On Monday morning at Sustain, we had our usual staff huddle but unusually the atmosphere was subdued, tense, and even angry. It was our first since the vote to Brexit. As I made clear to the staff, we believed a Remain vote was best for the company, the country and the environment at large. It wasn’t to be. But within crisis, the seeds of opportunity lie.
Collectively, those who shared those same beliefs are working through the stages of grieving. One can see that there are many still angry at the style and rhetoric of the campaigning, and at the outcome itself. But we need to enter – quite literally – the next emotional phase; negotiation. Clearly, something has gone wrong and so solutions are required.
Granted, the headwinds look strong. The Paris Agreement was built on the concept of international cooperation, albeit with actions taken at the national level. With uncertainty taking centre stage, security anxieties for the short-term national interest may trump longer-term concerns over issues such as climate change.
Welcomed by the industry, Andrea Leadsom, fierce Leave Conservative MP (now candidate for leader) and Minister of State at the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) said in the run up to the referendum ‘the fact is that we are world leaders in the development of new, low carbon technologies… our emissions reduction ambitions, set out in our own UK Climate Change Act of 2008, are world leading.’ Amber Rudd is today announcing the government’s commitment to the 5th carbon budget which will set the target for an internationally leading 57% reductions in emissions from 1990 levels for the period 2028-2032.
The pathway to this is being set through lower carbon power generation by off-shore wind, gas and nuclear power. Electrification of heat and transport, coupled with heat networks in urban areas.
Yet the desire to leave the EU will add its complications to this plan. The EU ETS, which we may still choose to be part of, is unlikely to play a major role as we will have no say in its reformation. In addition, there are now even more questions about whether the French state will really continue to fund Hinkley Point, and the question of renegotiating the eye watering terms, surely puts the most expensive energy project in history at further risk. The planned increase in the number of inter-connectors with the continent and access to its de-regulated energy markets – something that the UK was championing – is jeopardised.
So where are the opportunities? Well firstly, I think there is a fair chance we will have to pay more for our energy. That doesn’t sound much like an opportunity but if energy prices are volatile it forces us to be more efficient- businesses and homeowners will want to move quickly to improve their buildings and reduce their energy use.
But there is something more fundamental happening. The Brexit vote was nothing if not a vote against the Big. Big Brussels. Big London. Big Firms. Big Money.
This rejection of the large has been gathering pace in the world of energy, too. Technological forces have been at work with solar panels, battery storage, heat pumps and the like. The network operators are struggling to keep up with the new capacity that is becoming available at the local level. Reform is coming to allow this shift to happen. More people are putting savings and investment into local generation schemes, and choosing smaller energy suppliers. Cities are connecting up to share knowledge ideas and direction. The inevitable rise in price of energy along with the crunch in supply will focus minds on efficiencies and sharing of loads, storage and generation resources.
The future is surely uncertain, but it is possible to discern beyond the politics, the social and technological journey we are embarking on, and it looks more localised, more connected and – we hope – far smarter than it has been. I hope the politics can keep up, or keep out.