I have mentioned beforei the regular conferences organised by Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum (“WEET”). My email inbox has been buzzing with messages about their activities. There is certainly no shortage of “green” subjects on which to hold conferences, and no shortage of people to talk at them (and to attend them, especially from the public sector). Here is a short summary of what’s coming up at WEET, so that readers can see how much time and effort (and their money) is being invested in all this stuff.
Next steps for decarbonising UK heat and heat networks
We’ve just missed this one – mea culpa. It was held on 13th January 2022, and was co-chaired by the Rt Hon Alun Cairns MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Energy Security, and
Dr Alan Whitehead MP, Shadow Minister for Energy and the Green New Deal. You might have thought that the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Energy Security might have other things to talk about just now, but it seems not.
Lead speakers were David Capper, Director at the Clean Heat Directorate, BEIS; and Cathryn Scott, Director, Enforcement and Emerging Issues, Ofgem.
David Capper gets out and about. On 20th May 2021 he spoke at the Utility Week Future of Heat Conferenceii about the UK’s Heat & Buildings Strategy, one aspect of which is growing the UK heat pump market by 20 fold to support 600,000 installations per year by 2028, and another is enabling strategic decisions on the future of UK heating by the middle of the decade. Last week’s conference discussed these things too, and it seems they aren’t going to let this agenda die lightly.
Cathryn Scott’s job involves things like ordering energy suppliers to pay overdue Renewables Obligations and Feed-in Tariffs. I became quite nostalgic just now looking at a page published on 2nd October 2020 on Ofgem’s websiteiii. Ah, those heady days when the energy suppliers she was chasing for money still existed and were just seven among dozens and dozens of UK retail energy suppliers. Still, the writing was on the wall with 24 such companies going bust or leaving the market even in 2019. Times have changed pretty quickly, but I imagine Cathryn’s department is still seeking overdue payments.
Another speaker is a representative of Heat Trustiv “launched in November 2015 as an independent, non-profit consumer champion for heat networks that holds the industry to account for the benefit of everyone involved.” 2015 seems to have been a big year for starting up such organisations. One might have thought these developments were on the back of some Government initiative offering financial opportunities, but instead it was the year when Cameron’s Conservative Party won the general election, and the coalition with the Liberal Democrats ended. That then resulted in headlines such as this: “UK Government abandons zero carbon buildings pledges”. That articlev commenced:
The UK Government has today announced that it is to abandon its plans to introduce zero carbon buildings, including homes in 2016 and zero carbon commercial buildings in 2019. As part of a range of planning measures officially announced by the Treasury, it has been confirmed that the government ‘does not intend to proceed with the zero carbon Allowable Solutions carbon offsetting scheme, or the proposed 2016 increase in on-site energy efficiency standards’. Officials from the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) have also separately confirmed that the zero carbon policy for non-domestic buildings will also be discarded as part of the new changes. The move has already been heavily criticised by the UK Green Building Council and senior figures in the construction sector, who are dismayed at the move by a Government that once claimed it was to be the UK’s ‘greenest ever’.
Apart from beginning to realise just how many of these expensive and bureaucratic schemes there have been over the years, it’s also interesting to note how, although the governing party remains the same, two Prime Ministers later and policy in this area looks very different.
I couldn’t work out why David Pilling of Ombudsman Services was there, but he spoke under the heading of “Priorities for boosting consumer protection – modernising property management responsibilities, consumer rights, and the fair distribution of district heating costs”. Fair distribution of heating costs is looking like an increasingly important question at the moment!
One of the things that never ceases to amaze me about the net zero agenda, which in large part spawns all these conferences, is the awareness of the difficulties, yet the willingness to plough ahead regardless. For instance, this conference had sections under specific headings such as “The business case for heat network expansion and addressing barriers to infrastructure delivery, material costs, and conventional heat grid integration”. Which implicitly carries with it an acknowledgement that there are barriers to infrastructure delivery, and that there are material costs.
Or again, this section of the conference:”Next steps for heat market framework design – standardising entry rules, supporting tariff and stakeholder competition, and boosting attractiveness for investor engagement”. Again, an implicit appreciation that this regime, without support, will not generate tariff and stakeholder competition, nor will it be attractive for investors.
Under “key areas for discussion” we see the following policy aims:
“creating a market that attracts investment and engagement” and “how a self-reliant market can be established”. Also, “aims to incentivise low-carbon heating systems” and “funding to support all new heating systems in UK homes from 2035 to be low carbon”. Under “further guidance” we see “supporting industry stakeholders on project design”; “reducing barriers to wider energy system integration” and “how funding initiatives can best leverage public and private capital”.
Then: “addressing challenges and considering options for: ensuring the price of heat pumps is equal to fossil fuel boilers by 2030” and “reducing obstacles to scaling up hydrogen, including heat grid modernisation to facilitate hydrogen supply”.
