to the planning process by making the incorporation of solar schemes into major new developments a planning requirement? The next time a major online retailer wants to build a huge distribution complex, why aren’t they told that energy self-sufficiency is a planning condition? And technology is moving in renewables’ favour. Battery storage technology is coming on leaps and bounds and we could learn much from, for example, the Germans in terms of developing highly flexible national grids that can switch from power source to power source as supply conditions change. That same flexibility may at some stage link into fracking proposals as well.
One of the many advantages of electing a Government within an overall majority should be a move away from short-term populism and a willingness to take thought through decisions that best serve our needs as a nation. Right now I’m struggling to see how the Government’s energy policy secures either our national power supply, or that self same national interest. We always recite the mantra that defence of the realm is the first duty of Government. Security of energy supply is fundamental to that defence.