07 OCT 2020


To set the UK on track to achieve a low carbon future, Barton Willmore's Ben Lewis offers the government some ideas to support the sector as it reshapes and repurposes energy generation for future generations.

Have you turned your central heating on yet? Something we all do systematically every autumn will be a bit different this year – because Covid, working from home, and much-reduced energy use in sectors like aviation and automotive means ‘normal’ patterns of energy consumption are out the window.

Since the lockdown days of March, we have all been using energy differently. Get ready to see that even more this winter with the workforce dispersed across homes as well as offices, shops and factories. How much ‘double heating’ of workplaces might there be?

What’s my point? Simple. Habits change, needs change and what everyone considers to be ‘standard patterns’ of behaviour change. Energy is different this year. And that’s a good thing because we’re all trying to transition to a low-carbon economy, the government has committed to Net Zero by 2050 and we’re about to have a new energy white paper and a ten-point plan to ‘build back greener’.

If the last six months has taught us anything it’s that adaptability is the basis for success. We can switch from what is ‘standard practice’ and we need to. Here are three things I want to see happen this autumn to enable a low carbon future. Three ideas to support the sector as we reshape and repurpose energy generation for the sake of future generations.

1. Give us policy certainty. The energy white paper is overdue, technical innovation is moving at pace, the climate emergency is real and understood and business needs a framework within which to invest, innovate, deliver and take risks. All of this argues the case for more certainty for the sector and more definition of ‘whole energy system thinking’, not tinkering with technologies. We have a goal – net zero by 2050 – so let’s have some coherent policy to give us a means to achieve it. Let’s make sure that the white paper delivers on certainty for the sector. 

2. Rapid review of the energy NPS. I welcome the decision to revisit these documents. They are the backbone to energy consenting in the UK and the decision not to suspend the current NPSs during the review is the right one. But I have to admit being fearful for how long government might take on the task.  I’d like to see a committed course of action. With DCO decisions dependent on NPSs, it’s a no brainer that, for good decision-making to happen, we need accurate, up-to-date and relevant NPSs in place. I’d welcome government committing to a timetable – and keeping it.

3. Define the aspirational energy mix and stick to it. To get to net zero, we all know we’ll need a mix of energy generation and that different technologies will have different roles to play. Solar, wind, nuclear and hydrogen will all contribute, as will large-scale storage like pumped hydro.  I’d like to see the secretary of state define a coherent mix and give clear direction. I’d like to see an ‘energy circuit board’ which sets out what we need and is linked to a National Infrastructure Strategy. A bit like a Glastonbury line-up, we need a stage for every technology, not just the crowd-pleasers and we need to have faith that they will all come together to create something bigger than the sum of its parts. I want to see the minister set out a plan that everyone buys into and a strategy to make sure every stage and tent is packed out!  

All three of these points are pushing the same argument – make sure that the policy framework is objective-led and gives certainty to those who will need to shoulder part of the responsibility for making it happen. It’s worth a closing word on that. This is a collective endeavour. It is a task that is way bigger than government or business to solve in its own. UK net zero will only happen if everyone comes together.

So, what else have we learned in the last six months? That messages matter and everyone needs to know what to do. I’m an optimist, so I’m looking forward to a strong, unambiguous energy white paper, linked to the National Infrastructure Strategy and an improved policy framework which gives us the tools to get on with it.

With a clear message, coherent thinking and a consistent argument that we can all understand, we can get there and make the switch, surely? 

Ben Lewis is infrastructure and energy director at planning and design consultancy Barton Willmore.

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