Notes for an energy policy resolution

Happy 2014.I hope everyone has made suitable New Year’s resolutions and that they will stick to them for at least twelve months.Or, if you’re anything like me, you’d figure that if you can’t get around to exercising more/working less/eating better in July, there’s little chance of you beating inertia when it’s wet and windy outside.To those of us who have resolved to change for the better, well done, because simply deciding to change is a useful first step. Of course, it is only useful if many other steps follow. To those people, this blog is for you. It’s also for those working to make our energy system a little better: a bit cleaner, a bit fairer, and a bit cheaper, one step at a time.

Resolutions usually go the same way.We promise ourselves we’ll exercise more, and by mid January have bought some lycra and a twelve month gym membership.By mid February most of us can’t see the benefits yet, and we just want to be ourselves again, having that extra glass of wine, finding an excuse not to exercise, working more and seeing our families less.It’s still wet and windy outside, and well, changing is hard.

The same seems sadly to be true of politicians, albeit over the longer timescales of governmental cycles.Those sceptical of those coalition promises to be the “greenest government ever”, have long been proved right, if not by woefully poor handling of the Balcolme situation, then certainly after Cameron’s “green crap” sentiments (or whatever the actual words were).

So what can we, and what should the Government, learn from our mistakes?Clearly effective energy policy cannot be established in a year, but first steps can be made – and lessons can certainly be learnt from the past year in energy politics.

First off, lets decide what we want.Objectives should be concrete rather than wooly statements of being “the greenest”.For example, Ed Davey’s call for a “community energy revolution” will have little resonance if the forthcoming Community Energy Strategy is as unsubstantial as some commentators fear (It can be assumed that by “revolution”, Mr Davey probably meant ‘a process of change’ rather than ‘a forcible overthrow of Government’, though I can’t be certain). However, tangible challenges deserve tangible solutions, rather than clichéd soundbites. While solutions at a range of scales is needed for a sustainable energy future, I would argue that community energy can help deliver tangible change, with tangible benefits and helps engage people in ways that a centralised system cannot.

Secondly, it is vital to understand how goals interact.The interconnectedness of the objectives of energy policy (green, affordable, secure) means that it can be challenging to keep eyes on all of the prizes.For the past few years it though, it appears as if the Coalition have been more concerned with appeasing industry and Conservative retrenching to appeal to the right, not least through their portraying of progressive social elements of energy bills.

Thirdly, it is unlikely that the benefits of a sustainable energy system will be seen immediately.Widespread change takes time, and it is absurd to expect that something as ambitious as this could be achieved within a few years.There are of course opportunities to make positive first steps and realise benefits in relatively short periods of time, such as through benefit structures to those communities hosting renewables.

And lastly, in contrast to betraying one’s own new years resolutions, the Government’s failure to encourage a shift in the energy system is a betrayal of the society’s faith.The notion that we can decarbonise without anyone noticing is a dangerously false assumption. Actually, the opposite is true, as engaging society is not only an important part of moving to a sustainable energy system, it will define it.

Changing the energy system is difficult:it means rethinking institutions, reimagining governance arrangements, and reconsidering our relationship with energy, and it means rebalancing the distribution of costs and benefits, between ourselves and over time.Moving to a sustainable energy future means accepting that these things can be goals in themselves.So, in the spirit of New Year optimism, rather than thinking of difficulty as an excuse for inertia, let us consider it a reason for change.

Iain Souter is a PhD researcher in the Exeter Energy Policy Group

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