There are few things the media like more than an almighty big row.
Hence yesterday's reporting of the government's new 343 page energy whitepaper and 207 page nuclear strategy consultation document managed to neatly reduce two documents addressing almost all of the energy security and carbon emission concerns facing the UK into little more than the latest installment in the unedifying spat between the pro and anti-nuclear lobbies.
The government did its utmost to kick off the row, placing the nuclear issue centre stage and treating the ensuing criticism as some sort of challenge to its political virility with the prime minister being wheeled out to claim it was the right decision for a low carbon future.
Cue much wailing and gnashing of teeth from environmentalists and opposition parties, who argued, not for the first time, that the government's consultation exercise was a "farce", that it had already decided it was going to commission more plants, that investment in nuclear would take money away from renewable energy, and that Blair was committing the UK to a costly and dangerous source of energy that still faced major hazardous waste problems and provided a prime target for terrorists.
Given this backdrop of political mudslinging it is easy to see why the nuclear issue dominated the headlines. It is an issue that remains as divisive as ever, elicits a reaction from almost every sector of society, and raises the terrible spectre of nuclear apocalypse, or worse, falling house prices for those living next door to the new plants – in short the story ticked all the boxes the modern news editor is looking for.
However, understandable as the coverage was the focus on the nuclear row meant other, less contentious areas of the whitepaper have gone widely unreported. Put aside the government's nuclear ambitions and you find that the report also includes some of the most significant and environmentally friendly changes to the UK's energy policy in modern history.
First up the report confirms the governments' long mooted plans to impose a mandatory cap and trade carbon scheme on up to 5,000 organisations, including banks, supermarkets, government departments, hotels and other bodies with electricity bills in excess of £500,000 a year.
Labeled the Carbon Reduction Commitment, the initiative will basically extend the EU emissions trading scheme and see firms buy in carbon credits via an auction, which they can then trade. The government said that the scheme would be "light touch" in terms of administration requirements with firms allowed to self certify their emissions and audits only being carried out on a "risk-based" principle. A further consultation will be published next month and the scheme could come into force as early as 2010.
In short, many large businesses can expect the cost of energy to increase significantly if they exceed their allocated carbon credits. But the rewards for improving energy efficiency will also increase in tandem as those firms that don't use all their credits find a new source of revenue selling them onto their less efficient rivals.
Secondly, the whitepaper has fully embraced the old adage that you can't manage what you don't measure and introduced a requirement for all new electricity meters to come with a real-time display from next year that shows how much electricity is being used and how much it costs. Free displays will be made available to households until 2010 and the government has also committed to promoting adoption of more detailed smart meters - which communicate information between the power supplier and the building - in both the domestic and business sector, with a target of every household having one within ten years and all but the very smallest businesses having one installed within five years.
Electricity bills will also have to include graphical information showing how the customer is performing against the previous year.
The whitepaper argues that giving people more information about how much their power they are using and what it is costing them will revolutionise behaviours at work and home, making people far more aware of energy use and encouraging them to be less profligate.
Smart meters could also ultimately underpin a smart energy grid whereby suppliers can increase prices at times of peak demand to discourage use and even instruct devices such as washing machines to automatically turn themselves off if they are running at peak times.
Thirdly, the whitepaper is accompanied by a "Distributed Generation" report demanding a simplification of the energy market and clearer tariffs from the major energy suppliers detailing what they will pay for excess power supplied by microgenerators. As such, investment in green energy technologies such as solar panels and wind turbines should become more attractive as it will become significantly easier to sell excess electricity, generated from a wind turbine when an office is closed over night for example, back to the grid.
Fourthly, the government report also turns the screws on the energy giants by doubling their current obligation to provide customers with energy efficiency measures through a new Carbon Emissions Reduction Target running from 2008 to 2011. As a result energy suppliers will be forced to invest more in subsidising adoption of energy efficiency measures, such as insulation, and the scope of the programme will also be expanded to include subsidies for micro-generation technologies.
Meanwhile, the whitepaper also launches a consultation on how the energy efficiency of electrical devices can be improved, which could ultimately lead to many energy profligate products being banned, and is accompanied by the publication of a biomass strategy that underlines the government's commitment to an expansion in the use of biofuels.
Overall it is a remarkably ambitious and far reaching set of proposals which, if executed properly, will lead to a massive shake up of the UK energy landscape, drive energy efficiency even further up the list of corporate and domestic priorities, and hopefully slash UK carbon emissions.
It is just a shame this progressive and indisputably green strategy was released alongside the far more contentious nuclear strategy. A move which inevitably forced talk of an energy efficiency revolution to the inside pages, while the headlines were dominated by yet more scare stories about nuclear Armageddon and government arrogance.
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