Tories promote plan for decentralised energy

A new Conservative consultation document on energy and climate change proposes a mix of new and existing policies for decarbonising the UK economy while boosting competitiveness and jobs.

Conservative leader David Cameron has bid to regain the initiative on climate change with a blueprint that he claims would fast-track progress towards a decarbonised Britain.1 The individual elements of the Tories’ proposals, issued for consultation in January, are mostly not new. They include several policies already proposed or being considered by government, and several previously announced Tory proposals. There are few firm commitments and little detail on costing.

Many of the policies proposed will need enabling through a "smart", interactive and expanded electricity grid. This will be achieved mainly through regulatory changes, and the Tories estimate it would cost £1 billion for the computerisation this would need. The smart grid would handle the distribution of varying quantities of electricity generated by millions of homes and firms as well as supplying power to them. Far more alternative energy sources at different scales would be linked into the grid than is possible now.

The grid plan also includes early introduction of smart meter technology into homes and small firms. It repeats earlier promises to bring in feed-in tariffs, which the government has now caught up with (ENDS Report 407, pp 52-53 ). Both sides propose a threshold of 5 megawatts generating capacity. Below this generators will be able to qualify for guaranteed levels of payment per kilowatt hour. The complex Microgeneration Certification Scheme would be simplified, becoming part of the CORGI registration scheme, it says.

It also proposes a ‘just do it’ approach to overcome householders’ reluctance to spend large sums of money upfront on energy efficiency. The Tories want every householder to be able to choose energy efficiency improvements from a list, worth up to £6,500 in total. It would include measures such as solid wall insulation.

This money would be a loan from the household’s energy supplier, guaranteed by government and paid back by long-term increases in the household’s energy bills. But cuts in these bills resulting from reduced energy use would be bigger than the loan repayments. This kind of scheme has been talked about for years. In order to work, it has to cope with householders who want to move home or change energy supplier before the loan is paid off. The Tories believe they can overcome this, but the document does not give details.

It repeats a Tory proposal that employers could meet their own mandatory carbon cut requirements, notably under the Carbon Reduction Commitment, by sponsoring energy efficiency improvements in the homes of employees (ENDS Report 405, p 50 ). Progress would be measured through houses’ Energy Performance Certificates, which were strongly opposed by the Conservatives.

The Tories also aim to realise the UK’s massive potential for renewable offshore energy with incentives for the national grid to build a network of under-sea direct current cables, which waste less power over long distances than conventional alternating current systems. Marine energy parks would be encouraged. Smart grid technology combined with variable electricity tariffs would boost greater penetration of intermittent renewables like wind into the grid with less need for back-up from extra fossil-fuel power stations. Electricity prices would drop when wind power was abundant.

To tackle dependence on imported natural gas and cut CO2 emissions, the Tories also propose regulatory measures and feed-in tariffs for the gas grid to encourage the development of biogas from anaerobic digestion of farm and food wastes. The government is now considering this (ENDS Report 404, pp 30-33 ).

The new document repeats Tory proposals for a much more ambitious government programme to support development and demonstration of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology for coal-fired power stations (ENDS Report 401, p 4 ). Instead of a competition to fund the installation of a CCS demonstration plant for 300MW of generating capacity, the Tories would use auction revenues from the European emissions trading scheme to fund several schemes with total electricity output of 5,000MW.

Further measures on low-carbon heat generation include powers for local authorities to establish networks of combined heat and power (CHP) and district heating. The Tory plan proposes a ‘heat tariff’ system that would both facilitate and encourage low carbon heat whether generated onsite or sold to consumers directly. Payments would be technology-specific and related to carbon intensity of generation, and would be extended to cover generally non-renewable heat sources such as CHP, industrial heat capture and heat pumps.

The government is itself considering policies to promote heat from renewables, but its consultation paper has been delayed. The Energy Act 2008 empowers it to introduce incentives.

The proposals also call for binding sustainability rules on biofuels and for promoting second-generation biofuel development through a more ambitious renewable transport fuel obligation.

On nuclear power, they call for a "National Nuclear Waste Site and type approvals for nuclear stations" that would "clear the way for new nuclear power stations". After years of agnosticism, the Tories now appear to be as strongly pro-nuclear as the government. The document also makes proposals aimed at encouraging the spread of recharging points for electric and hybrid plug-in cars.

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