No surprises in the Autumn statement after all the leaks. No surprise that Labour criticised the whole thing. Sadly, no surprise that energy policy, which is crucial to the long-term prosperity of the country, is being treated as a short-term political football. Obligations on energy companies have been relaxed so they are now able to save consumers about a pound a week on bills. Once again an increase in fuel duty has been scrapped. Subsidies for onshore wind power have been reduced and at the same time the duty on gas produced from fracking is cut in half.
In the short term, reductions in energy bills and the fuel duty freeze will help with the cost of living, (though Is £1 per week really important when the average energy bill is now some £1200 per year?) It’s suggested that the reduced support for onshore windfarms is designed to head off a threat from UKip, which is totally opposed to them. All these are good political points in advance or the 2015 election. Not sure why George Osborne is so desperately keen to promote fracking, when it’s clearly so unpopular!
Altogether, these measures are symptomatic of a chaotic energy policy. There are three issues that have to be taken into account when planning energy supplies - cost, security and pollution.
Let’s look first at fracking. Driving high-pressure water down into shale deposits to drive out oil and gas looks like a good idea. It’s been very successful in the US. The Americans have reduced their carbon footprint by using shale gas, which is a much cleaner fuel than coal. They calculate that they are sitting on reserves of shale oil which are greater than all the oil left in Saudi Arabia. Certainly ticks the security box - as it would for the UK. We’re talking about resources firmly within our borders and under our control.
The trouble with fracking is that it doesn’t tick the other two boxes. Gas is still a fossil fuel which produces co2 when burnt. Globally, we cannot afford to burn all our fossil fuels because if we did the co2 would cause runaway global warming and extreme weather events which would damage food production and make some parts of the world uninhabitable. (Of course George Osborne doesn’t believe in this. He’s with the 5% of scientists who believe it won’t happen. The other 95% are sure it will.) Fracking uses vast amounts of water, it causes minor earthquakes and it releases methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. Then there’s the cost. Nobody knows what gas from fracking will cost. Looks as though George expects it to be very expensive. That’s the second time he’s cut the duty! The sad thing is that fracking is no silver bullet. Nobody even yet knows whether it will work outside the US. In the UK the geology is different, the population density is different and the planning laws are different.
Relaxing the obligations on the energy companies means that they can slow down the process of offering free insulation for cold homes. Well-insulated homes mean less energy and lower bills. There are some (a very, very few) high-spec council homes that cost no more than £20 a year to heat. That’s the dilemma of the privatised energy companies. The less we spend, the less profit they make. In the long term more insulation, more efficient heating and lower bills are good for the consumer and good for the balance of payments. (Don’t forget, we import 20% of our gas from the Middle East, much of our coal from Russia, even electricity from France!) So who will win this one? The consumer or the energy companies? Don’t hold your breath.
Has the government really got an energy policy? Some of us have been warning for years that the lights could go out in winter 2014 or 2015, as power stations are retired before new ones are built. The government has announced a new nuclear power station that won’t be ready for 10 years, they’re offering subsidies to fracking but they don’t know if that works - and it will probably also take 10 years to commission. Meanwhile they are preserving demand by cutting back on insulation and scrapping the fuel duty rise, and limiting supply by cutting wind power subsidies. Is that a credible policy?