Not good at all Mr Hutton. Getting caught trying to bin Labour’s commitment to increasing renewable energy is bad policy, bad politics and really if you look at why they don’t want to fulfil the commitment we have already made just really, really feeble.

Perhaps he has forgotten the Prime Minister saying that it was a “moral duty” to tackle climate change. Yes there may be costs involved but there are also very substantial costs to inaction as detailed in the Stern Report.

Apparently there are also “severe practical difficulties”  in achieving the target. Considering that we have all the technology we need available now. Considering we are in international comparison a well off country and we can achieve 6% of the UK’s energy supply from renewable sources from one project, the Severn barrage, “severe practical difficulties” actually means we can’t be bothered to try and that is simply way beyond the lowest form of pathetic.

In 1940 when Great Britain stood alone against Nazi tyranny in Europe that their might have been “severe practical difficulties” in tackling Hitler but that didn’t mean we shouldn’t have bothered nor that the task was beyond us. I thought we were at our best when at our boldest.

This is also really really stupid politics. The kind of pig headed unreality that Mrs Thatcher had when she persisted in thinking “Umm yes the Poll Tax, the voters’ll love that”. Perhaps we want to say to the Guardian readers that left us for the Lib Dems at the last election “Don’t worry we can do without Manchester Withington, Bristol West, Cambridge, Cardiff Central, Hornsey and Wood Green, Leeds North West and why not take Norwich South, Islington South and Finsbury  and Newcastle Central with you this time as well. After all we can afford to lose plenty of seats this time”

That is not to say only guardian readers are interested in the environment because that is simply not true. So we have a really positive policy on the environment which is a lot easier to sell to the electorate than road pricing and what do we do. Try and bin it. Genius. The environment that is an issue of increasing importance to the electorate, not to mention of some importance to life on this planet so I think we have a duty to put more effort into tackling climate change than civil service work to rule.  The sooner we should take out energy from BERR responsibilities and put it in DEFRA the better. Clearly the former just can’t be bothered and that is simply not forgivable.

The shift in stance is due to be discussed at full cabinet next week so take any opportunity to beat random cabinet ministers about the head with a wet fish until they see sense.

Small is beautiful

25 September, 2007

It must have been difficult writing Gordon’s first speech to party conference as Prime Minister. All that dead air to fill without mentioning the date of the next general election. Then there is the need to find some new policy announcement.  This time the environment has benefited from the party conference tradition as the number of new “eco-towns” the government is set to see built doubles to 10. It appears there is some work to go on the fine details of what these towns with “low and zero emission homes” will look like. A key test of actually how green these eco towns are will be the extent to which they use environmentally friendly forms of  decentralised energy.

What is decentralised energy? 

It’s environmentally friendly energy that is locally produced to where it will be used. It actually covers a fairly wide variety of renewable technologies from solar panels on the school roofs, to windmills on houseboats, to geothermal boreholes at Buckingham palace or micro hydroelectricity

What is wrong with the centralised electricity system we have at the moment?

Actually lots. Only 22% of the energy input into the electricity system is actually used, The rest is lost during inefficient generation, transmission over vast distances through the national grid or in domestic energy inefficiency. When it comes to coal or gas powered power stations this represents a terrible waste of a finite natural resource.

The current system engenders a culture of energy passivity amongst the population. We just pay the bill when it arrives or even better leave it to Direct Debit. It puts power in the hands of large energy companies rather than empowering the consumer to think about the energy they use.

The technology used in centralised generation tends to be old hat and damaging to environment. Coal, gas, nuclear all have their problems. Environmental damage from the former two and nuclear waste that last centuries. Imagine if the Romans had had nuclear we would still be clearing up after them. Not intergenerational justice in my book.

Centralised electricity systems are also much more vulnerable to disruption in a variety of forms. I still don’t think that we are taking the threat of a truck bomb or plane attacking a nuclear power station seriously enough. It is also inherent in a centralised system that adverse weather events, which with global warming will increase in frequency, cause more damage when power-lines supplying thousands of homes can be brought down in one go.

Gas makes up 39% of our primary energy and oil 35%. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, UAE, Russia and Algeria are amongst the countries that are the world’s biggest producers of oil and gas. It can hardly be beneficial to our national interest to be reliant for a very significant section of our energy supplies from countries which have a serious track record of authoritarianism, war, terrorism and human rights abuse.

 What are the benefits of changing to decentralised energy?

It’s greener. Renewable technology by definition wont run out causing shortages and price inflation, it also doesn’t emit greenhouses gases that would damage the ozone layer and cause global warming 

It’s more efficient power. This is for two main reasons. Firstly the power that is generated is not dissipated by putting it through the national grid. Secondly the change from being a passive consumer to an active producer will mean more people taking an interest in their use of energy and consequent improvement in its efficiency.

Energy security. Decentralised energy is simply the most secure form of energy. Impervious to foreign interference, more resistant to extreme weather events, a target poor environment for terrorists and immune from fuel protester style civil disobedience. 

Local government could agree an emissions target for their area in agreement with Whitehall who could set a national minimum floor. It would then be left to local government to devise ways to meet the target which national government could incentivise. It would be a good combination of national responsibility and local autonomy.

There are also serious financial benefits as there is no need to construct a massive transmission network. Energy policies incorporating decentralised cogeneration, renewables and energy efficiency measures could deliver global cost savings of the order of $2.7 trillion as against an estimated expenditure of $16 trillion to 2030 under the business-as-usual model. While this scenario predicts that generation costs would be higher given higher proportions of renewable generation, it also anticipates savings of 40% in transmission costs and 36% in distribution costs – potentially cutting overall costs by as much as 20% compared to the business-as-usual scenario.

