Thursday 5th September this year was the BBC’s ‘Energy Day’. BBC Radio 5 Live was powered entirely by renewables throughout the day as they hosted debates on and around the theme of energy. Tobi Kellner, one of CAT’s renewable technology experts, was on hand during the 5 Live breakfast programme to provide an expert opinion on Zero Carbon Britain and the future…
When I got off the tram at Salford’s MediaCity UK at shortly after 8am, I was a bit apprehensive about finding the venue for the BBC 5 Live Energy Day. I needn’t have worried. Right on the piazza in front of their snazzy their snazzy glass & steel office towers, the BBC people had assembled what looked a bit like the cross between a village fete and the CAT Renewable Energy MS. Between various tents and marquees there was a sea of solar panels, a forest of micro wind turbines, various hamster wheels and bicycles for ‘human power’, two cows – and a real Secretary of State for Energy, Ed Davey. Yes, there were some obvious flaws: Half the solar panels were evidently not wired up, the location was utterly useless for wind power, and the Energy Minister is part of David Cameron’s “greenest government ever”. But it was clear that the BBC was keen on putting renewables right at the heart of the debate about energy, and that their approach was to combine the big, heavy questions (how can we keep energy affordable?) with some more light-hearted ones (how many cyclists does it take to power a radio show?)
Bills, not bears
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the debate I was invited to join was what wasn’t talked about: climate change. Right from the very first email the BBC sent me when they invited me, it was clear that for them the energy debate is all about “how can we protect people from rising energy costs”; it’s all about (fuel) bills, not (polar) bears. And from one perspective that focus is completely understandable, as it is simply unacceptable that there are families that have to choose between heating and eating, especially while big energy companies still make obscene profits. But there is reason to suspect that this new focus of the energy debate isn’t only driven by a concern for the poor. As a quick internet search for “Daily Mail energy bills” shows, tabloids tell us that the main reason for rising prices are ‘green taxes’ and wind turbines, even though in reality rising fossil fuel prices were to blame for most of the recent increase in household energy prices.
Breakfast with Ed
Fortunately, when Radio 5 live Breakfast went on air, it became obvious that people just don’t buy the story of ‘green vs affordable’.
So I had my concerns when, clutching my copy of the latest Zero Carbon Britain report, I went into the broadcast tent for Your Call. Fortunately, around 9 minutes into the programme there was an opportunity to introduce the ZCB report and explain that, yes, it would cost a lot of money, but that it would be cheaper in the long run, and that the money would go into manufacturing jobs, not fossil fuel imports, and that CAT advocates much more ambitious policies on energy efficiency.
Ed Davey, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, was with us in the tent and had the rather unenviable job of defending the government’s flagship programme on energy efficiency: the ‘Green Deal’. So far, around 58,000 people have had their homes assessed under the scheme but only 132 of them had signed up for energy efficiency measures under the Green Deal. As I put it to Mr Davey, by expecting people to pay market rate loans on energy efficiency measures under the Green Deal while giving generous tax rebates to ‘fracking’ companies, the government isn’t exactly sending a clear signal that energy efficiency is at the top of the agenda. Fortunately, Davey and I didn’t have to leave on a bad note. In response to a question from the studio audience about solar panels, I explained that in the ZCB energy mix it is actually offshore wind power, not solar, that plays the leading role. This gave our Secretary of State the opportunity to not only praise the UK’s windiness in general and the potential for offshore wind in particular, but also to tell stories of him inaugurating the world’s largest offshore wind farm (twice). Something tells me he prefers this topic to the Green Deal.
After the end of the show, Ed Davey went back to London with a copy of our Zero Carbon Britain report, and I went outside to try my luck on the energy-generating bicycle, while in the background the Blue Peter people were filming the cows (which were there to illustrate research on methane emissions).
It would be easy to be cynical about the Energy Day with all its token wind turbines and unconnected solar panels. But that would mean missing one very important point: the debate during the hour-long live breakfast programme showed that people don’t buy into the rhetoric of ‘green vs affordable’, that there is a growing consensus that now is the time to invest in renewables and energy efficiency, precisely because energy bills are rising, and that people are getting impatient with the government’s lack of action. Who knows, Ed Davey might just read that report we gave him.