Chancellor George Osborne told the Conservative Party Conference that “there are always one hundred reasons to stick with the past, but we need to choose the future”. He went on to argue that the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution would not have balked at difficult decisions on infrastructure – they would have simply rolled up their sleeves and got on with it.
Mr Osborne may well be right, the industrialists of the “age of enlightenment” as he described it, certainly weren’t afraid of grappling with the big problems of their time. If 97 per cent of scientists had agreed that humans were causing dangerous climate change, entrepreneurs such as Watt and Brunel would presumably have had it sorted by breakfast.
But judging by our efforts to reduce the carbon pollution that is fuelling climate change, we live in less rarefied times. Confusion and uncertainty reign in our energy sector, with policies to reduce carbon competing with policies to subsidise our oldest, most polluting power stations. Judging by its actions, the government doesn’t seem to know whether to choose the past or the future.
The potential of the clean-tech sector is astonishing, from tidal lagoons and wave power, to huge cost reductions in wind and solar that have seen them become competitive with gas power stations in parts of the United States, without subsidy. The energy system of the future is smart, with technology matching energy supply and demand, maximising storage by charging appliances when the wind or sun is strongest and power cheapest.
The potential of the clean-tech sector is astonishing, from tidal lagoons and wave power, to huge cost reductions in wind and solar
Google has recognised this is where the future lies, investing $3.2 billion in a smart home energy management company. The world’s largest private bank, UBS, is advising its clients that large, centralised power stations will become redundant within two decades. In a future where solar power, electric cars and cheaper batteries transform the way our electricity market works, these power stations are simply “not relevant”.
Embracing these clean technologies can completely transform our relationship with energy. Currently the vast majority of us are passive consumers and, judging by opinion polls, not particularly happy ones. Cutting-edge clean technology opens up the prospect of cities setting up power companies to deliver a better deal for their citizens. Munich has already declared that it will be 100 per cent powered by renewables by 2025. In the UK, Bristol, London and Nottingham are in the process of establishing energy companies.
But the policies of central government are stuck in the past. Recent efforts to reform the energy market have been geared almost entirely towards getting one new nuclear power station built. Fifty eight years after the UK’s first civil nuclear plant opened, new projects remain dependent on colossal levels of public subsidy. By the time Hinkley C opens, onshore wind will beat it on cost, but we will be locked-in to subsidising it for the next 35 years.
This obsession with centralised power stations even stretches to keeping coal plant running. In December the government is set to offer up to £2.2 billion in public subsidies to old coal power stations, potentially funding refurbishments that could keep them open for up to two decades.
If we really want to “choose the future” we need to follow the likes of Google in backing clean, smart technologies. If we don’t we’re going to be left with a Walkman, when everyone else has a shiny new iPod.