What should the government be doing?

First up the government should produce a Decentralised Energy White Paper. It is important that the government show convincing leadership over the direction of travel that it wants to move energy policy in. Both the industry and more importantly the people would see substantial changes to how they use energy for which they should be properly prepared and support won.

All new building should have DE technology of one sort or another. I don’t think the government should get to caught up in some debate of solar panels verses windmills. People and companies are perfectly able to decide what technology would meet their needs. Governments role should be to insist on the standards that we require to meet our environment and social justice obligations.

All electricity suppliers to be required to purchase surplus electricity from domestic power generators, at rates that will ensure the take-off of domestic generation.

Inefficient, centralised power stations to be heavily penalised to reflect the damage they cause and to ensure that the most polluting are closed. One way to do this would be to tighten up the European Emissions Trading Scheme. In addition, supplementary fiscal measures could be enacted at UK level, such as a tax on waste heat.

Presently domestic users pay alot more for there energy than industrial users. If we forced energy companies to charge the same price for all their users this would instantly create an industry for environmental power generation for industrial sites as making your own would be cheaper than buying it in.

 We should put power in the hands of the consumer. Local sustainable electricity systems to be encouraged through the removal of current limits on the development of private wires. Limits on the export of power from these sustainable local systems should be raised. Together these measures would enable electricity consumers increasingly to choose clean local power over dirty centralised power.

Reform of Ofgem. It needs to be less obsessed with the wholesale price of energy and more concerned with the total cost that consumers pay which included the cost of transmission through the grid an which decentralised energy would largely remove. It should also seek to change the market removing barriers to DE.

 Hattip Greenpeace

Road to nowhere

24 September, 2007

The Department of Transport needs a major sort out if we‘re going to keep Britain moving.

The Department of Transport’s response to the changing transport and environmental needs of the nation make the turning circle of a supertanker look sprightly. There is an institutional unwillingness in the department over many years to embrace radical solutions to Britain‘s transport needs. Alternatives are met with the haughty distain that flat earthers once handed out to heretics. Labour came to power ambivalent to road building especially with the conservatives experience of road protesters but now has a road building programme costing billion after billion despite a remarkable lack of evidence of its effectiveness at reducing congestion. Yes Minister may be off air but Sir Humphrey is alive and well in the Department of Transport.

There is also failure to see transport connected with other policy agendas. Meeting Britain’s environmental commitments seems to have passed the Department of Transport by. According to DEFRA transport is the only sector where emissions of greenhouse gases are set to rise between 2000 and 2020. The only thing that gets recycled at the department of transport is the policies of road building and airport expansion.Similarly cycling and walking have a huge role to play in tackling obesity as well as transport. Not that you would know about that from the departments spending priorities which prizes major infrastructure projects over inexpensive alternatives like safe cycle routes which not only reduce congestion but also have immense health and environmental benefits.  

So what should be done? The Highways Agency, a redoubt of immense profligacy, should be abolished. No more road eye wateringly expensive widening schemes at £1000 per inch like the M6. Instead a Highways Safety and Maintenance Agency should be responsible for the upkeep of the present roads network but crucially take away the institutional incentive to ever greater road building.On road pricing what we need is not piecemeal one off solutions like the congestion charge but a national system locally controlled by councils who have the specific knowledge of their areas. If it works for London then the rest of the country should be able to benefit as well. Sure the people who signed the anti road pricing petition on the Downing Street website aren’t going to like it but their not going to like ever increasing congestion, delay and illness inducing pollution either. This government set up and spends £10 million per year running Cycling England. This should be welcomed but it would only buy 250 meters of a fourth lane on the M6. Holland has a cycling culture that plays a large part in explaining why they have half the rate of obesity that the British do. It’s not expensive either especially when the burden on the NHS is taken into account and we should shamelessly emulate them.Post Hatfield the railways have had a successful few years with both passenger numbers and safety up. Overcrowding, a problem of success rather than failure, remains particularly at peak times. Ruth Kelly’s recent statement to the Commons setting out the Rail White Paper had much to commend it not least an extra 1300 carriages and some significant station capacity developments but it was a no to high speed rail or electrification. If continental Europe can have a large and growing high speed rail network, if China and Japan can invest in it as well why can’t the country that invented the railway in the first place not get the significant environmental and economic benefits of high speed rail other than on Eurostar?

When New Labour came to power it set out to be radical and bold but when it comes to buses it has been New Labour’s bete noire Ken Livingstone who has in London greatly improved bus usage against an unfavourable national picture. London buses should be used as a model for the rest of the country and the Oystercard scheme made national.

Domestic air travel on a small island like ours and private flights are an ecological absurdity and ought to be very heavily penalised by the Chancellor. Government is able to regulate the numbers of domestic flights, it should also be willing. After all the world will not end if people can’t fly from London to Manchester every week but it may do if everyone does.

We need a new covenant between people and government on transport. It should cost more to take environmentally inferior forms of transport such as the private car or domestic flights. In return we will dramatically improve the rail network with high speed lines, metro systems will become a common feature in our towns and cities, high quality bus services will be plentiful and our cycling and walking facilities will make even the Dutch green with envy. We have the ideas and resources to reduce congestion, protect the environment and tackle obesity all we need now is the political courage.