Security of the UK’s energy supply has become a defining issue for politicians, the business community and voters. That insecurity has been brought into sharp relief by the threat of increased gas prices from Russia, at a time when European renewable energy targets and a dysfunctional power supply pose their own challenges.
To better understand how some of these challenges can be met, the Guardian hosted a roundtable discussion at the Bristol Chamber of Commerce as part of the #bigenergydebate.
Bristol and the south-west leads the charge in the UK shift to renewable energy. So how has this been achieved? Merlin Hyman, chief executive of sustainability consultancy Regen SW, said co-operation had been crucial.
“I think we’ve worked together a bit better than other places. The south-west bioheat programme, for example, has been run by a broad partnership of people. The energy industry here involves other interested parties such as farmers, the tourism industry and households. The south-west now has twice the renewable heat installations of any other region, including Scotland, and the industry directly employs 10,000 people – something that has grown by 40% through the teeth of the recession.”
Hymen believes a key determinant of success has been grassroots support, describing community-based energy initiatives as “perhaps the most interesting trend” to emerge in recent years.
“They are saying ‘let’s have a different relationship between energy generation and local communities, where we have a stake in these developments’. It’s a small movement but expanding rapidly,” he said.
Paul Isbell, energy manager at Bristol city council, echoed the point. He cites Bristol’s decision in 2011 to create its own energy company, and the growth of similar initiatives around the country, as evidence of this.
“Right now we’re trying to develop our own district heating system” he said. “We have our own local authority, multi-utility company too. London is doing something similar, and Nottingham also. This model of ‘big six’ and big supplies – it’s not working.”
The experts gathered around the table agreed that government policy on energy wasn’t working, either. Several participants lamented the politicisation of such a crucial sector and the resulting uncertainty. Richard Bonner, partner at asset consultancy EC Harris, gave an example of the damage this is doing to the wider UK economy: