Honesty amid complexity: What role for evidence in energy policy

Last month DECC invited evidence around community energy to inform an eventual Community Energy Strategy consultation in the summer. A sceptic would note that this call for evidence has shifted the draft consultation back down the timetable, and that the strategy itself could not seek to modify policies anyway. However, what is certain is that DECC’s engagement with the power of people and communities, while belated, is welcome, and this call for evidence puts the ball firmly back into Whitehall’s side of the court.

While the content of the strategy itself is yet to be revealed, this process does raise the issue of the complex relationship between evidence and policymaking. At the simplest level, understanding why evidence and energy policy have such a troubled relationship can be pulled apart by considering the whats and whys, whens, whos, hows, and wheres of energy policy, and what this might mean for decision making.

What energy sources are available to us is largely a scientific question of what is technically available. Taking the spin-heavy topic of UK fracking as an example, even this apparently simple question can be difficult to build evidence around, as we have seen in recent adjustments in the estimated potential reserves of UK shale gas. An understanding of why (and subsequently when) is then more of an economic question, and again, there is ongoing uncertainty around the potential impact of UK shale gas on energy markets, particularly given the environmental and social barriers to replicating US experiences.

So where does the evidence about who come in? While the all-pervasiveness of energy means that everyone is a stakeholder, evidence around how costs and benefits are distributed is subject to ongoing debate around energy bills, fuel poverty, and community benefits for onshore wind and potentially fracking. How policy and society frame these issues often comes down to whether energy is regarded as a commodity or a right – and always depends on whom you ask.

How you answer who, though, also depends on whether you believe that meeting the energy challenge is even possible without involving society in energy issues. My belief is that involving people is unavoidable if we want a truly sustainable energy system, not only through ensuring decision making is as timely and inclusive as possible, but through allowing and encouraging consumers to become more actively integrated into the(ir) energy system, such as through ownership of the kind seen in Germany and increasingly in the UK.

Evidence around how to make changes through effective policy design is a little bit trickier, and of course depends both on where you are starting from and how you define success. From a narrow policy deployment perspective, FiTs for small-scale PV in the UK may so far have been considered a success, though it can be argued that despite considerable experience in designing renewable policy, past lessons in managing policy certainty and investor confidence have not been learnt.

Without a firm handle on all of these questions, the Government will be ill-equipped to talk credibly about proposed action on any energy issue, let alone fracking, their newest, shiniest, and most controversial silver bullet. And of course, new technologies cannot be considered only on their own merits – they must be considered within the context of the wider energy system, alongside a variety of technologies and their impacts on markets, society, and policy, now and across longer timescales. The complexity of the energy challenges will not have simple solutions. What way forward then?

I would argue that before we get bogged down in details, the Government first needs to be more honest about where it wants the country to get to with regard its energy future, and the complexities involved in getting there. Sure, the ‘clean, affordable and secure’ line is snappy, but it does nothing to communicate the complexity nor the inevitable trade-offs involved in making appropriate and timely and energy decisions. One such tradeoff is has been publicly illustrated in Balcombe in recent weeks: that between a traditional reliance on lightly regulated markets to deliver solutions, and the importance of having society fully and meaningfully engaged. The problem is, the situation is often predictably more political than this, with Cameron trading off lengthy public engagement and evidence gathering with an apparently more urgent need to protect his right flank.

Secondly, we need honesty over the role of evidence in the making of energy policy. DECC highlights the importance of evidence in informing policy, but one need look no further than the dismissal of evidence supporting the establishment of 2030 decarbonisation targets to see that the relationship between evidence and action is far from straightforward. Policymaking is clearly a thankless task, and in making decisions fine lines are trod between keeping incumbent industry happy and maintaining voter trust. Both aspects can be helped through efforts to ensure messages about DECC’s intentions are clear and consistent with the Government’s own stated objectives, an approach absent from development of the EMR.

Complexity in policy making can be boiled down two dimensions: how much evidence is available, and how much political agreement there is in change, as highlighted nicely by the Stacey Diagram illustrated here by Robert Geyer. Where evidence is lacking, there is an understandable desire to establish the evidence base and build consensus, but at present, DECC seems stubbornly dependent on evidence of the ‘right’ kind, namely quantitative and empirical (a throwback to those days when energy was considered an technological, rather than a societal problem). Quantitative bias of this type automatically neglects those elements of the energy system that do not lend themselves so well to quantitative analysis: people. If we are to acknowledge that engaging and influencing consumers is a key part of meeting our challenges, a qualitative understanding of people and the communities in which they live and work is vital.

It is often said that energy is too important to be left to politicians, but in cases where robust, empirical evidence is lacking, is it perhaps also too important to be left to experts? Clearly there is a balance to be struck, as the immediacy of the challenge necessitates decisions which may not be grounded in the right kind of evidence, but which simply feels like the right thing to do. Whether we can trust politicians to do the right thing for society, however, remains to be seen.

– Iain Soutar, PhD Researcher, Energy Policy Group  

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