Braving last Friday’s inclement weather, Julien, Jake and I attended the Feeding renewables policy conference at the University of Birmingham organised by the Department of Political Science and International Studies. Despite the snow, the majority of speakers were able to attend and the result was a lively and informative set of discussions.

In order to achieve the legally binding requirement of an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050, the UK needs to rapidly decarbonise its power sector. The event focussed on the Energy Bill currently before Parliament and the corresponding Electricity Market Reforms (ERM) required to ensure the funding systems and policy environment are in place to support the expansion of renewable energy. ERM has two main aims: to guarantee security of supply by ensuring secure investment in Britain’s energy infrastructure – around a fifth of existing electricity generation capacity is scheduled to be decommissioned over the next decade – and to promote low carbon – ie nuclear, renewable and conventional generation plus carbon capture and storage – electricity generation. The effects of the Energy Bill on small independent suppliers, who have an important role to play in growth of renewable energy, was a particular theme.

Among the conference highlights, Holly Tomlinson from Ecotricity and Nigel Cornwall from Cornwall Energy, two independent suppliers, both gave an overview of the labyrinthine system of Contracts for Difference (CfD) proposed in the Bill; a policy mechanism which appears to give a market advantage to the big six electricity suppliers. While the existing regime of funding growth in renewable energy generation, the Renewables Obligation, could never be described as straightforward, they have been successful in achieving an increase in renewable energy capacity as they oblige energy suppliers to buy the renewable energy produced. By contrast CfD introduce considerable uncertainty into the market which smaller suppliers are not well placed to weather.

Dr David Toke, the conference host and author of the Friends of the Earth briefing document: “A Proven Solution: how to grow renewables with a Fixed Feed-in Tariff” argued for a fixed tariff paying a guaranteed amount for electricity generated over a set contract length as an alternative to CfD and Rachel Cary from Green Alliance discussed in detail how a feed-in tariff for demand reduction and energy efficiency might work. She noted in particular the lack of support in the current EMR proposals for energy efficiency improvements despite demand reduction being an obvious way to reduce the amount of, most likely fossil-fuel powered, back-up generation capacity required by the energy system. David Hirst developed this theme proposing innovations which would reward consumer choices that reduce peak demand.

Finally, two speakers concentrated on government and policy. Martin Alder provided a particularly devastating summary of how policy decisions to date have undermined the market for renewable energy, while Alan Whitehead M.P., Chair of the Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group, overcame train delays to provide an illuminating and warmly received insight into the Parliamentary processes surrounding the current Energy Bill.

The audience debate was equally animated, with several attending arguing CfD were partly chosen to allow government subsidies for nuclear power, which would otherwise be prohibited under European Commission rules on state aid for the private sector. This included a public bet between David Toke and Martin Alder on whether new nuclear power would be funded by Government, witnessed by all those present! Overall the conference provided a useful insight into a complex and fast-changing field. The Energy Act as eventually passed will have long lasting and significant effects on many aspects of life in the UK and it is well worth keeping up with the latest developments.

If the issues raised in this blog interest you then you might want to get involved in Friends of the Earth’s Clean British Energy campaign. As part of People and Planet’s ‘Go Green Week’ at the University of Birmingham, BFoE is is co-organising a panel discussion on the issues of clean energy and fuel poverty tilted Energy we can all afford. The event will take place on Tuesday 19th February at 7pm in the University of Birmingham Guild Council Chambers. See the Facebook page or our event page for more details.