So, lots of understanding about costs and obstacles, but no understanding that all this might not be such a good idea. Even when we learn that “Ofgem has been appointed as the heat networks regulator to protect consumers, enforce decarbonisation rules and licence heat network developers” and “UK Government announces funding for five new heat networks as part of the Heat Networks Investment Project” [more costs]. Not even this wakes them up: “the rise in wholesale gas and electricity costs has presented financial challenges to providers, and potentially customers, this winter, with policy action to address the fallout including: Ofgem’s appointment of E.ON to take over collapsed energy providers, with even more providers having gone bust, posing challenges for the industry that may well require energy administrators to assist or intervene”.
Despite it all, it’s still full steam ahead (or should that be, progress if and when the wind blows?).
The list of attendees for whom places have been reserved is a wonder to behold, though I haven’t worked out why the Coal Authority is on the list.
Next steps for food security in the UK
Sorry about the short notice. This one is to be held on 20th January 2022, so if you wish to attend (online) you’ll have to be quick. I won’t go through the list of speakers this time. Suffice to say, our old friend Lord Deben will be there, and one of the co-chairs will be Baroness Hayman of Ullock, briefly MP for the constituency in which I reside, after winning the 2015 election with a majority of 4,686, seeing it reduced to a majority of 3,925 in 2017, and then in 2019 losing it to the Conservatives (for only the second time in a century) who now have a majority of 4,176. During much of this period, Jeremy Corbyn was leader of the Labour Party and Sue Hayman (as she then was) served as a shadow minister and latterly as Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Having been turfed out of Parliament by an ungrateful electorate, she was returned there courtesy of Jezza nominating her to the House of Lords, where she now has a new gig as Baroness Hayman of Ullock (and apparently occasional co-chair of conferences).
Despite my sarcasm, UK food security is obviously of importance, and I reckon this is the most useful of the conferences I mention here. Nevertheless, it is sadly warped by an obsession with climate change and the net zero agenda. Two of the sessions expressly introduce climate change and a third has as the keynote speaker the Policy Director of Green Alliance. “Building sector resilience”includes a reference to climate change, while the “supply chain” section expressly references “net-zero ambitions”. The “relevant developments” section really goes for it, since these people obviously think climate change and net zero are the most relevant factors of all. This section includes “Achieving Net-Zero: Farming’s 2040 Goal – NFU plans”; “the IPCC Special Report on global warming”; and “COP26 Special Report on Climate Change and Health – the WHO report” .
Places have been reserved for another impressive list of attendees, but I can’t see anyone from the Coal Authority at this one.
Short notice again, I’m afraid, with this one taking place on 25th January 2022. Among the speakers once more is a representative from Burges Salmon, solicitors (who I’ve just read are among WEET’s core sponsors), and lots of people who you would expect to see. Plus someone from Greenbackers Investment Capital (“Greenbackers is all about catalyzing the investment needed to build a more sustainable society. By connecting disruptive technology providers to our network of climate focused investors, we’d like to think we’re helping to saving [sic] the planet one deal at a time.”).vi
There’s a section on latest thinking for contracts for difference, and “policy options for supply chain support beyond UK wind and structuring incentives across the renewables sector”. Thus, despite all the talk about how cheap renewables are, we still see the debate focused on subsidies such as CfDs and “support” and “incentives”. There’s also a section which talks about “tackling challenges”, so they do recognise that challenges exist, but the show rolls on. There’s a section on, inter alia, “supply chain resilience”, “remaining competitive” and “investment appeal”, so again there is an appreciation that this stuff isn’t easy, but money helps. Regrettably the last section includes the words “international leadership”, which I always find to be worrying, especially in any area where politicians have been involved.
Electricity markets in the UK
This one is scheduled to take place on 28th February 2022, and has the sub-heading “Next steps for the Capacity Market, the Contracts for Difference regime, and supporting low-carbon electricity generation”. The 9.35am session looks more than a little challenging, so it’s a surprise to see only 55 minutes devoted to this: “Priorities for Capacity Market reform – developing a market that can deliver reliable, cost-effective, decarbonised power supplies”. Perhaps that session should have been headed “Mission Impossible”.
Still, at least it gets half an hour more than “The outlook for market reform – UK capacity and key issues for energy security”. Given current issues, I might have thought this is a subject deserving of a little more than 25 minutes.
This bit strikes me as quite sinister: “non-generation technologies – demand-side response and wider role, smart energy business models, and consumer costs”. Any mention of demand-side response and smart energy makes me think of plans to switch things off when there isn’t enough electricity to go round.
Green skills, apprenticeships, and employment
This one will take place on 10th March 2022. From the agenda I learn that there is a Deputy Director for Green Finance, Jobs and Investment for Net Zero, at BEIS and that we have a Green Jobs Taskforce, so that’s good. The latter was launched on 12th November 2020, and has already produced a report. From this I discover that:
BloombergNEF estimates the 1.5 degrees commitment would require around $64 trillion global investment in power and grid infrastructure, and between $13 trillion and $66 trillion in hydrogen manufacturing, transport, and storage.
Which sounds like a lot of money for something which is supposed to cost less than doing nothing. Also:
The IEA considers that the transition will likely involve some job losses… and notes that “it will be vital to minimise hardships associated with these disruptions, such as by retraining workers, locating new clean energy facilities in heavily affected areas wherever possible, and providing regional aid”.
