Cameron gets ‘smart’January 17, 2009 at 12:11 pm | Posted in British Politics, Climate Change, Conservative Party, David Cameron | 2 Comments
It appears we can no longer doubt David Cameron’s commitment to a low carbon future. With his history of attention-grabbing gimmicks – whether cycling to work, erecting a windmill above his home or galavanting across the Arctic – many of us assumed the Tory leader was only interested in the PR opportunities ‘going green’ provided, and was rather less concerned with making the tough choices needed to meet future challenges.
But a day after bashing the government for its cavalier expansion of Heathrow, Mr Cameron has proposed arguably the best policy of his leadership – a genuine infrastructure project which could help the economy, cut our energy bills and reduce the country’s carbon emissions.
Cameron has committed the Conservatives to a £1bn pound investment in the country’s electricity network, and has promised a ‘smart grid‘ which will finally bring the way we produce, consume and pay for energy into the 21st century. So what is a ‘smart grid’, and why is the idea so good that I’m breaking the habit of a lifetime to praise official Conservative Party policy?
First, some background. The bulk of Britain’s electricity network dates back to the post-war era. In those days, because fuel was cheap and in abundant supply, and because concepts like climate change & energy efficiency were unheard of, it suited us to have a centralised system consisting of a small number of massive power stations guzzling coal and pumping the proceeds across the country – sometimes to towns and villages hundreds of miles away.
But in an age where we need to be more conservative with our use of energy, the current system just isn’t good enough. A massive two thirds of the energy produced in our large, fossil fuel-burning power stations never reaches our homes: they always produce more than is actually needed, waste massive amounts of heat and lose a considerable amount of electricity in transmission from supplier to consumer. In short, our system is the epitome of inefficiency.
To remedy this, the Tories plan to decentralise the national grid. By shredding regulation and offering financial incentives, they hope to encourage small businesses, schools, hospitals and even Joe Public to install their own renewable energy sources, which they can feed back into the electricity network. They hope that a revolution in ‘micro-generation’, in addition to larger, industrial forms of renewable energy, will replace our wasteful, fuel-burning behemoths, slash our carbon emissions and – by increasing the sources of electricity – reduce our energy bills as well.
To compliment this, the Tories want to see each home and business having its own ‘smart meter‘. Smart meters are a more modern and interactive version of the bog-standard electricity meter, and give consumers will have a clearer picture of how much energy they use, how much it costs, and gives them the ability to change suppliers and consumption patterns. It’s not quite the ‘internet for energy’ that Cameron describes it as, but it still transforms the use of electricity from one of passive consumption to something more active and energy-conscious.
Finally, each household will be given the funding of up to £6,500 to introduce energy efficient improvements. Whilst the government has schemes to achieve the same goal (albeity more incrementally), it’s still true that even after their plan is complete, some 14 million homes will still lack the most basic efficiency measures.
There are some criticisms to be made. For one, it remains to be seen whether a scheme of such high ambitions will only cost £1bn, and it’s not entirely certain how this investment coheres with the Tories’ promise to slash the rate of public spending. Second, as George Monbiot notes, the plan overstates the amount of energy which can be produced from micro-generation, particularly in comparison to large off-shore wind farms. You’re not going to meet your energy needs just by putting a solar panel on your roof. It’s also worth remembering that many of these proposals have already been made by the Green Party & Liberal Democrats, who’ve both been leading the way on green energy, even if it gets little attention from the media.
Nonetheless, this plan proves that Cameron’s Conservatives are deadly serious about creating a low carbon economy. We can question whether their policies are good enough, go far enough, or whether his opposition to Heathrow expansion was mere opportunism, but we can’t deny that he’s committed to finding creative ways of solving one of the most intractable problems this country faces. For that, and that alone, he deserves great credit.