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I don’t want a faster horse!

By Lesley Rudd

Apparently, Henry Ford said, “if I had asked people what they wanted they would have said faster horses”. I heard something that reminded me of that this week – don’t move away from gas  because “it’s what we have and what people are used to.”

I am not knocking our gas grid, it is an asset in which many billions were invested and which has served us well – but so did horses. What I am suggesting is it’s time to plan the future and set a road map and milestones along that way to a renewable future. Keep the gas grid by all means, but have a long-term plan for a future of clean, sustainable energy.

 The world needs to change.

As horses were replaced by the combustion engine, smog replaced horse dung and now we are looking to address air quality with electric and hydrogen vehicles.

Our energy system needs to move from gas guzzling to saving energy and from fossil fuels to renewables. Technology is changing, prices are reducing and innovation is providing us with tools to store energy, to better manage and flex demand, to better control the heating systems in our homes and to better control the entire energy system.

Having our own oil and gas reserves in the past enabled our country to develop significant expertise in energy. I am old enough to remember (as a child!) the massive programme of “conversion” to change our country from town gas to North Sea gas. I am also old enough to remember when our energy systems were run by public companies and the huge changes that came when they were privatised and broken up. This led to the UK becoming a leader in the regulation of energy markets. As our competitive energy markets have matured we have developed regulatory as well as technical expertise. We should harness this technical and regulatory knowledge to become leaders in clean energy.

Don’t listen to those who would have us believe that all regulation is bad! It can be a cheap and successful way of transforming markets,  as evidenced by the  change in 2005 which raised efficiency standards for boilers. Twelve years later technology has moved on significantly and so should regulations – BEIS and DCLG are currently planning to increase efficiency requirements again – a long overdue change and one which should be a step on a pathway to further improvements rather than a one-off with nothing more for a further twelve years.

One of the barriers however to setting out a roadmap to clean and sustainable energy, is the short termism that results from political cycles. Governments change, ministers change and priorities change. We need a clear long-term plan that is maintained regardless of ministerial or government change. There is no reason why we cannot have political consensus for a vision of our energy system. It can bring economic benefits whichever party is in power. Policy stability and a long-term road map with clear milestones on the journey will decrease risk and encourage investment. This approach can deliver us something far better than just faster horses. It can bring a clean energy revolution. Hopefully the Government’s Clean Growth Plan will deliver the stimulus for that to happen.

Lesley Rudd, Chief Executive of the Sustainable Energy Association

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Friday, September 15th, 2017