So there will be hardships and disruption. It doesn’t seem to provide pause for thought, however. Then there’s this:
According to the Place-based Climate Action Network’s Just Transition Jobs Tracker, one in five jobs in the UK (approximately 6.3 million workers) will require skills which may experience demand growth (approximately 10% of UK jobs) or reduction (approximately 10%) as a result of the transition to net zero. The latter will likely need reskilling, upskilling, or to use their current skills differently.
Here’s an idea – let’s not bother. It would be a lot easier. But no, they are bothering, and that’s why this conference has sessions with headings like: “Supporting businesses, SMEs, and regional labour markets to offer green jobs – funding and investment, facilitating market demand and competitive supply chains, and priorities for regions dependent on high-carbon industries”. Support, funding, investment – none of this going to come cheap.
Next steps for Zero Emission Vehicles in the UK
If you’re really keen, you could attend this one too on the next day, 11th March 2022. There are some big problems to be resolved, with subjects to be addressed such as these: “how supply chain issues around materials and computer chips can be addressed” and “next steps for scaling up electric vehicle and charge point rollout”.
There are some other cracking difficulties here too: “the vehicle market – affordability, consumer engagement, and supporting investment and competitiveness within the UK automotive industry” and “haulage and public transport – key issues for decarbonising heavy goods vehicles and passenger services, as well as ensuring services are not disrupted in the transition to ZEVs”.
As ever, it comes down to this: “what is needed from government and regulation to support the transition to zero emission vehicles”? The short answer, if these things worked for people, would be to let the market rule (I thought that’s what Conservative politicians believed in) and we’d get there in short order without the need for support. But of course, they don’t work for the vast majority of people, so we are to be forced into them by a mixture of the carrot and the stick, it will cost the taxpayer dearly, and at the end of it, we’ll have less satisfactory transport options than we do now. But I couldn’t find that section of the agenda.
Next steps for energy storage in the UK
I suppose there is some logic in this being the next in the series, especially as part of it discusses “coordination with the wider EV rollout” ; it’s due to take place on 29th March 2022. As ever, we see the same sorts of issues being discussed: “expanding capacity – system flexibility, the role of small- and large-scale storage, and the transition to low-carbon energy generation”[the logistical challenge]; “regulatory and whole-system reform” [more reforms required]; “innovation in battery storage, and developing alternative technologies” [yet again, reliance on technologies that don’t exist at anything like the required scale]; “reducing barriers to entry, such as those relating to the network or regulation” [yet more barriers to be removed]; and “policy priorities, access to finance and support for commercialisation” [yet again the need for finance and support – money, money money].
There are definitely some themes developing here!
The European Green Deal and the UK
You get a break before this one takes place on 25th April 2022. Attend it, and you might wonder if Brexit ever happened, as you can be regaled by Jytte Guteland MEP, Lead Climate Negotiator in the European Parliament. Learn about “[t]he evolving European decarbonisation policy landscape” and discover “opportunities for drawing on from the European Green Deal and other international strategies to refine the UK net-zero policy pathway, and help build relationships”.
Another session is to be headed by a senior Parliamentarian and a senior European Parliamentarian, and will cover “Opportunities for collaboration on a political level between the UK and EU”. I’m all in favour of international collaboration, and I wish the frictions between the UK and the EU were resolved. But they aren’t, yet when it comes to committing economic suicide, it seems that we are to hold hands and to jump off the cliff together.
Growing the hydrogen economy in the UK
Finally (for now – these conferences just keep on coming), this one will take place on 27th April 2022. We are told:
It takes place in the context of the UK Hydrogen Strategy, and decarbonisation goals set out in the Sixth Carbon Budget and Net Zero Strategy. Delegates will consider what is needed to develop the supply chain, as well as investment and commercialisation, alongside the practicalities of scaling up long-term supply and supporting increased production, storage, distribution and use, whilst addressing the cost gap between hydrogen and fossil fuels.
The conference will also be an opportunity to discuss a number of key measures due to be released in early 2022 to support deployment and investment including a Hydrogen Sector Development Action Plan; the Net Zero Hydrogen Fund; a UK standard for low carbon hydrogen; and the Low Carbon Hydrogen Supply 2 competition.
More, perhaps, than any of the others, this one talks about the need for support and finance – “support for R&D and commercialisation, integration into the energy mix, role in decarbonisation plans, and achieving the sector’s economic potential” and “developing production, distribution, storage and use, plus business models, strategic planning, scaling up, and addressing the fossil fuels cost gap”.
Perhaps it’s just me. Maybe I’m too negative and cynical. However, all I see here (i.e. with regard to the subject-matter of all these conferences) apart from a lot of gassing, is expense, hassle, difficulties, burdens imposed on hard-pressed taxpayers and consumers, and a system which in every respect will see us with things which work less well than they do now. From expensive, intermittent and unreliable energy, created by acts of industrial-scale vandalism in our wild places; to cars which don’t operate anything like as effectively for most people as those we have now; to homes heated less efficiently, more expensively, and possibly more dangerously than is currently the case; to a nation whose international competitiveness will have been damaged beyond repair. Just what is going on?