Keith Patterson: Manifesto snapshot for renewables lawyers
With the introduction of the Fixed Term Parliament Act bringing elections (seemingly) every two years, another set of manifestos may be the last thing you want to read. Yet it is clear to all of us in the renewables industry that they do matter. The Conservative Party manifesto commitments (in 2015) to end “subsidies” and (in 2017) that large scale onshore wind was “not right” for England have played a large part in shaping UK energy policy over the last five years. With this in mind, we have put together a snapshot of the low carbon policies of the main UK parties.
Policy due diligence
We decided on a snapshot to summarise the positions of the parties, a bit like a due diligence report – manifestos are contracts between the parties and voters after all. The aim was to shine light on the differences between the manifestos. In fact, we were struck by something else.
New buzzwords certainly – the Conservatives promise a “gigafactory” and Labour and the Liberal Democrats “just transition” funds. New units of measurement too – Labour measuring solar parks not in MW but football pitches (22,000 by 2030), let’s see if this catches on.
But perhaps more revealing, we were struck as much by the consensus as the differences in policy. And we were struck by the commonality in policy gaps.
Each of the parties commits to the net zero target at some point between 2040 and 2050. Each of the parties commits to generating more electricity from renewables in some form or another. Each of the parties supports the switch to electric vehicles and investment in charging infrastructure, albeit with little clarity on the level of investment required. There are differences, but the differences are in the scale and speed of investment.
The policy gaps were similarly uniform. None of the parties for instance mentioned the price of carbon, widely understood to be a key policy tool. It appears a policy platform that involves increasing the cost of living remains politically unviable.
For industry insiders, perhaps more concerning still are the gaps in heat policy and energy security. It is clear that energy industry has two key challenges in delivering net zero. How will we decarbonise heat supply? Convert the existing gas network to hydrogen (or other low carbon gas), electrify heating or create district heating networks. Don’t look to the manifestos for answers. There are various commitments to targets and spending among Labour, the Liberal Democrats and SNP, but little detail and nothing from the Conservatives.
The second big question is how the electricity system will provide back-up power at times of low wind in sunless winter evenings. There are mentions of electricity storage – the Conservative “will turn [their] attention” to it, Labour will “expand” it and the Liberal Democrats will “support” it. Hydro and pumped storage merit not a single mention. Carbon capture is more popular with the parties committing to investing in it, yet none of this is articulated in the context of providing secure low carbon energy supplies.
A time for optimism?
Now though, as the festive season approaches and the new year beckons, it is that time of the year when optimism is required. Despite the gaps in this election’s manifestos, the 2019 manifestos are undoubtedly a step up from the 2015 manifestos. Onwards and downwards (CO2 emissions that is…)
Keith Patterson is a partner at Brodies LLP