3 May saw hundreds of protesters arriving en masse outside a central London hotel as part of the “Big Six Energy Bash”: a demonstration against the UK Energy Summit that was taking place inside. This was attended by the CEOs of the main six energy providers in the UK, which account for some 93% of retail generation.
Only 8% of these companies’ capacity is from renewables, and the majority are investing heavily in carbon capture and storage, and nuclear rather than viable renewable alternatives to fossil fuels. Focus on schemes like “clean coal” (i.e. by fitting “scrubbers” into the chimneys of the UK’s numerous old coal-fired power stations) is undeserved. Soft options and techno-fixes like these divert attention from more viable alternatives that remain under-researched and underfunded.
Energy security is increasingly precarious, and business has a responsibility to invest in technologies that can ensure a sustainable future, such as wind and solar.
As it stands, the UK looks unlikely to meet its target of sourcing 15% of its energy from renewables by 2020, even though private companies could minimise the damage by investing in the development of new technologies. Particularly under the coalition government’s banner of free enterprise, corporations could make great progress towards that goal: if only there wasn’t so much money in a fossil fuel-based energy economy.
The “Big Six” have been criticised for making record profits, most of which go to executives and shareholders rather than being passed on to consumers. All six CEOs earn between £1m and £1.3m, and 2010 profits of £8.55bn were a third higher than in 2008, while nearly a quarter of households were considered to be in fuel poverty this year.
Inequity between demand and supply needs to be addressed to enable a transition to a more energy secure and sustainable future, and there needs to be involvement from people at all levels, not just executives. It is unlikely that high earners have all the solutions, yet at £1,000 a ticket, it shows the interests of consumers are going unheard in favour of “business as usual”.
By working together with people on a more local level, and taking into account the needs and thoughts of consumers, UK energy policy could be transformed, following a path similar to Germany or Scandinavia, where renewables make up a large proportion of national energy generation. Renewables make up 60% of Norway’s electricity (mainly hydroelectricity), 45% of Sweden’s, and 20% of Germany’s. Merging the dual imperatives of environmental and social equity can be achieved with investment in the right science, both within and beyond the UK’s borders.
Research and development of renewable technology will help diversify our energy supply and reduce our reliance on gas, while also providing a more socially and environmentally sustainable energy system. Although this strategy needs to be employed across the globe, home is always a good place to start.