Energy policy was thrust into the centre of the political debate with the Labour Party’s promise to freeze energy bills if it wins the next General Election.
Earlier this year the National Grid warned the margin of spare capacity over the coming winter, and that of 2015/2016, would fall to its lowest level for generations, at less than 5%.
And at the same time Governments across the world are under pressure to cut carbon emissions by favouring renewables instead of fossil fuels.
Balancing these three elements is known as the energy trilemma and audience member Barbara Vest, the director of generation at Energy UK asked the panellists to identify which of the three they deemed most important.
James Wharton, Conservative MP for Stockton South, highlighted security. “There is little point in having cheap and low carbon electricity if we haven’t any power, and the lights go out.
“If we fail to hit our carbon reduction targets and household bills continue to rise then people will complain, but there will be riots on the street if the lights go out.”
Liam Carr, Labour Party candidate for Hexham, accused Wharton of ‘scaremongering’ saying such claims are ‘stupid’, and went on to say the most pressing issue facing households is affordability.
“Energy bills are too high and the next Labour Government will freeze bills until 2017,” he said.
To the mind of Jonathan Elmer, Green Party activist, there is no trilemma or even dilemma. “We need all three, and they all complement each other.
“They are all needed for a low carbon future and are all needed if we are to keep global temperature rises below the 2 degrees identified by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change.
“This is something we cannot opt to be either in or out, it has to be done. Renewables are the answer. They do not run out.”
Coun Wendy Taylor, a Liberal Democrat serving on Newcastle City Council, highlighted how the UK cannot be dependent on overseas natural gas and needs to focus on developing home grown generation including onshore wind.
She called the Conservative Party’s approach to onshore wind as ‘indefensible’ describing the opposition to it by Communities Minister Eric Pickles as ‘disgraceful’.
Jonathan Arnott, MEP for UKIP in the North East, said: “Over the next few years the price issue will continue to affect everyone. There are now some six million people in fuel poverty and this is the major issue of our time.
“The carbon emissions from the UK for one year are equivalent to the emissions from India and China in one week.”
The five politicians were taking part in the debate on the future of UK energy at Durham University last Thursday.
Chaired by Professor Jon Gluyas, Head of Earth Sciences at Durham University, the Elect Your Energy Future event and took place in the Calman Learning Centre at the university.
In opening the event Prof Gluyas gave all panellists two minutes to outline their positions. Wharton highlighted how the issue had moved to the top of the political agenda but said there were no simple answers and that we needed a balanced energy mix.
Elmer said: “Our energy future is inseparable from our environmental and economic future.”
He went on to say we need to move to a renewable future, as quickly as possible, and that the technologies are available to secure a 100% low carbon future.
Carr said energy bills had gone up an average of £300 a year and that Labour would freeze energy bills until 2017.
Arnott said renewables are not affordable, or price competitive, and that we should be focusing our efforts on developing our ‘massive’ shale gas reserves.
Taylor highlighted how the Liberal Democrats had been ‘green’ for over 30 years. She said we need to decarbonise the power generation sector, create green jobs, and increase our energy efficiency measures, through schemes such as district heating.
The energy efficiency point was made by a member of the audience and there was a rare moment of unanimity amongst the panellists on the point of improving our housing stock to help achieve this.
Although this descended quickly into political point scoring between Labour and Conservative over the Coalition’s axing of the Warm Front scheme shortly after winning last time.
Amongst many respected energy commentators and experts there is an argument for developing the UK’s shale gas reserves to help reduce import dependency and to act as a low carbon bridge to a renewable future.
Elmer conceded that there was a case to be made for gas to be used over the next 10 to 20 years as a transitional fuel to a renewable future – and on the issue of shale gas he surprisingly said: “Local environmental consequences have been over blown.”
Before continuing: “But, the international consequences have not been considered thoroughly enough.
“Why are we looking at bringing on a new fossil fuel energy source when we should be looking at using less fossil fuels and building a low carbon economy? And talk about underground coal gasification is just scraping the barrel.”
Carr from the Labour Party said there was a role for a regulated shale gas industry to be developed as part of a balanced energy mix.
Taylor said: “We will depend on gas for a very long time and shale gas will have to be looked at.”
She highlighted research from many respected bodies on the safety of the industry, saying we should ‘slowly move ahead and look at its potential as we are already having to import 50% of our gas from elsewhere’.
Wharton said: “Gas emits 40% less CO2 than coal, although shale gas should not be viewed as a panacea.
“While our North Sea reserves are running out we seem to be able to find more imaginative ways of getting it out, with many North East companies playing a major part in that.”
One audience member highlighted how policy uncertainty in the sector was affecting investor confidence.
Carr said Labour would provide that certainty by setting a 2030 decarbonisation target and handing more powers to the Green Investment Bank.
Arnott highlighted how everyone agreed that we needed a long tern plan, but at this stage no-one knows what it should be.
Wharton said: “This is a key question and is essentially one about the political process.
“How can an investor make significant investment knowing that in a few years the political wind will change?
“What we need is a grown up debate between the political parties without resorting to populist tactics.”
He highlighted how the Coalition was providing certainty for investors through a raft of new contracts with renewable companies, including the new 35 year deal with EDF Energy to build at least one new nuclear power plant in Somerset.
He continued: “No-one has yet concluded what the right energy mix is and I suspect that is the way it will continue, as something of a political fudge, until we have no alternative but to make those decisions on what is the right way forward.”
He went on to say that the next eight months would see more sound bite politics, which will include price freezes and renationalisation.
Follow Peter McCusker on Twitter @mccusker60