EGM comment: UK election implications
All three parties - incumbent Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democrats - have delivered manifestos that pledge the same two priorities for energy policy: sustainable and long-term cuts in carbon emissions, and the need for energy security. In reality, both priorities often conflict with one another.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown made it clear which priority was more important, describing energy security as "imperative" and climate change as a "challenge". Nevertheless, the Climate Change Act 2008 makes Labour's aggressive carbon reduction targets (80% absolute cut by 2050) legally binding. But just because it's law doesn't mean the government will meet the targets. The current delivery mechanism (reduction in energy demand caused by recession, new technology such as CCS, and the rapid uptake of renewables) may well struggle to deliver.
The Conservatives are firmly behind nuclear, renewables and coal using CCS which would be facilitated by a streamlined planning system. The party's manifesto holds out the possibility of a move towards a system of strategic gas storage. Other policy measures include obliging suppliers to enter into long-term supply contracts or contracted demand-side response, as well as reforming the regulator Ofgem to focus on executing, not developing, policy.
A re-elected Labour government may also take a more interventionist approach. UK Minister for Energy and Climate Change Ed Miliband's language suggests he believes government should be driving the necessary changes to boost renewables in the energy sector, and certainly not leaving it to the market.
The Liberal Democrats are aiming for a zero-carbon and non-nuclear Britain by 2050, with renewables at the centre of this policy, though there's no detail on how this will be achieved. There's scant mention of gas in their manifesto, though with no nuclear and a moratorium on new coal (unless accompanied by CCS), gas-fired generation would be heavily relied upon as a bridging fuel.
With the backdrop of a huge fiscal deficit, the general election is likely to trigger significant reductions in public expenditure.
A hung Parliament may slow any energy policy initiatives as the parties struggle to find consensus. Whatever the outcome, the new government's policy will need to cope with several issues. The recession means finance for new infrastructure may be harder to secure. A large proportion of UK power generation capacity needs to be replaced over the coming decade - particularly around 2015 - including substantial nuke capacity. It is this problem which will bring the issue of energy security into conflict with decarbonisation most acutely. The obvious option, assuming renewables don't meet the gap, is more gas-fired power plants.
An alternative might be where the new government seeks postponement of the rules requiring lower emissions (sulphur and nitrogen) from coal-fired power plants, and then builds new coal plants (or runs existing ones longer than intended) without CCS technology. CCS probably won't be commercially ready before at least 2020.
Labour's energy policy isn't just being driven by energy security and decarbonisation. It's also driven by an interest in job creation and developing export-capable industries for a low-carbon energy. Given the backdrop of such a deep recession, these drivers may prove attractive to whichever government is successful in May's election.
A hung Parliament may slow energy policy initiatives as the parties struggle to find consensus
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