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Some Transition thoughts on the energy bits of the Queen’s speech

Queens-SpeechSo the Queen’s Speech has set out the policy priorities for the new government, but were the policies announced a cop-out or do they set out a wartime mobilisation scale of response to climate change and peak oil? These reflections are based on the article about the speech that appeared in yesterday’s Guardian. Plans include setting up a green investment bank, which will make loans available to households for energy efficiency measures and renewable energy installations, the ‘pay-as-you-save’ scheme initially proposed by Ed Miliband. The exact amount of the loans that will be available has not yet been stated, although the Guardian speculates that it could be as much as £15,000. This is a great development, but I wonder if it could yet be taken further? How would DECC respond, for example, if a Transition group were able to get 100 people to take out loans of £15,000 each and club it together as £1.5million in order to finance a community-owned ESCO, an energy company designed to be owned by and financially benefit the community?

The risk would therefore be born across the community (well, by those who have taken out the loans for the company), and given that it would enable much larger-scale renewables schemes, would have far greater savings in terms of carbon reduction than domestic scale installations. Likewise, although it is early days for the Transition Streets initiative we are doing here in Totnes, combining some kind of ’street-by-street’ approach which incorporates behaviour change could have a deeper, longer lasting and further-reaching impact than merely dishing out money for conservation and technologies.

Another policy is to put more information on energy bills, “in order to empower consumers and to ensure fair access to energy supplies”. While I’m sure this is a good thing, I wonder how many people will understand such information. It is like the wealth of labelling now on many food products, which I would imagine very few people read, and even less people understand. While that is no reason to not have them, increased labelling needs to be accompanied by a wider awareness raising programme. My recent review of Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall’s book ‘The Ministry of Food’ noted how during World War 2 the government took clear leadership on energy reduction (e.g. “when you ride alone, you ride with Hitler” and so on…) and promoted frugality and conservation. Although we are starting to see this messaging from some energy companies, clearer messaging from government would be great.

There is a commitment to regulate the emissions from coal-fired power stations. It is hard to understand exactly what this means: as far as I am aware the only way to regulate emissions from coal fired power stations is either to burn less coal in them, close them down altogether, or to install carbon capture and storage technologies which, it is important to recall doesn’t actually exist yet. It is very difficult to fit carbon capture technologies onto existing coal fired power stations, which aren’t necessarily sited anywhere near sites where sequestration is possible.

Often, sequestration is used to enable the process of Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR), driving out hard-to-reach oil from oil fields, and lengthening their productive life. Given that it leads to the production of more oil, it cannot be argued to be an especially low carbon technology. Also, from articles I have read, it appears that installing carbon capture and storage necessitates the burning of about a third more coal than would otherwise be burnt in order to power that process, and for the UK, whose indigenous coal production continues to fall, this decreases rather than increases energy security. There are also still some concerns as to whether carbon, once sequestered, stays where it is put.

The installation of a ‘Smart Grid’ is to be welcomed, although we await more information as to whether it is the kind of Smart Grid suggested in the forthcoming ‘Zero Carbon Britain 2030′ report by the Centre for Alternative Technology. The policy to make the infrastructure of the North Sea available to all companies in order to make the exploitation of smaller and more difficult oil and gas fields easier is a natural thing to want to do for a nation, like the UK, at the end of so many pipelines and, until recently, used to the bounty of cheap energy on our doorstep. However, it is clear that such an approach is needed precisely because all that remains in the North Sea is smaller and more difficult oil and gas fields. The concept of peak oil is seen here in isolation. Like the 2009 Low Carbon Transition Plan, which focused just on North Sea peak, not the wider global experience, the government appears to be doing much the same again.

Something not in the Speech that would have been a good addition would have been a tweak to the Feed in Tarriff announced last year by Ed Miliband. At present, the consumer is only paid 3p for each unit of electricity exported, thereby giving little incentive to reduce consumption at that household level. At the moment the tarriff encourages installing systems and harnessing the tarriffs, but doesn’t encourage the householder to also cut back on consumption. The policy about “reforming energy markets to deliver security of supply and ensure fair competition” is the second part that implies a lack of understanding of the peak oil issue. It assumes that ’security of supply’ is something purely controlled and regulated by markets, rather than geological factors.

It assumes that the 2008 price spike to $147 was something that could have been controlled if different market mechanisms had been in place. This assumption is rather dangerous, because, as recent reports such as those by the UKERC, which suggests “a significant risk of a peak before 2020″ and the Peak Oil Task Force which suggests a date of 2015 suggest, geological factors will increasingly come into play during the life of this government, and all of the market mechanisms in the world, with the exception perhaps of an Oil Depletion Protocol will do little to affect it.

Ultimately of course, if recent pieces by George Monbiot and Paul Kingsnorth are correct, home insulation and micro renewables, if pursued in the context of economic growth, will do little to reduce our carbon emissions. As Monbiot recently pointed out, figures for national carbon emissions had, until recently, failed to include emissions embodied in the manufacture and transportation of the goods we consume from other countries. When we add that, the nation’s emissions are increased by more than a half. Kingsnorth pointed out that economic growth and energy use, and by extension carbon emissions, are intimately intertwined. He mentions a study by Professor Rod Smith of Imperial College which showed that an economic growth rate of 3% would lead to a doubling of economic activity in 23 years, and that “each successive doubling period consumes as much resource as all the previous doubling periods combined”. As Monbiot summed up Smith’s findings, “if our economy grows at 3% between now and 2040, we will consume in that period economic resources equivalent to all those we have consumed since humans first stood on two legs. Then, between 2040 and 2063, we must double our total consumption again”. The policies announced in the Queen’s Speech, according to the new energy and climate change secretary, Chris Huhne, make clear that “energy security and taking real action to tackle climate change aren’t add-on extras for this new government, but are vital to our national interest”.

Unfortunately the back-to-growth-at-all-costs economic policies being consumed in other parts of the Queen’s Speech make rather a nonsense of this. Ultimately our ‘national interest’, and the national interests of generations hence, will be best served by giving up on the idea of economic growth altogether, the intentional and collective move towards a steady state economy, the rebuilding of local economies and seeing them as key drivers of the economy, a shortening of the distance between production and consumption as far as is practical, and, as MP Frank Field put it so frankly in February, “we do not know whether the rest of the world will lend us the money to maintain our debt levels, and therefore hopefully readjust to a lower standard of living, which is what this crisis actually means”.

I would argue that this government needs to broaden its focus from its promotion of localism (increased power being transferred to local bodies, Councils, schools and so on) to localisation (the rebuilding of local economic resilience, and creating local infrastructure owned and managed by local communities). There is much to cheer in the Queen’s Speech, and much that, with minor additional tweakings, could prove to be very valuable tools in the Transitioning of communities. However, pursued in the context of an overarching push for a return to growth, one has to question just how effective they will prove to be in the long run.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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