Luckily, the British government launched its latest energy security strategy on the same day, I had arranged to have cavity wall insulation installed in our old 1930s family home at the end of the terrace.
Not that there was much connection between these two things. Our home is one of 26 million reasons why something needs to be done about leaky UK housing stock. The government strategy was conspicuously silent on any policy to achieve this. Nothing at all, for example, to replace the Short Term Grant for Green Homes program, launched in July 2020 and abandoned in March 2021 amid vague accusations of bureaucratic failure.
Our own upgrade had missed this window. It cost me countless unanswered emails, labyrinthine websites and insistent sales calls to find someone I could trust. But thanks to the work they had done to improve the insulation in our attic, I knew these guys were efficient, professional and courteous. A small family business run by three brothers. I loved them.
I asked the older brother (let’s call him Asif) what he thought about supporting household energy efficiency in the UK. Or lack thereof. “I’ll tell you something,” he told me. “When the Green Homes grant was running, we had three times as many teams on the road as today.” All the more damning then, that there was nothing new in this strategy to help their cause.
The work that I and many others carried out over 30 years ago showed that improve energy efficiency is one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce energy consumption, avoid carbon emissions and lower household bills. So why is it so hard for the government to take it seriously?
The British way?
The day before the strategy was launched, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng shed some curious light on the puzzle. During an online session speech at Harvard Kennedy School he highlighted what he called “the British way”. Rejecting outright anything that smacks of a ‘planned economy’, he insisted on ‘the power of our precious market economy to mobilize private capital and unleash Britain’s unique entrepreneurial spirit to develop new industries “.
If Asif and his brothers had listened, they might have felt a thrill of hope. But apparently they weren’t the kind of entrepreneurs Kwarteng had in mind. “Expensive gas is the problem,” he told the Kennedy School. “Cheap, clean and local energy is the solution”.
Strange then, that the flagship of the new strategy turned out to be nuclear power, which is neither clean nor cheap – nor even homemade. In 2013, 25 years after the newly privatized electricity market refused to have anything to do with nuclear power, the British coalition government offered French and Chinese contractors a major grant to start build the Hinkley Point C Reactor in Somerset. After numerous delays and pernicious cost overruns, it won’t be in service until at least 2027. Five years from now. Nuclear will do nothing for today’s urgent energy security needs. This will be no relief at all for households struggling with rising energy bills.
Beyond that big white elephant, the strategy held a vote of confidence in offshore wind power, gave a nod of long-term support for hydrogen, and made a gesture of goodwill to that other hotly contested technology: splitting.
As part of a partial reversal of David Cameron’s effective moratorium on onshore wind power, he also graciously allowed communities to be consulted on their desire to accept wind farms in exchange for lower energy bills . As I first found out when I was giving evidence to an inquiry into an earlier Hinkley Point proposal in 1988, this was something Denmark had transparently implemented decades ago.
Few specific policies
The strangest aspect of the strategy was the almost complete absence of anything even remotely resembling real politics. Or even a strategy. “Clear long-term signals” were the best. But no new money is tied to a specific goal. Presumably, it would have looked too much like a planned economy. Not at all British.
Curiously however, the planning was authorized in the form of a new Future system operator to “steer our global transition and oversee the UK energy system”. In a long-awaited acknowledgment that an unfettered energy market has no chance of snowballing into hell to handle the perfect storm of climate change, energy security and soaring gas prices, this still undefined role will certainly require some kind of plan – etc.
When you couple Kwarteng’s fine words with the inability to offer real support for even the most basic and cost-effective solutions, you can’t help but think this was just an exercise in forward-looking orientation without enthusiasm. An evasive attempt, based on faulty ideological assumptions, to “mobilize private capital” in place of meaningful government policy. Or in other words, directing financial wealth toward what could one day become state-subsidized, above-market rates of return for the lucky few.
As for ordinary households struggling with mounting bills, well, there is still a grant scheme to offset £5,000 of the cost of a aerothermal heat pump. I looked inside. For our now well-insulated house we would need to find around £6,000 on top of the grant and could expect to save £40 a year, giving a princely payback time of 150 years.
Asif said something else to me as he ticked one more house off the UK’s ‘most elusive’ list. The only time they’ve been busier than during the Green Homes Grant program is when Isolate Brittany stuck to the M25 motorway.
Whatever the government says it is doing – and not doing – one thing is clear. The “precious market economy” will never make up for our inability to insulate people’s homes from the cold, the world from Putin’s atrocities, and the future from the ravages of climate change. I’m going to buy some glue.
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