The last fringe banner of the party conference season has been rolled up, the last canapé eaten (sushi seemed to be popular this year, joining more traditional options like sandwiches and quiches), and the politicians have decamped from Glasgow, Brighton and Manchester and headed back to Westminster.
On behalf of the renewables sector I'm busy across all the party conferences. They are a great way to meet with politicians and to take the political temperature. Normally party conferences are abuzz with party gossip, speculation about politicians on manoeuvres and you struggle to get people interested in your own topic. But this year, one of the main areas of debate was energy, and suddenly we were pitched into the heart of an urgent debate. Looking back at the three conferences, I've been wondering if the energy consensus that existed between the parties has shattered, and if it has, what does that mean?
The Lib Dem conference was the first of the three, and Ed Davey clearly tried to make the running, using his speech to highlight differences in the Coalition and to claim that successes in green energy were down to the Lib Dems acting to defend the "Greenest Government ever" tag. However, this was all but forgotten a week later, when Ed Miliband used his speech to announce Labour party policy of an energy bills freeze. It was clear a week later that the Conservative Party was struggling to come up with a clear response for this. While I understand their criticism, the Labour proposal as undermining investment and certainty, the call for action on energy costs has struck a chord, and pressure is now mounting to address cost by clamping down on energy companies and also on "green measures" present in all our energy bills.
With politicians now back at Westminster and the big energy companies under the spotlight this debate is not going away any time soon. It's right that each of the different parts that make up our bill are scrutinised, but when energy experts point out that the big driver behind bill increases is the fact that we buy more and more fuel (mostly gas) on international markets and prices are going up, no one pays any attention. And while it's not right, it's no surprise that some are using this as an opportunity to criticise renewables and their support and exaggerate their contribution to energy bills. Based on what some politicians and journalists have been saying, you would think that the thing really ramping up energy costs was wind energy.
So let's take a step back and see what wind energy really costs? Bills have steadily risen over recent years, and affordability, especially for the most vulnerable households needs to be addressed. The average bill includes a contribution to fund green measures. The largest amount of this is to fund energy efficiency work across households, and smaller amounts go to support the building of renewable energy projects like wind farms and solar farms. Wind energy currently adds less than 2% to the average bill; that's less than 5p a day.
So, it seems post Party Conferences the consensus on energy, if not broken, is not in the healthiest state, and also that there's significant misinformation, with some using the debate on energy costs as a convenient stick to attack wind energy and cast it as the bad guy in hiking up energy bills. And let's be clear; wind has increased energy bills - by 2%.
If we are to decarbonise our electricity provision, we will need in the short term to increase our policy costs - as we seek to increase renewables, carbon capture and storage and nuclear. The trade-off for this is that the more we can cut our energy imports, the more we will enhance our security of supply, as well as making our energy system far cleaner - not just good for the planet but people's health and wellbeing as well. These decarbonised types of electricity all have high initial capital cost but lower operating cost - for renewables that's especially the case as operators are not buying in any fuel, just harvesting it from our natural resources. It's a bit like buying a year's travelcard - you spend more up front so you're not paying out for each journey you make.
So if as a country we are serious about managing the cost of energy it means investing in UK sources like renewables where we have a competitive advantage. Last year we got enough power for the equivalent of 4.59 million households, and we are seeing the growth of a new industry in the UK. 34,500 people now work in the wind, wave and tidal sectors, a number which has grown by over 74% in just three years.
So, with so much at stake, how can we ensure this massive opportunity is not lost? It's right that politicians care about energy costs, but wrong that they ignore some inconvenient truths when they debate the topic. And politicians need to look for long term solutions and ignore the temptation of short term political fixes or worse, political point scoring. There's a crucial need to decarbonise our energy system, and by investing now to reap the rewards of security of supply, stable prices and a better environment in the future we will do more to manage energy costs and keep the lights on than we will pretending that somehow the wind turbines on our hills or around our coastline are unaffordable. That argument just doesn't add up. It's time to take the politics out of energy again.