8 April 2006

The energy war

By Jacqui McCarney

Shocking… to read government policy papers on energy and housing issues and find them full of good ideas and sound policies. Yes, the 2003 Energy Review, the Energy Act 2004, the Sustainable Construction Strategy, the UK Fuel Poverty Strategy, the Decent Homes initiative, and others, are all full of sound thinking and good intentions.

What is less shocking is to find out that government isn't actually implementing the policies: investment has been low, regulations have been weak and institutional barriers have been left in place. The plans for renovating homes to increase energy efficiency, affordability and halt the decline of the housing stock, remains an immense task and enough isn’t being done.

Our housing is in an appalling state. So is our energy system. We waste vast amounts of energy in our homes and from our power stations. We have one of the oldest and least energy efficient housing stocks in Europe and our Power stations waste two thirds of their energy through heat loss and transportation. A major study by Oxford's Environmental Change Institute concluded that, despite fine policy intentions, implementation has been "inadequate to the scale and urgency of the task". The costs may be high, but the benefits in terms of cutting waste and fuel bills would be immense. A large investment in building and renewable technologies will also generate many jobs, skills and training opportunities.

The government strategy of improving homes and increasing the uptake of renewable energy and micro-generation was the right one. Policy paper after policy paper points toward renovation of buildings to improve insulation and energy conservation to solve many problems: fuel poverty, energy insecurity, low-grade housing, CO2 emissions and others. Decentralising energy systems with local combined heat and power systems (CHP) and microgeneration (photo-voltaics and wind power) are an integral part of the strategy, and proved where its done.

Woking Borough Council in Surrey reduced CO2emissions from their own buildings by an astonishing 77%, reduced energy consumption by 40% and has it's own decentralised grid running from a combined heat and power generation system backed up by renewables.

Decentralised systems of power supply are cleaner, cut wastage and reduce dependency on imported fuel, solving many of the energy problems identified by government. Yet studies show that the government has failed to support its own strategy to make the technology affordable and increase its uptake. Even basic changes to regulation that could make a significant difference have not been made.

We are now being told that we face an energy crisis and that we need another energy review to find our way out. This is strange for anyone who has been aware of the energy crisis for many years. We have seen all the studies and reviews consistently come up with the same policy solutions of increasing energy efficiency and supporting renewals. So why isn't the strategy being implemented and why are we looking for new policy solutions?

A recently leaked document from this summer's St Petersburg G8 summit preparations reveals that the energy crisis is going to be high on the agenda. At the top of the list of ideas for dealing with the energy crisis is "promoting adequate and reliable long-term oil and gas supply to global markets". This is because gas and oil supplies come from volatile and unpredictable regions of the world. Increasing supply of oil and gas, by building more pipelines apparently, will therefore help our security, in the short run at least.

Conversely, increasing the availability of oil and gas could be seen as about the most stupid course of action possible. The choices are becoming quite stark. Cut our energy use substantially, as soon as possible, and move away from dependency on uncertain foreign supplies, or, carry on, increase the supply, put off the necessary changes that we need to make, and wait for the giant energy crisis of the future.

The policy war between the G8 solution and the sustainable solution is underway right now in the form of the DTI public consultation on the 'energy challenge' - this will outline future government policy. There are just a few days to make a submission - add your voice to those of the many campaign groups putting the case for sustainable energy solutions. Also, press MPs to fight for properly funded energy conservation measures and decentralised supply systems. If we don’t we may find that our energy policy is determined, not by us or even by our government, but by the US, Russia, Japan, France, Italy, Canada, Germany and Tony Blair.

I am indebted to Liam Carroll for help with this column.