Ed Miliband’s promise to freeze energy prices for 20 months if Labour wins the 2015 election has put the ‘Big Six’ energy companies in a tailspin, with industry spokesmen claiming the policy would lead to “blackouts” and job losses.
They are all being somewhat economical with the truth. While the government’s energy policies are in utter disarray, what Labour has on the table is hardly much better, and unlikely to support Miliband’s grand promises unless he backs his words with policy gumption.
Although shadow chancellor Ed Balls gave a heart-warming speech to the Green Alliance this July promising to “end the current uncertainty” around renewables by putting low-carbon future at the centre of policy, this obfuscated the fact that Labour has not closed the door on fracking. Last December, shadow energy secretary Caroline Flint, said: “Fracking should only go ahead if it is shown to be safe and environmentally sound.”
This was made even clearer by Tom Greatrex MP, Scottish Labour’s shadow energy minister, writing in the Guardian this Tuesday:
“…. it is unrealistic to suggest renewable energy alone can deliver all of our energy needs in the medium term. The UK will still need significant amounts of gas – both for peaking electricity capacity in the medium term, and to account for the 80% of our heating that currently relies on the fuel.”
Greatrex sets out a compelling argument for why the coalition government’s incoherent energy policy is wrongly trumping up indigenous shale gas as the number one win-win solution for the UK, while undermining efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But ultimately, like his party, he is confused. While rightly recognising that the government should “prioritise the development of predictable renewable technologies”, he also throws in the ephemeral non-solution of “carbon capture and storage” – in other words, keep burning coal and other fossil fuels, but don’t worry, as we will store the carbon.
The problem is that despite much industry hype, carbon capture and storage has never been proven on a commercial industrial scale, is unlikely to be able to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and if implemented could entail a pipeline infrastructure even more energy intensive and environmentally problematic than the extant fossil fuel system.
Greatrex is right to point out the absurdity of energy minister Ed Davey’s opposition to the government’s own professed (but defunct) target for full decarbonisation of the power sector by 2030. But dismissing the potential for renewable energy, and insisting on the need for shale gas, is questionable and contradicts scientific advice from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the statutory body advising ministers on ways to meet emissions targets.
In May this year, a report by the Committee found that investing in renewable energy, as opposed to a new ‘dash for gas’, would be the cheapest option for keeping the lights on while cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Investing in renewable energy was the best option even if shale gas prices were relatively low. The report identified “a clear benefit in committing to invest in low-carbon generation over the next two decades”, rather than “an alternative strategy of investing in gas-fired generation through the 2020s and delaying investment in low-carbon technologies.”
In other words, we don’t need shale gas to keep the lights on. Renewables can not just keep the lights on, they can keep them cheap, and perhaps therefore back-up a proposed price freeze. But it seems, politicians and ministers are not interested in listening to the independent scientific advice that they themselves are commissioning with taxpayer’s money. And it is no surprise that the “less than kosher” ‘Big Six’ are balking at the prospect that fossil fuel-centric price projections in coming decades – potentially feeding escalating mega-profits at the expense of consumers – might not come to pass.
The fact is that a transition to a 100% renewable energy system in the UK, if not the world, is perfectly possible with the political will according to numerous studies.
In 2010, the renewable energy company Good Energy mapped out a pathway for a 100% renewable energy future within the next four decades. The following year, this vision was vindicated by another report by independent energy consulting firm Ecofys, concluding that a global transition to a 100% renewable energy infrastructure was feasible by 2050 if combined with efforts to increase energy efficiency and reduce waste.
Just looking at one set of renewable energy sources – offshore wind, wave and tidal – illustrates this plainly. The UK government’s own Offshore Valuation Report from 2010 prepared in collaboration with industry found that just by using 29% of the UK’s offshore resources, by 2050 the UK could become a net exporter of electricity, creating 145,000 jobs and generating £62 billion revenue annually. By upping this to 76%, in the same period the UK could become a net energy producer earning £164 billion annually.
And this does not even touch the potential of solar, geothermal and other renewables inland, with costs of production and installation dramatically falling to a point where it is beginning to compete with conventional energy, low-cost storage capacity dramatically increasing, and grid parity just around the corner.
With none of the three main political parties showing any interest in adopting such an obviously beneficial strategy (win on consumer costs, win on energy independence, win on economic prosperity), the public must now demand a cessation of petty electioneering and political point-scoring, and a real plan to solve Britain’s looming energy challenges.
So if Miliband wants to freeze energy prices in 2015, he needs to start by fixing Labour’s fundamentally broken energy policies first. Until then, his seemingly bold promise amounts to the same stale brand of empty rhetoric touted by the incompetent incumbents he opposes.
Dr Nafeez Ahmed is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development and author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save It among other books. Follow him on Twitter @nafeezahmed