The green economy: blessing or curse?

The above was the title of a panel debate hosted by the UK newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, late last week. There is a short write up in the Saturday edition of the newspaper. I was fortunate to participate in this, alongside Oliver Letwin MP, Minister of State (providing policy advice to the Prime Minister in the Cabinet Office) and Cabinet attendee. Other panel members were UCL Professor Paul Ekins, Jeremy Nicholson from the Energy Intensive Users Group and renewable energy venture capitalist Ben Goldsmith.

Photo Courtesy of The Daily Telegraph

Although Mr Letwin chose not to offer any opening remarks, his subsequent comments revealed some interesting thinking in the UK Government on energy and climate change. Three particular lines of discussion emerged during the debate;

  1. With the “Green Economy” often associated with wind-turbines and solar PV, there was much discussion on how the UK determines its future energy mix. Mr Letwin put forward the view that an entirely market determined outcome was not in the interests of Britain. There was the risk that such a direction could result in over dependency on a particular energy source, bringing with it issues such as reliability, future price exposure, capital cost and technology lock-in. He argued that although the market should play a major role in driving change, there was also a need for the government to ensure that the resulting energy mix was built on a variety of energy sources and technologies. These included renewables, nuclear and fossil fuels, the latter also supported by CCS. This in turn meant that there was a role for government to promote technologies in the early stages of development and that this would remain a feature of their energy policy. The government would also ensure that sufficient incentive was in place for the first stages of deployment of such technologies.
  2. Following on from (1) there was some discussion on the potential role for CCS in the UK energy system. Mr Letwin reaffirmed the need for the government to support a large scale demonstration of the technology and that the proposed government injection of £1 billion was both justified and modest given the scale of the low carbon energy option that it had the potential to deliver, particularly given the remaining fossil fuel production potential of the UK. He expressed the view that the key issue with CCS was not the need to determine its technical feasibility but rather to determine its cost feasibility. Mr Letwin’s enthusiasm for CCS extended into his closing remarks where he concluded that the UK would have one of the first large scale CCS facilities in the world and that the demonstration therein that natural gas was a viable zero-carbon fuel would be of huge benefit to the UK.
  3. Not surprisingly the subject of the UK carbon floor price emerged during the discussion. Mr Letwin linked the need for it to the points made in (1) above and defended its introduction given the current state of the EU-ETS and the very weak price signal it was now delivering. But he also made it clear that it would be better for all concerned if the ETS delivered the necessary price signal: his “fingers crossed” hand gesture when the proposed EU allowance set aside was mentioned was pretty clear body language. 

Overall, it was an interesting evening and well attended. I am not sure that we ever really answered the question, but we did at least get some useful insight into the thinking that supports the current energy policy direction of the UK.