The Independent View: Energy Bill – time for Lib Dems to show their true colours

Our electricity system is broken – soaring fuel bills, an over-reliance on overseas fossil fuels and an urgent need to tackle climate change highlight the severe energy crisis the nation faces.

So the inclusion of an Energy Bill in this week’s Queen’s speech to overhaul the UK’s failing electricity market was long overdue.

The Bill is a once in a generation opportunity to secure our long-term opportunity to make our power system cleaner, more affordable and less reliant on increasingly imported fossil fuels.

Such a move would be popular, too. A recent YouGov poll Friends of the Earth published to mark the launch of our new clean British energy campaign revealed that 85 per cent of the public want David Cameron to force the Big Six energy firms to develop clean British energy from renewable sources – and ditch dirty coal and gas.

But with the future of the nation’s energy system standing at an important crossroads, there are worrying signs that that the Coalition Government is preparing to head off in completely the wrong direction.

Rather than developing a safe and prosperous future offered by investing in renewable energy the Government seems intent on feeding the nation’s fossil fuel addiction.

Sadly, even senior Liberal Democrats who have spoken out for a cleaner future are now proving disappointing in power.

Ed Davey appeared to offer a fresh approach when he replaced Chris Huhne as New Energy Secretary in February, telling reporters:

“We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past where we have polluted our planet, where our countries have been dependent on fossil fuel imports where the price is high and variable. We don’t want to be dependent on that; we want to make sure we have our own energy production that’s clean and green.”

But within weeks he fired the starting pistol for a new dash for gas that could keep the UK hooked on costly and dirty fossil fuels for decades.

His announcement that there were be no restrictions on new gas-fired power stations pumping out carbon pollution until the middle of the century will leave us trapped in the same system, dominated by the Big Six energy companies – and hostage to expensive gas.

The Government’s independent climate advisor, the Committee on Climate Change, has warned that in order to meet the UK’s legally-binding climate targets the nation’s electricity sector must be almost entirely decarbonised by 2030. Allowing more gas power stations to be built will in itself drive a coach and horses through plans to meet this commitment.

The Energy Bill will have important repercussions for generations to come – it’s crucial we get it right.

This means resisting the dangerous distractions of nuclear power and dirty new energy sources such as shale gas.

Nuclear power is a gamble we simply don’t need to take. As well as producing highly dangerous radioactive waste, it’s never on time, always over budget and relies on huge public subsidies. And even if they can find companies to build them – power firms seem deeply reluctant at the moment – a new reactor takes up to 15 years to build. Time we just don’t have.

And shale gas, releases more greenhouse gases than natural gas, would be a considerable step backwards in the quest for clean energy.

Switching to clean power from our wind, sun and seas – along with cutting energy waste – is our best hope for affordable energy in future.

Between 2000 and 2010 average gas bills increased in real terms by 78 per cent and electricity bills by 30 per cent, driven the rising costs of fossil fuels. Between 2000 and 2010 the price paid by power producers for coal increased in real terms by over 71 per cent and the price they paid for natural gas rose by 90 per cent.

The potential of clean British energy is enormous – offshore energy alone could meet our current electricity needs six times over. Around a fifth of Germany’s electricity already comes from German renewable sources – the UK manages less than half of this. Developing the UK’s clean energy potential would also create tens of thousands of much-needed jobs.

The Liberal Democrats have traditionally championed the environment and their 2010 manifesto was judged by Friends of the Earth to be the greenest of the top three parties – it’s now time for them to show their true colours.

* Andy Atkins is Executive Director at Friends of the Earth.

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11 Comments

  • jenny barnes 11th May '12 - 6:53pm

    From David Mackay “Within British territorial waters, the shallow area is about 40 000 km2, most
    of it off the coast of England and Wales. This area is about two Waleses.
    The average power available from shallow offshore wind farms occu-
    pying the whole of this area would be 120 GW”
    So your idea that off shore wind could meet 3* our electricity needs is arguably correct. However
    http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/withouthotair/c10/page_61.shtml
    DTI claims that the maximum available would be very much less.
    http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/withouthotair/c10/page_65.shtml

  • jenny barnes 11th May '12 - 6:54pm

    sorry – it couldn’t meet our needs 6 times over. Current electricity capacity is around 50GW.

  • jenny barnes 11th May '12 - 6:58pm

    This is the sort of energy policy that gets Tories saying windmills are bunkum. You have to make the numbers add up
    It’s no good waving your hands, talking of energy efficiency, and rubbishing nuclear, gas & coal if your proposal doesn’t work. If we REALLY want enough renewables, we’re going to need concentrated solar in North Africa, and some long HVDC wires. Nuclear works, and generates very little carbon dioxide. Gas generates half the CO2 of coal, roughly.
    and around 12 GW of generating capacity – that’s 6 big power stations, will be decommissioned in the next few years.
    Lets keep the lights on, at least.

  • Richard Dean 11th May '12 - 7:18pm

    Why does everything has to be a crisis? “Long overdue” looks like we’ve at fault for not doing something sooner – can’t we have a more upbeat, less blame-filled message?

    Wind, sun, and sea power do not seem to be as “clean” as people seem to imagine – is there info on this somewhere? A lot of energy and material is needed to build turbines, transport them, construct their supporting structures, maintain them once built, construct the subsea power cable to deliver offshore power to the land. Has this been factored in to the calculations, bearing in mind too that carbon may not be the only bad thing?

  • Andy: If gas and coal are currently so expensive, why does wind still need govt support? Why isn’t the market just leading us to it automatically?

  • emsworthian 12th May '12 - 9:48am

    Choosing between energy sources is an immensely technical subject where a litle knowledge is a bad thing. Getting the mix right that makes energy production relatively risk free, affordable and reliable has to be the goal. The Sun is the source of all energy so we might start out with a european super grid sourced in the Sahara to generate enough power to meet our needs and leave some over for converting sea water into water for irrigating deserts.

  • Helen Dudden 1st Aug '12 - 10:59am

    I have signed up to the Energy Bill Revolution on line, over 150 MP’s have now signed, plus many charities in support. EDM 47, take a look and see what is planned.

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