If you are involved in, or follow, politics then August can come as a blessed relief – the principals go on holiday, the journalists mostly long since disappeared to their Tuscan boltholes, and the rare opportunity to breathe again emerges. Sure, the government and opposition grids continue, but the results of FoI fishing expeditions feed the beast while serious thoughts turn to what are likely to be the final party conferences ahead of the next general election.
In the final days before the party leaders headed off for their summer breaks, energy security and net zero were high on the agenda. While wholesale prices have receded from their astronomical peaks of last year, the outlook for the forthcoming winter is less than comfortable. Geo-political events have reminded everybody of the folly of an approach that effectively sought to offshore energy security. It is rarely a good look to say I told you so, but it is an inescapable fact that had we got on with doing what we knew needed to happen fifteen years ago then our energy security would have been bolstered by lower cost, predictably priced and carbon free power coming on line just as gas prices went sky high and wind speeds dropped.
It is worth repeating – again – that progress towards net zero and greater energy security are two sides of the same coin, provided that the type of wilful ignorance that appears at both ends of this debate are disregarded. Low carbon technologies do not cause higher bills – it is an over-reliance on burning fossil fuels for power that has demonstrated that reality. And it is not a focus on dispatchable power to improve energy security that sets progress towards reducing carbon emissions back, but a myopic approach borne of ill-conceived and outdated prejudices that does that.
While it doesn’t necessarily suit the terms of the party political exchanges in the run up to a general election, it is also the case that (belatedly, and finally) government policy has woken up to those realities and is starting to address at least some of them. The Leader of the Opposition’s recent explanation of his intended policy framing shows a potential incoming government is cognizant of the challenges they will face. The political negligence borne of complacency of much of the last decade or so seems, under the focus of a hard dose of reality, to be changing.
A concerted effort to speed up the approval and construction of power networks is needed for all new energy infrastructure; investment in carbon capture and storage projects will aid decarbonisation of industry needed in future infrastructure; ensuring the vehicle established to deliver new nuclear capacity is properly funded and functioning will aid the progress towards 2050 targets.
The danger is though that while this has all come in the last couple of weeks, the terms of the political debate and the desire for simplistic, 280 character binary boxes in which to place motivations both understates the scale of what needs to happen, and the benefits of doing so. Worse still, it leaves investors looking askance at the United Kingdom, thereby adding time, cost and complexity to an already challenging environment with pressing targets.
It is at our peril that we forget an energy crisis has significantly impacted the wider economy, driven central bank responses and led to eye-wateringly expensive temporary policy instruments, all of which have increased the cost of capital and therefore of investment as we are seeing in the current offshore wind crisis. Despite the temptation to always look inwards, similar (and sometimes worse) factors have been impacting manty other countries – many of whom have therefore also adjusted their medium and long term approach to energy resilience. We are not now just in a race to replace expensive and polluting power with clean and secure electricity – we are in a race with others to do so, and to secure the projects, supply chain and workforces to do so where investments are likely to choose countries more than countries choosing investments.
Listening to the News Agents and other politics heavy podcasts might help spur me on while out running – but recent discussions on net zero and energy through the prism of party politics have been, by turn, depressing and infuriating. And, when it comes to Scottish nationalist Stephen Flynn’s contribution, simplistic. If what those outside the political village see is ever more frenzied squabbling and binary condemnations rather than serious and meaningful analysis, scrutiny and proposals, then that has a deleterious impact on what can be achieved. Of course, politicians do politics – I should know that better than most – but they, and we, need infrastructure to do infrastructure, industry to do industry and investment to do investment.
Filling a slot in a grid and constructing a dividing line with a neat phrase might be an inescapable part of the run up to a fiercely fought election – but if what underpins that lacks seriousness and staying power then the task is made harder, more expensive and more time-consuming. The stakes are high – stunts and games won’t help anybody.
Tom Greatrex is the NIA’s Chief Executive.
Image credit: National Grid.