Energy companies going bust. “Insulate Britain” protestors closing down the M25. What’s going on?
A lot – and not enough.
The UK energy system is a complicated mesh of home-produced and imported energy. While much of our electricity now comes from renewable sources, a third of it is normally generated from gas. Most of our heating is from gas too, with the UK’s home gas boilers emitting twice as much CO2 as all our power stations.
60% of our gas is imported, so UK energy prices are highly linked to the world-wide price of gas – which has rocketed of late. Prices have risen by 250% since January, with a 70% increase since August alone.
Then a few weeks ago there was a perfect storm: the already-high prices were inflated by issues including a fire in Kent taking down an-interconnector line from France, lower wind energy generation than normal for the time of year, and reduced output from nuclear and fossil fuel plants due to maintenance projects delayed by the pandemic. Electricity prices spiked hugely as a result of all this, and those companies that hadn’t bought enough electricity in advance to meet their customers’ needs had to spend a fortune to cover the shortfall. This took a good number of them over the edge.
Both government and the The Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology (REA) agree we need to reduce our exposure to volatile gas prices by ramping up our renewable energy capacity. But the REA goes further: “We must also have a renewed focus on energy efficiency and insulating our homes to reduce our overall energy usage as a first step.”
And here’s the great elephant in the room. The government’s record on energy efficiency is shambolic, with a number of failing schemes over many years.
This simply can’t continue, hence the “Insulate Britain” protesters shutting down the M25. Regardless of what you think of their methods, the lengths these activists are being driven to is indicative of the importance of the issue and the mind-boggling nature of existing policy because, as we know, energy efficiency and insulation isn’t a technology issue or a finance issue. It’s about co-ordinating, enabling and collaborating, and doing things at scale. That’s what government is supposed to do.
The community energy sector is ready and willing to help with this. Hundreds of Community Energy England groups work on energy efficiency. Locally the Bristol Energy Network helps people struggling to pay their energy bills and advises on how to reduce energy use. And Energy Tracers in the CHEESE Project improve the comfort and health of low-income families by helping reduce energy losses in their homes. This scheme has been so successful they’re now developing a national franchise. So you can see there’s no lack of ambition in the sector, but things normally run on a shoe-string and survive through volunteer effort. What the country actually needs is for government to adopt the right policies to enable all sectors to become energy efficient, at scale and at speed.
With COP26 around the corner, now is the time for government to make the required commitments: Insulate, ditch the gas boilers, and get in the heat pumps / renewable heat storage.