Conservative manifesto on energy policy and climate change

conservative party logo with energy symbols

It’s election time again and in 2019, energy policy has become virtually inseparable from climate change policy in the UK, even for the Tories. What promises does the Conservative Party want you to trust it to deliver during this supposed season of goodwill to all voters? Read on for Selectra’s breakdown.

Unsurprisingly, the Conservative Party’s election manifesto focuses heavily on Brexit, but it does make some room for discussing the energy policies it would implement if given another term in power.

The highlights are mentions of wind power, carbon capture, investment in research and development and electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure. The oil and gas industry is given some reassurance, but more on that later.

What will the Conservatives do about energy bills?

The existing energy price cap will be kept unchanged and the Winter Fuel Payment scheme will be retained as well.

Although Labour has pledged £60bn in subsidies to help lower energy bills and improve the energy efficiency of every household in the country, the Conservatives are earmarking just £9.2bn to invest in the upgrade of the 2.2 million homes, along with the UK’s schools and hospitals. A previous home insulation scheme was killed off by the Lib Dem-Tory coalition in 2013 leading to a sharp drop in the number of households insulating their properties.

New build homes with environmentally friendly designs that have lower energy bills are promised as part of the drive towards net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

What do the Tories say about renewables?

The Tories’ sales pitch on renewable energy emphasizes the UK’s apparent success in wind power.

In 2018, the UK’s offshore wind farm fleet had a capacity of around eight gigawatts (GW), estimates put the nation’s current capacity at almost 10GW.

Boasting proudly about the UK’s world-leading offshore wind farm status, the manifesto promises to increase capacity to 40GW by 2030.

“World-leader”, quadruple capacity in a decade, sounds pretty good, right? Except when you look at these facts in context, a different picture emerges:

Estimated Installed Wind Power Capacity
China 206GW
US 96.4GW
Germany 59.3GW
Spain 23GW

Ten GW in 2019, 40GW by 2030 doesn’t seem quite so impressive now, does it?

What’s going on with the statistics?

Well, the numbers in the table are for total wind power capacity whereas the manifesto is of course only talking about off-shore wind farms. It’s easy to fall for sleights of hand like this when politicians or sales people are trying to win you over.

It’s true that the UK does lead in offshore, but its total installed wind capacity is a measly 20.7GW, making it sixth in the world behind Spain and means it has just 10.5% of China’s capacity. For the record,by 2030, China plans a total capacity of 400GW. By cherry-picking which data to show you, the manifesto makes it seem like the progress is much more significant than it is.

Onshore wind farms are one of the cheapest forms of renewable energy, but new developments have been effectively strangled since 2015 when the Conservatives excluded them from government subsidy schemes and tightened planning restrictions. The restrictions were supposedly to appease voters worried about wind turbines “spoiling” their view, endangering bird life and causing noise pollution.

This was despite the fact that in 2015 onshore wind had become economically competitive with both gas and coal, once carbon costs were taken into account, according to the BloombergNEF research service. In the UK, onshore wind cost on average £55 per MWh in the second half of 2015, compared to £75 for gas or coal-fired power.

There is now growing pressure to ease restrictions on onshore wind power and a petition signed by more than 150 MPs, including 35 Conservatives, calling for more onshore wind farms in Britain was sent to the government earlier this year.

In fact, a poll by Survation found that 74% of people who voted Conservative in the last election now support onshore wind energy, twice the number who support fracking.

Speaking of which, in a surprising turnabout, the Conservative government recently halted fracking in England. The manifesto states the party will not support restarting it unless science shows its safety can be guaranteed.

What else is in the Conservative manifesto?

Despite loudly reaffirming the Tories’ commitment to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the manifesto completely fails to mention any other renewable energy generation technologies such as geothermal or solar energy, which also suffered a steep decline after it was excluded from incentive schemes.

The party does promise to double investment in the national EV charging infrastructure, with an extra £600m earmarked for this over six years. However, no mention is made of tackling the high cost of EVs which puts off many potential customers, a problem other countries have tried to solve with subsidies towards their purchase to encourage adoption and improve economies of scale for manufacturers.

The days of buying new conventional petrol and diesel cars are definitely numbered, but the Tories do not put a specific deadline in their manifesto, only promising to consult on the earliest date a phase-out can begin.

In a bit of a shameless move, coming just weeks after Elon Musk chose Germany over Britain as the site for his new gigafactory due to Brexit uncertainty, the manifesto also mentions building a “gigafactory”, a term borrowed from Musk’s Tesla to describe its lithium-ion battery and EV production facilities.

What about the fossil fuel industry?

Most of the energy policy is included under the heading “Fight climate change and protect the environment”, but a significant passage is found in the “Delivering for Scotland” section:

“We believe that the North Sea oil and gas industry has a long future ahead and know the sector has a key role to play as we move to a Net-Zero economy.”
Conservative Party Manifesto 2019

The North Sea region has one of the highest densities of off-shore drilling rigs in the world. While the manifesto promises a “transformational sector deal” to help the industry transition, the many experts calling for net-zero by 2030 or even 2024 will shudder at the idea it has a “long future” under the Conservatives.

The manifesto also pledges that a returning Tory government would invest £800m in research and development to create a carbon capture and storage (CCS) industry focused on removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and to build a plant to store captured carbon within half a decade.

A further £500m would be allocated to support industries which use huge amounts of energy to transition to low-carbon production methods.

Hydrogen production and nuclear energy are promised support and the still-impractical technology of fusion power gets a mention here too. Efficient nuclear fusion would be a game-changer for society, so it's good to see it getting government attention.

The creation of two million new jobs over the next ten years in clean energy-related industries are also part of the overall energy package.

How do the Conservative Party’s plans measure up?

While Labour has made plans to nationalize the UK’s energy suppliers along with other utilities, at the other extreme, the Tory manifesto shows no interest in addressing the continuing dominance of the Big Six suppliers and the poor value for money they provide. The market appears to be working well enough for Boris Johnson and his team.

In light of the climate emergency, the Labour Party’s manifesto contains a promise for 90% of the UK’s power needs to be generated from renewable and low-carbon sources by 2030, and the Liberal Democrats promise renewables will make up 80% of the UK’s energy mix.The development of onshore wind farms and solar generation are also part of both parties’ energy plans.

The Conservative Party says it wants to “lead the global fight against climate change”. Maybe that’s true, but the other parties appear much more serious about leading that fight.

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