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Can Renewables Face Down the Fracking Onslaught?

21/03/2014 16:18 GMT | Updated 21/05/2014 10:59 BST

Earlier this month the tenth staging of the Ecobuild conference brought together leading lights from sustainable building. One of the conference highlights was a debate on the UK's energy future.

With participants from such different backgrounds - Paul Ekins is a Professor of Energy and Environmental Policy at UCL, Nina Skorupska heads the Renewable Energy Association, Professor Stephen Cowley is Chief Executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority and Dr Paul Goby of Aston University is a former chief executive of E.ON - you might expect a punch up at the lectern. But many more views were shared by the speakers than set them apart. All agreed that energy efficiency is a no-brainer. All were scathing about the political class and saw 20 years of incoherent energy policy as a recipe for uncertainty and inaction. All concurred that policy should be based on long term thinking and research. And all agreed the right solution probably includes a mix of energy sources.

Meanwhile, Cuadrilla used the Shale UK Summit to announce their gas resource in England's north west may be twice as large as previously thought. No prizes for guessing which event created more than 100 media mentions and which seemed to pass by unremarked. Everyone likes a new toy in the box, and it seems shale has stolen the limelight from the renewables sector with promises of cheap plentiful energy and an answer to the UK's security of supply.

The problem for renewables is they promise jam tomorrow. As Paul Golby said at Ecobuild, it's politically much easier to reap the benefits of something today and leave future generations to pick up the pieces than it is to take the pain now and create a gain for our children. Shale has successfully positioned itself as technology that can bring down prices. Although Paul Golby described the popular idea of 'cheap fuel for hard working families' as 'economic illiteracy' given the relatively small impact on overall supply that shale will likely have on European or global markets, fracking is confidently presenting itself as a simple solution to economic woes.

Shale's most vocal opponents have focused on local environmental impacts more than global carbon emissions. The shale industry has recognised this by setting out a clear path to realise community benefit for the people affected. £100,000 for test sites and 1% of future revenues should ease the way with many communities. Renewables face the same local opposition and planning hurdles but haven't told as clear a story about community benefit. Community renewables buck that trend - communities develop their own projects rather than just receive a financial payment - and Germany has good examples to share. But there are clear opportunities to scale up these innovative approaches.

While renewables are painted as economic underperformers, the truth is their cost has fallen considerably in a short period of time, particularly where technologies have been promoted under Government schemes. The main beneficiary of Feed-In Tariffs (FiTs) has been Solar PV with 418,000 installations since 2012. In that short time the average cost of a household installation, according to the Energy Saving Trust, has fallen from £12,500 to £7,500.

Despite that fall, a householder still needs to find £7,500 to get solar PV installed. The middle-class, middle-aged early adopters might access that cash fairly easily. But most people, even if they could raise £7,500, would rather spend the money on a new kitchen. The renewables industry would love people to aspire to renewables in the way they aspire to other home improvements. But the jury is still out on whether solar panels increase or decrease the value of a home.

Action on renewables is tough to achieve for a Government with a huge majority, let alone a coalition. And with the result in 2015 likely to be close, is any political party able to take long-term decisions that will cost money now? Appealing to politicians directly isn't likely to result in renewables by compulsion. Just this week for example, the Chancellor used the budget to announce a package of measures to reduce energy costs for manufacturers but removed Enterprise Investment Scheme (EIS) tax breaks from companies benefiting from the renewables obligation certificate (ROC) scheme or the renewable heat incentive (RHI). Tough decisions on supporting renewables will only be taken if they have sufficient popular support. Since people discount future gains so substantially, painting a picture of a carbon free future doesn't seem the way to achieve that support. And the active green lobby isn't populous enough to carry the day for renewables.

What's the answer? The renewables proposition needs to change and the approach to community benefit needs to change with it. We need to get to the bottom of the real barriers that make people oppose renewable sources. And, despite the strong science and detailed evidence that can be brought to bear, we need to find new ways to appeal to the intuitive decision making of people and communities. Environmentally sustainable behaviours like recycling are becoming social norms. BMW is making waves with aspirational electric cars. How can renewable energy start to press some different buttons and become the 'no-brainer' that energy efficiency is seen to be?

Jon Bennett is managing director of corporate communications consultancy Linstock Communications.