When the UK takes to the polls next week, it’s entirely likely that which political party’s energy policy is the strongest will not be the dominant thought in most peoples’ minds. The key battleground topics of the economy, the NHS and immigration have dominated press coverage of this year’s general election.
But this isn’t to say that it has been neglected. Column inches dedicated to energy and the environment have swollen in comparison to 2010 when the Eurozone’s ailing economy took centre stage, and each of the main five parties has been eager to discuss energy. Described as an “economic necessity” by Labour leader Ed Miliband, how best to tackle climate change and shape the UK’s future energy market has muscled its way into the wider agenda.
Views predictably varied from end of the political spectrum to the next and some parties were as diametrically opposed as ever. While the Greens outlined substantial support – and even more substantial generation targets – for renewable energy, Nigel Farage’s UKIP sought to scrap all renewable subsidies in an attempt to “level the playing field” for the long-suffering coal industry.
The Greens were the only political party to set specific targets for the solar industry, targeting 25GW of solar PV capacity by 2020. The Department of Energy and Climate Change’s (DECC) last guidance in September 2014 had the UK’s capacity at roughly 5.2GW and although this has been estimated to have soared to as much as 8GW prior to the 1.4 ROC deadline on 1 April, that scale would represent a sizeable leap and at 25GW, the Greens have been even more ambitious than the Solar Trade Association’s best case scenario of 22GW.
Natalie Bennett’s manifesto speaks of a £35 billion investment in renewable energy over the course of a five year parliament which, although an undeniably strong commitment, appears out of touch with what the wider electorate would demand considering the UK’s deficit reduction initiatives and concerns over NHS funding. Reduced planning constraints on projects, a blight on the Conservatives’ much-vaunted dedication to renewable energy, is however an entirely achievable policy and one that would certainly remove much of the red tape restraints.
A level playing field?
And any such support is more than renewables would receive under a prospective UKIP-led government. Aside from pledging to abolish DECC, repeal the Climate Change Act and scrap all future renewable energy subsidies, Farage envisages a future UK energy market led by nuclear, coal and fracking. The energy section of UKIP’s 2015 manifesto reads like a waste ground for renewable energies, claiming them to have enjoyed an unfair advantage over traditional fuels while criticising a supposed lack of reliability and value for money. It’s worth remembering the strike price at Hinkley C is currently set at £92.50, higher than the £79.23 rate agreed by three solar farms for 2016/2017 in the first CfD round, and that doubts have been raised publicly regarding the efficiency of the reactors selected for the project.
But hypocrisy is not uncommon within UKIP’s energy department. Speaking at the BBC’s Daily Politics debate on energy and the environment, UKIP energy spokesman Roger Helmer said renewable subsidies were immoral despite admitting to having them installed on his own roof.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the energy policies of the other three, more mainstream parties are far more middle-of-the-road. The Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems have all expressed support for renewable energies to differing degrees, with the latter two having launched individual ‘Green Plans’ to power the UK’s drive towards prospective carbon targets in 2030.
Labour’s plans involve the creation of one million more ‘green jobs’, more powers for the Green Investment Bank and a pledge to work with the solar industry in order to help provide a more stable policy environment in the future. Quite what fits the criteria of a ‘green job’ remains to be seen, but the solar industry must take solace from a party leader – and current bookmaker’s favourite to be the country’s next prime minister – making a commitment to at least listen to its wants and needs. Whether or not this will translate to the stable policy environment many have been calling for though remains to be seen, with the Labour leader far more entrenched in driving prices down for consumers than furthering the renewables cause.
Pledges and promises
The Liberal Democrats meanwhile set an ambitious target for the country to derive 60% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030, driven by stimulating £100 billion of private investment in the sector. Leader Nick Clegg and secretary of state for energy and climate change Ed Davey have both trumpeted their party’s successes in championing renewable energies as part of the coalition, however Davey was skewered during the Daily Politics debate and forced to admit that the government was behind in its efforts to reach a 15% adoption of renewable energy in the UK, which currently stands at around 5%.
The Conservatives however have been markedly vaguer than their counterparts. Aside from a pledge to remove all subsidies for onshore wind farms, not much was mentioned of renewable energies in the party’s election manifesto and solar was omitted entirely. Minister of state for energy Matthew Hancock later moved to confirm the party’s commitment to solar when speaking to Solar Power Portal, but doubts remain over an election campaign that rarely deviates from the ‘long term economic plan’ rhetoric and an apparent lack of desire to go on the record with regards to where the party stands on renewable energy subsidies. Perhaps David Cameron was successful in “getting rid of all the green crap” after all.
The polls remain tight and difficult to predict either way, but whichever party is successful next week will not have long to nail their colours to the mast. The COP21 summit is being held in Paris in less than seven months’ time and the UK will be expected to lead from the front. Summit delegates are likely to be far more demanding than the electorate, and there will be nowhere to hide. Either Ed Miliband or David Cameron will not have long to sharpen their renewable commitments.