When the Department of Energy and Climate Change published its ‘Commitment to Renewables’ last month, it did so in the wake of David Cameron and Chris Huhne’s summit with the ‘big six’ energy suppliers, organised in an attempt to reverse the trend of ever-increasing energy costs. The massive cuts in subsidies ushered in by the deceptively titled policy – particularly the much-publicised slashing of feed-in tariffs – are intended to play their own part in reducing energy bills, by cutting the small surcharge that is added to our bills to pay for them. The reduction of such ‘green taxes’ however, despite what those in certain sections of the media may claim, will make barely any difference. The reality is that Renewable Obligation support payments, as they are known, add only £20 per year to the average annual bill, and by 2016 the proposed cuts will save only £2 per household. By contrast, the recent price rises by the big six – who supply 99% of all consumers - have added an average of £134, reflecting the rising cost of whole-sale gas prices.

The truth, if we all dare to admit it, is that fossil-fuel based energy costs are going in only one direction, and no amount of corporate arm twisting is going to change that. If the government wants to take truly progressive action then it is clear that we need not just short-term sticking-platers, but a long-term vision, and a well-defined road map for how we are going to get there.

By the middle of this century the vast majority of our energy demand is going to need to come from low-carbon, and largely renewable sources. This of course requires a careful assessment and balancing of the multiple options, including nuclear and carbon-capture-and-storage, as well as a long-term consideration of the necessary levels of subsidies to achieve the significant investment that will be required.

It would be deeply naïve however to imagine that investment in renewables is all we need. The development of a renewable energy infrastructure in the UK is not going to happen overnight, and in the short and medium-term we are still faced with the the spectre of rapidly rising fuel costs.

For now the obvious, and hypothetically easy answer, is to use less fuel. For many this is a tragic necessity, as the increasing numbers of households in fuel poverty makes clear, but it is also a reality that all of us at some point are going to have to face up to. The fact of this long-term inevitability must surely demand greater action on the challenge of energy efficiency.

Installing solar panels alone will make little difference if the building to which they are attached have an energy inefficient fabric. CC Flickr user: CoCreatr

The economic argument for this is fairly clear cut – it is far cheaper to save a watt of energy than produce one. It is far more effective therefore to invest in upgrading the energy efficiency of our building stock, than in a large-scale installation of solar panels across the country. As I have written before, such renewable technologies, where installed on inefficient buildings, will simply offset the energy losses that can be saved more economically though other means. Where buildings already meet a minimum standard of efficiency then solar and other renewables should of course be encouraged, but for the rest, there should be greater priorities.

In this light we can only welcome the official launch of the ‘Green Deal’ consultation document last week (the summary can be found here), which proposes a £14 billion private-sector investment over the next decade. Only those properties were the savings would be greater than or equal to the total cost of the work will be eligible, and with repayments being added to customers’ bills, the deal ensures that the cost is paid by those that ultimately benefit – the debt is attached to the property, and is the liability of the bill payer, rather than any one person.

'Green Deal' flow chart from the Green Deal Summary Document © Department of Energy and Climate Change

There are of course concerns: a need to ensure consumer acceptance and take up of the scheme is one, a point that Which? magazine has already raised doubts over due to estimated savings being based on averages rather than individual assessment. Convincing industry of the Government’s long-term commitment to the policy is another, and based on the massive u-turn over renewables, particularly on solar power, such long-term certainty over the coalition’s environmental policy commitments may be hard to come by. With the announcement of further details about the Green Investment Bank however, with Green Deal financing identified as one of five priority sectors, there can at least be confidence of some Government support through to 2016 at the very least.

The slashing of renewable subsidies was both cynical and short-sighted, a clear failure of the Government’s obligation to encourage a weaning-off of fossil fuels and the development of a more sustainable energy infrastructure. The Green Deal does not make up for this, but for what it is setting out to do it should be supported. We can only hope that this time the commitment is genuine, and that industry succeeds in making it reality.

 

© Thomas Stoney Bryans 2011

About Thomas Stoney Bryans
Thomas Stoney Bryans received his M.A. in Architectural Design with First-class honours from the University of Edinburgh in 2006, and his M.Arch from the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University in 2010. He has worked for numerous practices worldwide including UN Studio in Amsterdam, Simon Conder Associates in London, and Heneghan Peng Architects in Dublin. His main research interests include large-scale questions of sustainability such as energy, transportation, food, and water, and how these issues are affected by and impact upon the way we live, and the buildings and cities we live in.

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1 Comment
  1. david walker

    January 19, 2012

    1) overly complicated – requires setting up two new bodies, one to run and one to monitor
    2) who pays for the original assessment? and who carries it out?
    3) not “attractive” to end users eg; imagine i am a low-income family, i am in danger of losing my job, i am worrying about paying my mortgage/rent and keeping bills under control (food etc) … you want me to pay more on my electric bill?…i would rather put another jersey on.
    4) i am a landlord, and need to replace boilers in my flats…hey presto i can do it and get my tenants to pay (great if i am the landlord)…hmmm is that fair? Landlord should do it anyway i think.
    5) feed-in tariff and other green measures are being cut? (which is stupid) so this “deal” could be changed in future to be less viable too.
    6) you want energy companies to recoup the costs ..and they will do this without an “admin charge”??? i don’t think so… and then redistribute money to the installers… who are waiting for the money and …waiting and…waiting and are maybe reliant on cash flow.
    7) the actual costs involved do not always stack up (ref; “building” 13.01.12) i have also looked at this on my own property and the savings would not equal the amount of energy saved…which is a pre-requisite to getting the “green deal” to work.
    8) i do not like the idea that energy companies are involved – it would be more straightforward to have the central “green bank” fund improvements through loans at a preferential (not-for-profit) rate.

    OK – sorry if this sounds negative, my personal belief is that energy-security is the biggest challenge that will face us from 2012 onwards, and the government (and others) need to take immedeate action, and should be ENCOURAGED – however typically it seems to be in a convaluted and expensive way. i have only scratched the surface of the document….but my opinion is that it is going to be less than successful, and as others who have looked at it in more depth have noted, it will be detrimental to existing businesses involved in doing this already.

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