What a week it was for the low carbon economy last week. No sooner had the Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) landmark Net Zero report received not just universal plaudits but front page news coverage, had low carbon generators shunted coal off the grid for more than a week.
By the time coal had finally been able to contribute to the country’s power mix once again, it had been more than 192 hours. And not once did the lights flicker or kettles not boil. It must have been quite the revelation for actor John Rhys-Davies, better known for portraying Gimli in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, who spent his appearance on Question Time barking at Green Party MP Caroline Lucas about the problems with intermittent renewables.
Views, as well as character inspiration, straight out of Middle Earth, it would seem.
Luckily, opinions of Rhys-Davies’ ilk have appeared limited. Government officials were soon falling over themselves to laud the landmark achievement. Even Theresa May, so beleaguered by Brexit, took time out of her busy schedule fending off would-be leadership contests to approve of a tweet stating how proud she was that Britain had gone a week without coal.
“I am proud that Britain has gone a record week without using coal to generate power. Our investment in greener forms of energy is reducing emissions and ensuring we leave our planet in a better state for the next generation.” - PM @Theresa_May pic.twitter.com/1BnYElpsfz— UK Prime Minister (@10DowningStreet) May 8, 2019
But, unfortunately, it all means nothing.
That might seem unnecessarily blunt or futile, especially after a week of climate positivity, but it’s true. Going 192 hours without burning any coal and a report from the government’s climate watchdog, no matter how detailed and thought provoking, won’t mean a thing unless the government’s action matches its rhetoric.
The CCC said as much in its report, and both chair Lord Deben and chief executive Chris Stark were effusive in their calls for the government to ramp up its own policy ambition.
But the government would appear to be going backwards.
Barely a week had passed before HM Revenue & Customs closed a consultation proposing to remove a tax break for homeowners looking to install rooftop solar and battery storage, hiking up VAT on energy saving materials from the current 5% to 20%. The consultation was rushed - it had opened and shut in less than a month - and was kept pretty quiet, with barely a mention of it until the industry rounded on the proposals for their potential impact.
HMRC has explained how it’s in response to a European Court of Justice decision that overruled the UK’s approach to VAT on energy saving materials, but that’s a legal position almost four years old and one the government has seemingly been willing to ignore in the past.
Regardless of its legal position, should the VAT on solar and domestic batteries increase to 20% then Chris Stark was unequivocal when he told the BEIS Select Committee last week that it would sufficiently hinder the country’s progress towards any possible Net Zero target. The industry itself echoed Stark’s warning, stating how the move stood to detract from the economics of a rooftop solar PV market already sitting deep inside a FiT-less policy vacuum.
And then there’s Ofgem’s Targeted Charging Review, a set of reforms six months old and no more palatable than they were back in November. They came in for some severe criticism yet again last week when Aurora Energy Research concluded that not only would Ofgem’s minded to position delay subsidy-free renewables developments by two to five years, but also place up to 6GW of solar and onshore wind at risk of not being built. And all this at a time when the CCC is calling for a four-fold increase in low carbon generation to help decarbonise the economy.
The TCR is not a welcome piece of policy reform. It has been critiqued time and time again, with many in the industry staggered at how obtuse the regulator’s position is. In February this year delegates at Current± publisher Solar Media’s annual Energy Storage Summit questioned BEIS’ Sally Fenton over the contradiction between ambitions in the Smarts Systems and Flexibility Plan and counterproductive proposals in the TCR. Her response was to insist that the two bodies were “working closely” and “connecting” on the policy landscape, but otherwise refused to answer questions.
In many ways, it was emblematic of this government’s approach to renewables as a whole. It talks a good game but, when the chips are down and leadership required, it’s simply not interested. It’s an approach that is simply unfathomable given the sheer weight of popular opinion. Last week’s BEIS public opinion tracker update showed that renewables are more popular than ever, while fracking has plumbed to new depths. There is now significant public desire for the country to embrace a green revolution, yet all the Prime Minister can push through is a tweet when so, so much more is necessary.
The world’s burning, and Theresa’s thumbs are twiddling.
There is still - just about - time to salvage the situation. Should the government legislate for the CCC’s Net Zero target before the summer recess then it will be a significant moment for climate action in this country. It will be the first real sign of suitable climate ambition, and simply must be followed up by the government removing renewables’ shackles and reining the regulator in.
Until that happens, records and landmarks such as last week’s coal-free run, while pleasing, will count for little in the years and decades to come.