posted by Malachi Chadwick

clean energy target... yet

The government's 20-year plan for Britain's energy won't include a target for carbon-free electricity. What does that mean, and what can we do about it?

Photo: DECC

After months of speculation, public campaigning, behind-the-scenes wrangling and what threatened to become an all-out war at the top of government, we've finally got an answer.

The forthcoming Energy Bill, designed to revamp and clean up our ageing electricity grid, won't include a firm target for carbon-free electricity when it’s finally published next week.

Does that mean game over for decarbonisation? Nope, and in a minute I'll tell you why. But first, a bit of background for the uninitiated.

What is decarbonisation and why does it matter?

From our Energy Bill explainer, published back in July:

Burning fossil fuels like coal and gas produces climate-changing CO2, which means that every unit of electricity has its own carbon footprint. Electricity that mostly comes from fossil fuels, has a large footprint. Replace the fossil fuels with renewables and it gets smaller – simple!

The bad news is that our grid's carbon footprint is pretty big  – over 500g per unit. The good news is that lots of the dirty power stations responsible for this are coming to the end of their lives and need replacing, and that's a chance to replace them with something much better.

There are lots of people thinking about spending serious cash on new energy hardware, and they’re trying to work out whether they’ll get a decent return on that investment here in the UK. How much they spend, and where that money goes (windfarms vs gas power plants) largely depends on the signals the government sends about its priorities.

A strong decarbonisation target would have shown that the government is serious about low-carbon energy, attracting more people to invest in actually building it, and putting us on track for a more-or-less carbon-free power supply by 2030.

In the move to a low-carbon society, electricity’s one of the things we’ve really got to get right – not only because we use a lot of it already for lighting and such, but because we’ll need even more of it as we move away from petrol-powered cars and gas-fired heating and adopt electric alternatives. Kick carbon out of the electricity supply, and everything gets a lot easier.

What does the announcement say?

The government has confirmed that the Energy Bill will include an increase in the money energy companies are obliged to set aside to support ‘low carbon’ electricity investment and will introduce a system of guaranteed prices for certain types of electricity generation in order to give investors confidence.

But the big news is the omission of the much debated ‘decarbonisation target’. The government has been lobbied on all sides on this issue - with environmental groups, energy firms and big business backing a firm decarbonisation date.

But, it seems, the real battle has been fought out between just two men - Chancellor George Osborne (who was almost alone in opposing a target) and Lib Dem climate minister Ed Davey, (whose party strongly supports it).

Judging by today’s news, Osborne’s managed to dig his heels in and keep it out for now, although Davey has been given new powers to give non-binding 'guidance' to the National Grid on the most affordable way to decarbonise.  

But didn't they announce a 30% renewable energy target?

The 30% renewables target for 2020 isn't new, but it's good to see it reaffirmed. To really crack this, however, we need something longer-term that covers the other 70%. That might sound rich coming from the people who brought you 10% carbon cuts in 2010, but the energy industry needs seriously long timescales to be able to get things done.

To energy investors, not knowing what's happening after 2020 is like you and me not knowing what's happening after lunch.

Whether it's a windfarm or a gas power station, energy infrastructure takes years to build, and is designed to operate for a few decades. Because of this, energy investor years are like the opposite of dog years – to them, not knowing what's happening after 2020 is like you and me not knowing what's happening after lunch.

So while things now look reasonably good for the next eight year or so, a 2030 decarbonisation target would have allowed another wave of projects to get off the starting blocks in time to go live in the 2020s, but without that certainty, developers are more likely to hold off.

Is this the last word on the matter?

No. Although there won’t be a decarbonisation target in the version of the bill that arrives in parliament next week, the government’s keeping its options open, pushing the decision back rather than ruling it out altogether. 

DECC has confirmed that an amendment to the bill could allow a target (or at least a target range) to be added further down the line - in 2016, after the next general election.

But with support for a firm target from (almost) all sides and Labour biting at the government’s heels, this isn’t a topic that’s likely to go away.

What can we do now?

Two things...

Right now: Keep up the great carbon-cutting action at home, at work, and in our towns and villages, and keep shouting about our successes! Ed Davey's response to your letters shows that he recognises and appreciates what you're doing, and the more we can show we're willing to walk the walk, the more influential we'll be.

Soon: Keep the pressure on as the bill goes through parliament. We'll be back in touch with more details on this once the dust has settled a bit.

This ain't over!


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