Ed Davey: 'UK must take Vladimir Putin's energy threat more seriously'


Environment editor

Britain and the rest of the world must take President Putin’s aggression “much more seriously” because Russia’s belligerence poses a severe threat to Europe’s energy security, the Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary Ed Davey warns today.

In a forthright interview with The Independent, Mr Davey said Putin’s threats to turn off the gas pipeline to the Ukraine jeopardized supplies across Europe which could push up prices in Britain and hurt our economy.

Furthermore, the energy secretary criticised Tory attempts to limit onshore wind power as an “unwise” policy that would raise prices and put further pressure on Britain energy security in the face of Putin’s growing hostility to neighbouring countries.

“The UK, Europe and the world needs to take Putin’s aggression much more seriously. I think it’s of sufficient concern that we need to plan seriously and deeply with our partners – with the Americans, the Japanese and with our European and international partners,” Mr Davey said.

Mr Davey will meet energy ministers from the G7 group of leading economies in Rome on 5 and 6 May, where he will push for “an ambitious package of measures to improve the energy security of Europe as a whole and to improve our resilience to any impact from Russia”.

The ministers will examine how best to safeguard gas supplies and how to decrease demand for power by improving energy efficiency. They will also discuss measures for tackling climate change – such as increasing the amount of energy generated from renewable sources – which have the additional benefit of reducing Europe’s reliance on Russian gas.

Britain would not suffer directly if Russia turned off the gas because it only sources about one per cent of its supply from the country.

However, if the disruption persisted for much more than a few days, gas prices in Britain could jump because the country is operating in a Europe-wide market, Mr Davey warned.

“If there was disruption to gas supplies in Europe, that would impact on gas prices and we would be hit by that. Moreover, because it would affect supplies to key partners within the European Union – such as Bulgaria, Italy and Germany which get a lot of their gas from Russia – that could have an economic impact on us as well,” he said.

Russia supplies about 30 per cent of Europe’s gas and nearly two thirds of this is piped through the Ukraine.

Mr Davey also broke his party’s silence on the widely-reported – and unsuccessful - attempts by the Tories to clamp down on onshore windfarm development in favour of offshore turbines – a proposal which critics say will undermine Britain’s energy security in the face of the Russian threat.

He revealed that the Conservative party had asked him to support a cap on new land-based turbines on several occasions in the past year, adding that he hoped the matter was settled for now but would continue to block any further attempts under the coalition.

“I think the question is ‘which part of the word no don’t they understand? They’re not going to reduce our effort on climate change and we’re not going to disregard the cheapest form of low-carbon energy [onshore wind]. Putting a cap on it looks a bit ludicrous” Mr Davey said.

“I think it would be a very unwise move, particularly for consumer bill payers, to cap onshore wind. It would mean that tackling climate change would increase people’s energy bills. That has not been said enough. The Tories are talking about high energy bills for people by a cap on onshore wind,” he added.

The Tories are expected to pledge a clampdown on onshore wind development in favour of offshore turbines at the next election. The move would significantly curtail new onshore wind developments and effectively rule out building any more after 2020.

Will Straw, associate director of the IPPR think tank, said: “Capping onshore wind will increase customers' bills and threatens our energy security at a time when we should be nervous about the stranglehold that Russia has over much of Europe’s gas supplies.”

Producing electricity from offshore wind farms costs 63 per cent more than generating the same amount of power from onshore turbines, meaning they require far more of the government subsidies that are crucial to them being built. As a result, the move offshore would reduce the total amount of wind power that can be generated because the Treasury has capped the total subsidy available, according to Dr Robert Gross, director of the Centre for Energy and Technology at Imperial College London.

Dr Gross added: “The key to managing energy security is diversity because this ensures that the system is more resilient. So it’s much better to have a diverse mix, with onshore wind a key contributor.”

Speaking on about the latest report from the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published yesterday, Mr Davey said:

“The report confirms that the effect of climate change is more serious than we thought and the impact on society and the economy is more serious than we thought,” Mr Davey said.

“It shows that if we delay action it will be more expensive in the long run. It is cheaper and much more cost effective to take action now, with a well thought out plan. We should be taking quick, cheap actions now and planning for the future through technological innovation.”

Quick, cheap measures include using energy more efficiently and increasing the amount generated from low-carbon sources such as wind, solar and nuclear, he said. Longer term innovation will require a huge investment in research and development into areas such as how to store energy, how to make offshore wind cheaper and carbon capture and storage (CCS) – a fledgling technology which attempts to catch CO2 emissions from power plants and pipe them deep underground.

This report will be the last of third of three related publications. The first, published in September, demonstrated with 95 per cent certainty that climate change was happening and that humans were the primary driver. The second, out last month, dealt with the impact. It concluded that the negative effects of climate change are already beginning to be felt in every part of the world and that countries were woefully under-prepared to deal with the consequences.

Taking the lead on green energy?

Ed Davey is determined that the UK will play a key role in helping the world to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Despite frequent and well-publicised interference from George Osborne, who favours a dash-for-gas focused strategy over renewable energy, Mr Davey insists that the UK is punching well above its weight when it comes to producing green electricity.

He points out that Britain now generates 35 per cent of its electricity from low-carbon sources such as solar, nuclear and hydro-power and has doubled renewable energy production in the past three years. This increase has been achieved primarily through onshore and offshore wind, which satisfied a record 17 per cent of consumption on one particularly windy day in February this year.

Britain is the only country in Europe that is taking forward proposals to build a new nuclear power plant – Hinkley Point C – Mr Davey enthuses, although many people think the projected cost of the project is too high. And the two major EU carbon capture and storage projects (CCS) projects are both in the UK, he adds.

Contrary to reports that the Conservative Party’s increasing opposition to renewable energy is putting off much-needed investors, Mr Davey insists that the “pipeline of investment is incredibly healthy”.

Mr Davey says the UK is leading the charge to make Europe and, in turn, the world, more environmentally-friendly. “We have a hell of a long way to go, we’ve still got lots of work to do in the UK and of course we’ve got to persuade other countries around the world, which I accept will be a tough ask, but we’re doing a lot of work to make that happen.”

The crucial meeting comes in Paris, 2015, when the government’s around the world have pledged to agree legally binding emissions targets sufficient to limit global warming to the crucial level of 2C.

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