Energy efficiency: the need to look at past successful messages rather than unproven new technology

In the April issue of Energy in Buildings & Industry, Andrew Warren, chairman of the British Energy Efficiency Federation, sets out the reasons why the Government have managed to issue its’ latest energy policy whilst omitting any initiatives to stimulate energy efficiency. It also sets out what needs to be done to rectify the position, preferably before fuel prices rise yet again this autumn.


Ten excuses for not promoting energy efficiency

The best answer to concerns about gas imports from Russia  is simple, tweeted the Financial Times’ chief features writer, Henry Mance: ”CUT GAS USE”.

Burning less gas is certainly what we have done before. Between 2005 and 2015, consumption of gas in the UK really did drop dramatically, by almost one-third (from 55,384 ktoe to 41,707 ktoe).

Throughout that decade, Governments ran a series of effective campaigns each designed to minimise energy profligacy. They used building regulations, product standards, cut-price energy saving measures, utility- funded whole area improvements,  social welfare programmes, industrial incentives.  But then in 2015 the Government overnight abandoned overnight its’ Green Deal,  despite it having been touted by Conservative ministers as the “biggest revolution of our building stock since 1945.” And since then, gas sales have ceased their precipitous falls. And we import gas from overseas, including from Russia.

Back away from conservation

Given its’ earlier success, why on earth have politicians backed away from purposefully backing energy conservation? I put this down to ten specific reasons.

  1. Why should government subsidise the installation of cost-effective measures?
  2. Isn’t promoting energy saving really akin to sponsoring energy rationing by any other name?
  3. An Englishman’s home is his castle- we mustn’t interfere . The press can distort, and crucify- remember the Daily Mail’s notorious lying campaign about “conservatory taxes”?
  4. Installing energy saving measures can be done ineffectively, sometimes badly enough to damage the entire fabric.
  5. Can’t we just mandate putting in even bigger heat pumps, forgetting about the building fabric and hence higher fuel bills?
  6. Energy efficiency policy always involves too many Departments, so is bound to fail (but not between 2005 and 2015).
  7. Employment is dispersed, with no strong local bases, and is frequently non-unionised (but still employs more than energy generation).
  8. Saving energy is boring . Which politician ever held an opening ceremony for a well-insulated loft? Real men build power stations.
  9. If we set higher standards for new build, won’t housebuilders stop building? And go out of business?
  10. If we set higher standards for landlords of existing buildings, won’t the supply of rented/leased out buildings dry up? And go out of business?

The big unspoken issue

And then, the big unspoken issue. Won’t less sales of energy lead to less tax revenue for the Exchequer? That must be why, even when scrapping VAT on some energy saving options, the VAT rate on several other key   energy conservation measures remains at 20%, whereas the VAT rate on energy consumption is at the lowest rate of 5%. And Opposition parties are concentrating on abolishing even that lower rate.

When No. 10 or the Cabinet Office ever consult business leaders to discuss energy policy, those invited are always drawn from the firms that sell energy. Not from those in a position to help customers reduce the size of their energy bills. This has even been true in the run up to the enormous increases in gas bills ,due this month and again in October. Such steep price rises require some immediate palliative measures.

As I write this, tomorrow Prime Minister Boris Johnson is summoning to Downing Street for a “summit” everyone and his brother involved with nuclear power, including even those hawking wholly untested smaller prototype. Any solutions on offer are unlikely to be forthcoming on the ground during this entire decade.

But as a distinguished professor of energy pointed out to me, when did any Prime Minister ever contemplate, let alone action, calling together for such a “summit” those involved with delivering practical energy saving measures ? To which question there can only be a negative answer: never. These are the people who know in detail how we can deliver real change on the ground probably within months, certainly right across the decade. But only so long as there can be confidence that such measures will definitely remain in place . The last seven years has seen nothing but start/stop interventions, engendering real cynicism amongst those who could yet return to the vanguard of participants.

During that successful period between 2005 and 2015 that I cited earlier, with gas sales down 32.8% and electricity sales also lower by 15.2%,  there were 90% more residential insulation jobs undertaken than today. Even so, the Office for National Statistics still reckon that there are more than five times as many people currently employed in the energy efficiency industry than there are in the nuclear industry . And almost twice as many as are employed in the renewables industry.

Given the worries concerning stagflation, and war,  economic commentators perpetually compare today with the problems of the 1970s. These came about largely because of the Yom Kippur war between Israel and Egypt in 1973, leading to rocketing fuel prices.

Interestingly, what is most remembered from those turbulent times is the slogan promoted vigorously by the then-Conservative Government. It went   “Save It. You Know It Makes Sense.” And it still does.

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