James Heappey is MP for Wells.
Donald Trump’s ambivalence about the Paris Climate Deal has given great encouragement to those who want to stick it to the green lobby. I would just call for a little caution.
In my view, there are six networks that drive productivity: road, rail, airports, broadband, mobile phones – and energy. If we have to watch the buffering sign on iPlayer for a few seconds we go nuts: so too if there isn’t 4G for a stop or two on the journey home, or if the train is over-crowded, roads jammed or flying to somewhere obvious requires a change of planes in Dubai. In those five networks, we take the need for innovation as read. We demand investment and the productivity gains are obvious. But for our energy system, we accept being stuck in the 1980s even if it means a market that doesn’t really work, leads to high prices and sometimes insufficient supply.
The reason is obvious. The other networks bring a user experience, whereas energy is either there or it isn’t. For most of us, it’s switch flicked, light on – job done. Then bill received, eyebrow raised, grudgingly paid. Most of us don’t give a second thought to where our energy came from, and we can’t be bothered to change our supplier to find a cheaper price. Only for the finance directors of businesses or for those living in fuel poverty does energy really mean something more.
Their experiences, though, are something that we can all learn from. Many businesses, from the very largest energy intensive industries to the small warehouse-based company on the edge of town, have invested in onsite renewables to lower their energy costs. They’re looking at investing in energy storage to insulate themselves from peak prices, and they’re signing up for demand management contracts to claw back cash for un-needed energy. They’re electrifying their fleet of vehicles, and they’re switching to LED lighting and more energy efficient equipment. They’re even looking at how to sell their waste heat to neighbouring homes and businesses. The green lobby may want to think that they’re doing that to arrest global warming – but they’re not. They’re doing it to cut costs, increase productivity and boost their profits.
Many of those living in fuel poverty also live in social or affordable housing. The owners of those properties are investing in better insulation, more efficient boilers and smart meters so even before any improvements to the energy system, costs are more predictable and lower. Many housing associations and councils are going further – installing combined heat and power plants, district heating networks and their own onsite renewables. At one such scheme in Hackney, I met a man living in a tower block for whom energy bills had been a real worry. But since the council installed a combined heat and power plant in the basement and then heat networked the whole block, he’d heated his flat for an entire winter for a fraction of what it cost the previous year. Again, the green lobby might like to claim that these councils and housing associations are striving to save the planet but, again, they’re not. They’re doing it to be more entrepreneurial – there’s money to be made in selling energy, even on the cheap – and they’re doing it to be more socially just.
In the not too distant future, more and more of us will be tempted to buy an electric car to protect ourselves from the inexorable rise in petrol prices. When we’re buying new white goods or home electronics, we’ll probably buy something that is smart and Internet-of-Things enabled – meaning that, whilst you will notice your fridge ordering whatever needs replacing directly from Tesco, you won’t notice until the energy bill arrives at the end of the month that it’s also been shifting your energy demand to take advantage of the cheapest energy costs. We might also put a few solar panels on our roof, maybe some batteries in the loft, or perhaps do none of those things ourselves but wonder why we can’t buy our energy from the local school, farmer or business that has. That smart, digitised, decentralised and dynamic energy system is more resilient, it empowers consumers and it will mean cheaper bills – because supply and demand curves are being flattened whilst marginal costs for generation and the fixed costs of transmission are being reduced. The green lobby would love to believe that we’re all embracing a low carbon future, but we’re not. We’re embracing progress.
Then there are parts of the world where there still isn’t an energy network, and life chances are limited and economic growth potential is depressed. Some of these renewable technologies are the answer there. And across the developed world, there are businesses and communities tyring to use clean technologies to bring down costs and provide greater security of supply. The UK could choose to be a world leader in developing those technologies and dominating the global export market that follows. The green lobby will say that it’s our mission to spread the green vision around the world ,but its not. It’s just too good an export opportunity to miss.
It doesn’t matter to me whether we are motivated by saving the planet, maximising profit, being more socially just, embracing progress, seeking exports – or any of the myriad more reasons besides. But as the political pendulum threatens to swing away from action on climate change, we should remember that renewing our energy system achieves a lot more than decarbonisation.