The people who worry about energy bills, the squeezed middle, have the most to lose and the least to gain when it comes to Tory announcements on the subject of onshore wind turbines.
The UK's energy supply is facing something of a mid-life crisis. It is bloated and fat after decades of reliance on unsustainable and increasingly expensive fossil fuels. So why are two Tory ministers, big beasts within the party, taking to the airwaves to talk about blocking or scrapping the very technology which will give our energy mix a much needed dietary tonic?
Onshore wind is good for our energy infrastructure for two reasons; it is the most efficient and cost effective of the available and scaleable renewable technologies, and it is the best way that the challenger energy brands – Ovo, Co-operative Energy, Ecotricity and Good Energy – can mount a serious attempt to compete with the so-called Big Six on equal terms. They need to be able to build generation capacity to protect themselves against the worst excesses of the Big Six and their market power.
The two Tory beasts in question, Energy Minister Michael Fallon and Communites Secretary Eric Pickles, are usually "anti-meddling" when it comes to markets and society. But two weeks ago Mr Pickles made it clear that he knew best (or at least better than qualified planners) as to whether wind farms should be built, having gained planning approval. Mr Fallon, on the other hand, has made it clear that the Tories, if they win the next general election, will reduce subsidies to stop any new wind farms being built, apart from those already consented to, which it should be noted represent a doubling of current capacity. The Conservatives seem to think this stance will be a vote-winner in their rural heartlands.
Are they just concerned that wind turbines are unpopular? This would seem a perverse point of view when every poll, even those of sceptical newspapers, shows that the development of wind energy is favoured by a majority of the public. The Department of Energy and Climate Change has been conducting its own Public Attitudes Tracking Survey since July 2012 – with the latest results showing that 64 per cent support onshore wind. This seeming enthusiasm for cleaner energy probably contributed to the flagship Green Deal that was designed to cut energy use in the home. But it has met with very low levels of public take-up, much to the probable frustration of more moderate Tories who must feel hampered in their efforts to address energy and climate issues by these mixed messages.
Is it that wind turbines are inefficient or expensive? Again perverse, when you consider that onshore wind is easily the cheapest, most efficient form of renewable energy we have, and we have lots of it, being characterised as the Saudi Arabia of wind. Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, points out the contradictions in the Government's energy policy: "The coalition Government clearly has a blind spot on energy policy when it promotes fracking and building a new nuclear reactor while ignoring the obvious choices. Onshore wind is one of the cheapest forms of low carbon energy available and will generate sustainable jobs as well as clean, renewable energy.
"Eric Pickles is overruling the planning inspectorate, and ignoring the results of a public inquiry to please a minority of Tory voters. The coalition Government is scrapping plans to build clean, safe, wind farms in Somerset preferring instead to pay twice the market price for electricity from the proposed Hinckley C reactor on the Somerset coast."
So the price of trying to hold on to power is to condemn the UK to the worst of both worlds: more expensive renewable technologies and a less competitive energy market.
Let's be honest, the energy market is not something we all spend time worrying about or studying. We tend to assume that energy companies make the energy they sell to us. The reality is that the energy market was designed to avoid that. The core principle when energy was privatised and a market system introduced, was that energy generators (power stations) should compete in an open and free market, and energy retailers (such as Scottish Power, E.on or British Gas) should compete to buy the energy and sell it to consumers. This was to avoid the scenario whereby energy retailers might combine with energy generators effectively to supply themselves with their own energy, as this could lead to anti-competitive practices.
However, over time, energy companies have been allowed to become massive conglomerates supplying themselves through a complex web of deals and companies, which means that now perhaps 90 per cent of our energy is traded in secret and only 10 per cent is available on the open market. The Labour party, as part of its review of the energy market, has put forward a range of ways to limit the power of the Big Six.
The most important of these is to re-introduce transparency into the energy market, so that more trades are visible and the real cost of wholesale energy and its relationship to the price we end up paying for it as consumers can be assessed.
All these ideas have certainly made the Big Six nervous, if nervousness is measured by the number of apocalyptic statements made about "lights going out".
However, government intervention can only go so far in redressing the balance of power in any market. The main thing it can do is to create a level playing field for challengers to compete against the incumbents. This means that renewable energy should be treated as a priority planning decision, and energy policy should be made in the interests of the country as a whole, not just to appease the reactionary right wing of a party.
Bruce Davis is managing director of Abundance, crowdfunding UK renewable energy projects. He is also visiting research fellow of the Bauman Institute, Leeds University
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