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We’re in an energy crisis. We can’t wait for Rishi Sunak any more

The UK’s desperately needed energy security statement has been delayed while the world burns and millions are plunged into poverty

Alice Bell
30 March 2022, 12.01pm
Onshore wind remains a particular sticking point for parts of the Conservative Party
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incamerastock / Alamy Stock Photo

Millions are about to be plunged into poverty by spiralling gas prices, there are alarming heat waves at both ends of the planet – and the UK government is still fighting with itself over energy policy.

The government has promised an ‘energy security statement’, which will reportedly not only help the nation through some short-term crises, but could herald a major shake-up in energy policy. It could deal with some long-lingering challenges of decarbonising at speed, in a way that’ll keep the lights on and avoid leaving anyone in the cold.

Yet on Sunday night, news broke that, after weeks of waiting, the chancellor had triggered a further delay to this statement, to give him more time “to engage” with the details. We’re told we should wait at least another week. It might well be the other side of Easter. There has been tantalising talk of tripling the number of solar panels, quadrupling offshore wind power and doubling onshore wind and nuclear energy by 2030, but still little commitment.

Perhaps it's only appropriate that Sunak takes his time. It’s easy to see why the chancellor wants to give Boris ‘Garden Bridge’ Johnson’s enthusiasm for nuclear full scrutiny, for example. If we’re serious about energy demand reduction, we’re going to have to retrofit homes at the rate of about one a minute for the next 30 years. These aren’t decisions to make lightly.

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But it’s also understandable that energy campaigners feel frustrated by yet more delays. It’s not the first time we’ve been left on hold. Cold homes in the UK have been a public health scandal for years. Then-chancellor Nigel Lawson was scrawling red ink over Thatcher’s climate speeches in the 1980s. Surely, by 2022, we could expect politicians to be up to speed and ready to take action. One could describe their progress as ‘glacial’, but part of the problem is that glaciers are moving a lot faster than they used to – and policymakers really need to catch up.

In all of this, onshore wind remains a particular sticking point for parts of the Conservative Party. The roots of these can be traced back to the mid-2010s, when the party stuck a pledge to halt the spread of onshore wind in its 2015 election manifesto. David Cameron claimed the public was “fed up” with wind farms. This was key to justifying the policy. It was also fake news.

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Public attitudes to energy tech are important, so the government regularly polls on the topic, which has revealed that onshore wind is very, very popular. The chancellor – or, really, any politician – would kill for onshore wind’s approval ratings. It’s hardly surprising: onshore wind is a great British invention, it’s totemic for a bright, green future. That's why politicians love being photographed with fields of turbines behind them. Honestly, it’s kind of weird Cameron took against them. But the message that something is unpopular can be powerful. The public themselves started to believe it. So did journalists, other politicians, even some campaigners.

After that 2015 election, in among fights over the Brexit referendum, Cameron’s government removed financial support and shifted English planning regulations to make it extremely difficult for onshore wind projects to get the go-ahead. And it worked. Applications for wind projects plummeted and the construction pipeline slowed to a trickle.

Climate campaigners – including the organisation where I work, Possible – fought back. In recent months, we’ve seen a shift in the core idea that onshore wind is unpopular, with commentators such as Robert Colvile noting its relative political palatability and the economic opportunities to be made. We’ve had incremental wins along the way, stopping the ban from being entrenched in the national planning policy framework, for example, and a letter to Boris Johnson signed by 150 MPs, including 36 Conservatives (six of whom had initially signed an anti-wind letter to Cameron in 2012).

Even before the latest crisis in energy policy, the fact we weren’t making the most of home-grown renewables looked more and more ridiculous, and we were expecting to see more space for the development of onshore renewables in the coming year. The present circumstances just brought things to a head.

And yet, as the discussions around the energy security statement continue, we see media reports that parts of the cabinet still think onshore wind is unpopular – uneconomic, even (when, over in reality, gas costs six times as much as new wind or solar).

Cuts to green policies made under Cameron cost each household in England around £150 a year

Why is this fake news so persistent? Sunak reportedly has a picture of Nigel Lawson, these days a notable climate sceptic, behind his desk, which might provide some clue. It’s also true that there are groups opposed to onshore wind who, however marginal, are good at making their complaints known. Where forces of disinformation or simple selective reading are actively at work (and we can throw theories back and forth about how true this is), they can find resources in these groups, just as climate denier movements could draw on marginal voices sceptical of climate change.

The decades of foot-dragging and obstruction on renewable energy policy have arguably only provided more opportunities for the climate denier and delayer camps. If onshore wind had been able to grow more naturally, with a mix of small and medium, locally owned and controlled projects, as well as larger ones led by multinationals, the public would have had a chance to engage more with the technology, to learn and question it in productive ways, and to have more control over it. But, despite public engagement with climate action being a core part of international pledges on climate action since the 1990s, whole sections of the UK public have been given little opportunity to play a role in decarbonisation policy and now, perhaps understandably, occasionally feel alienated by it.

Troublingly, solar increasingly offers another example of this problem. Before then chancellor George Osborne’s drastic cuts to solar in 2015, community solar groups were growing up and down the country and individual homeowners took advantage of the feed-in tariff. Since the cuts, it’s hard to get anything other than a massive solar development running. These might be impressive from a financial and carbon-cutting point of view – and they're a vital part of the puzzle – but, understandably, local communities have questions about what a large development might do to their local area and who is in control of the changes, who benefits and who’ll take any risk. Projects like Solar Schools (which Possible ran until the solar cuts killed the idea off) would have provided spaces to productively have those sorts of conversations with local communities, for people to learn more about green tech and have a stake in its deployment, but sadly they’ve all but died out.

There are huge costs to this continued delay, and to the further delay the current setup leaves us open to. Cuts to green policies made under Cameron cost each household in England around £150 a year. When the energy security statement does finally emerge, I’m hoping we’ll see new opportunities not just for the deployment of renewables at scale, but ways to better involve and engage UK communities too. Otherwise, we risk it simply rebounding and being dragged into yet more decades of delay.

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