THE BLOG

Renewables Opportunity Missed as Government Phases Out Coal Use

19/11/2015 09:57 GMT | Updated 18/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Today the government made a correct decision on energy policy.

That's such an unusual occurrence that it does deserve to be noted, after a disastrous run of announcements on renewables and energy efficiency.

It has decided to completely phase out the use of coal for electricity generation by 2025.

Congratulations are due to the campaigners who've been working for this moment for more than a decade, from those who occupied Kingsnorth power station in 2007 to the Christian Aid Big Shift campaigners I met outside parliament only a couple of weeks ago.

The phase out is slower than it should be, campaigners were calling for 2023 and calculations have shown it could be as early as 2021 without threatening energy security. But it is a phase out.

That matters, for it will, as Amber Rudd herself acknowledged today, will prevent 3,800 deaths, lung problems in 2.7 million people and £6.7 billion in health costs. Of course earlier action would prevent and save more.

But that's not the major problem with today's "energy reset".

That lies in what our Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change means to replace the coal-power generation with: gas.

Gas is still a fossil fuel. It's less carbon-intensive polluting than coal, but it still produces high levels of carbon emissions.

The other major problem is this Government's continuing focus on the failed 20th-century technology of nuclear. That's the technology that means every household in Britain already faces a bill of £2,500 for decommissioning Sellafield.

The contract for Hinkley has been dismissed even by proponents of nuclear power as astonishingly poor value for money and the massive delays and cost overruns at two similar plants in continental Europe bring real cause for doubt that it will ever generate a watt. If it does start up, it will on its own add £14/year to bills.

What is of course missing from this speech is what should be its focus - renewable energy and energy conservation, combined with energy interconnections with the rest of Europe and smart grid measures to help match supply and demand.

Many other countries are powering ahead on these - particularly on renewables - and Britain is being left behind.

KPMG estimates solar will reach grid parity (be as cheap as any other supply) by 2020 - yet the Government is set to pull the rug out from under thousands of small businesses up and down the country, and threatens the jobs of tens of thousands of their workers, with its policies. It already produces enough power for 2 million homes and it could more than double by the end of this decade is sensible levels of support are maintained.

A lot of nonsense is talked about the cost of existing support for renewables - but in fact it current accounts for £45 of the average household dual fuel annual bill of £1,369. The cuts to the solar feed-in-tariff, if implemented, would save an average of £6/year on bills by 2020/21.

This government's enormous blind spot on renewables means huge lost opportunities - opportunities for jobs, opportunities for training and skill development, opportunities for small and medium businesses, opportunities for communities to take democratic control of their own energy supplies.

Community energy has been gearing up, yet the government plan threaten 90% of plans, with a total value of £127 million.

What this speech does show is just how extreme, how detached from public opinion, this government is.

Solar energy - which its policies threaten - is backed by 80% of the British public, while offshore wind had 73%, and onshore wind 66%. But contrast, fracking for gas has only 20% support, and nuclear 30% support.

Amber Rudd says she wants a "consumer-led, competition-focused energy system". What she should be aiming for is a "low carbon, affordable, resilient, democratic system that delivers jobs and business opportunities". That would truly be in the natural interest. What we have now is in the interests of the Big Six energy firms and Chinese and French-government owned corporations.