Nobody Said It Was Easy – UK’s Energy Gameplan Sorely Testing Coalition

on Jul 23, 2012
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Political coalitions aren’t easy at the best of times and tough times can put them under intense pressure. The now-open spat between the finance and energy ministers – George Osborne and Ed Davey respectively – over where to from here in UK energy policy is becoming a litmus test for survivability of the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition. As recently reported by the Financial Times, the battle-lines are increasingly being drawn along the gas versus wind divide. The Lib Dem’s Davey – recently slotted into the role as energy tsar – is aghast at Treasury proposals for reductions in wind energy subsidies and greater investment in Britain’s gas reserves.

Energy was of course made the Lib Dem’s bailiwick when the coalition was formed but that by no means gives the minority partner anything like carte blanche in dictating the UK’s energy policy going forward, and especially out to 2020, the current concrete time-frame. The fact is that energy generation – and the extent to which green energy will displace fossil fuels – is front and centre in the UK’s endeavours to cope with global financial and economic distress. The big target – to have 20 percent of Britain’s energy needs in 2020 being supplied by non-fossil sources – is under pressure from both political and private sector sources lobbying for the ascendancy of cost over carbon. According to the FT, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is now firmly in the camp – given form by a coterie of Tory backbenchers cheered on by the incumbent energy industry – which sees gas-powered electricity production as a much better bet in terms of cost and business efficiency than the still largely unproven ‘green’ alternatives.

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!m[](/uploads/story/167/thumbs/pic_1_inline.png)Osborne’s siding with the ‘business as usual’ lobby follows revelations earlier in the year – the Guardian was prominent here – that Britain has been quietly but assiduously working at watering down a new EU directive on energy efficiency. Thus, drafts of the proposed directive leaked to the media carried textual tweaks showing an overall softening of resolve in the commitment to alternative energy production at the expense of fossil fuels.

Of those alternatives, wind is far and away the major player – certainly in terms of the 2020 deadline. The second functioning option – solar – is a tiny contributor (in terms of large-scale generation though it may well still be a factor due to the combination of many domestic micro-installations adding up over time – Germany is the perfect example) by comparison and other contenders, such as harnessing the energy in ocean currents, are still at a much earlier stage in terms of commercially viable technology. But wind hasn’t been helping its own cause, getting a lot of bad press over the course of this year. Detractors have no shortage of negatives to point to – batteries the size of aircraft carriers being needed to store wind-derived electricity generated when it’s not needed until utilisation when it is; the negative impact of wind-farms on nearby property values; the dirty business of building wind turbines, especially the mining and processing of the rare earth minerals crucial to their magnets.

Global warming is a serious business and should be above party politics – and business interests come to that. But the gas versus wind debate is becoming strident to the point of nastiness with backbench insults being traded sideways rather than across the floor. The coalitional love is being lost in the process and we now have the spectacle of Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg speaking openly to the media about working with Labour in 2015. Assuming the present coalition can get that far.

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