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Published on March 30th, 2016 | by frances

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The Brexit debate is missing the point on UK energy policy

By Garry Graham, Prospect Deputy General Secretary

UK energy policy has become the latest playground for those seeking to argue the case for remaining part of the EU or making the case for departure. Both, in their own way, rather miss the point.

Prospect has long made the point that UK energy policy has to stop being a political football.

For too long what has passed for debate has been a subterfuge to seek to gain party political advantage – either at election time or, as we see from Roger Helmer, MEP for the East Midlands, a proxy for voters swaying one way or another in relation to the EU referendum.

This has resulted in the oversimplification of the energy challenges we face and the lack of a meaningful and informed debate about the choices we need to make and their consequences.

Never is this truer than when it comes to energy policy. For those in the industry, the frustration over many years has been that the energy “debate” has almost solely focused on price. We all know the challenge is more complex.

Throw in energy security, the pressing need for investment in new generating capacity and infrastructure, climate change and the challenges are far greater requiring far more nuanced decisions.

Contrasting the assertions of Energy Secretary Amber Rudd and Roger Helmer one could be forgiven for being puzzled by the fact that Europe was either the salvation of our energy sector or the cause of its demise.

This is all rather reminiscent of the “demonisation” of the big six that we saw in the run up to the general election. Politicians like to paint in primary colours but the world is rarely so simple.

Prospect has long supported a “balanced” energy policy, with a mix of thermal generation, renewables and nuclear to provide security of supply, capacity, a fair deal for consumers as well as recognising a need to move towards low carbon generation.

There is a debate to be had as to the appropriate mix, the pace of transition and the fact that giving one priority over another has consequences. Mr Helmer seems to put forward a rather different proposition.

He states that: “Free from the EU’s energy rules and regulations we can offer lower cost coal and gas and reduce the reliance on these expensive renewables.”

This assumes a number of things – that transition to low-carbon generation is being “foisted” upon the UK and that price must be king in decision-making.

If price is king it rules out carbon capture and new nuclear, as well as renewables – the free market is allowed to let rip and unabated coal and gas are the way forward. Whatever your views on Europe many will question that proposition.

Secondly, is Europe “foisting” renewables and low-carbon technology, such new nuclear, on the UK? Part of that will depend on whether you believe in climate change or not.

If you do you are probably of the view that to mitigate the impact of climate change requires nation states acting in concert together, sacrificing a level of sovereignty together in pursuance of a mutually agreed objective.

For the sake of balance the statement made by Amber Rudd begs bigger questions about UK energy policy and our ability to attract investment in new generating capacity.

One can have a view on interconnection without being pro or anti-EU, though the devil may be in the detail as to what the likely terms may be and what strings are attached. Interconnection however is not the silver bullet to addressing the need to invest in new generating capacity.

Having taken the time to read the report referenced by both politicians I am struck by two comments: on Brexit it states that “placed in the context of overall energy costs, these cost increases would be relatively small”.

On the issue of the UK’s energy mix it states: “The UK’s domestic commitments to reducing emissions, coal closure and deploying renewables are similar or stronger than current and planned EU requirements.”

Politicians quoting selectively? Who would have thought it? The conclusion this brings me to is we need a proper debate about our position in Europe and a proper debate about energy policy.

When one is used as a proxy for the other we all end up none the wiser.


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One Response to The Brexit debate is missing the point on UK energy policy

  1. richard cooper says:

    And we still expect the British public to cast an informed vote. Its like the game ‘pin the tail on the donkey’, and most people aren’t interested in playing

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