Britain’s Green Subsidy Cuts Spook Investors

  • Date: 24/02/16
  • Cristina Maza, Christian Science Monitor

The government says it’s working to reduce over-spending on subsidies for renewables, but critics say the the sudden decision to cut support has spooked investors.

Just months after the Paris climate negotiations, a country that once was a haven for renewable investment is struggling to chart a reliable, low-carbon energy future for itself.

Many countries around the world are grappling with similar policy dilemmas, but experts say the situation in the UK, once seen as a pioneer of clean energy, is especially dire. Some warn the country could face a significant energy supply shortage by 2025, while environmental advocates say the government is upending policies that help it reach its goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

After winning an unexpected majority in the May 2015 elections, Prime Minister David Cameron’s conservative government altered the country’s energy policies considerably by slashing subsidies for renewable sources. Officials say they’re working to make the energy sector more efficient by reducing government intervention. But critics contend that the drastic change has spooked investors in both renewables and traditional fossil fuels, undermining Great Britain’s energy security and its commitment to a low-carbon economy.

Just weeks ahead of the Paris climate talks, Great Britain made headlines by announcing it would close all coal-fired power plants by 2025, a move meant to reduce the island’s dependence on dirty fossil fuels.

But while climate advocates around the globe applauded the decision, many in the UK pointed out that the announcement wasn’t so unexpected. Most of the country’s ageing, coal-fired plants were set to close anyway.

“Action has already been taken to secure extra capacity for next winter and we will continue to work alongside National Grid and Ofgem [the government gas and electricity regulator] to take whatever additional steps are necessary to protect our energy supply,” a UK Department of Energy and Climate Change spokesperson said in an email to the Monitor.

A clean record

Under the former Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition government, the country seemed to be moving closer to the adoption of renewables. For years the country remained in the top ten of the Renewable Energy Country Attractiveness Index, an influential list among investors. In 2013, renewable sources provided around 15 percent of the country’s energy needs. Many said they believed gas-fired power plants would eventually be used only to fill supply gaps after renewables gained prominence in the marketplace.

But the island’s enthusiasm for clean energy nose-dived after the conservatives won a majority in the elections in May. The new government, led by David Cameron, cut subsidies for wind and solar power significantly. Amber Rudd, the new secretary of state for energy and climate change, declared that it’s time for renewables to “stand on their own two feet,” thanks to rapidly declining costs in wind and solar.

“We’re in a phase where the government has scrapped a number of policies and especially subsidies,” explains Samuela Bassi, policy analyst at the London School of Economics’ Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. “And this government is not keen on onshore wind, which is the cheapest source of renewable energy, so investment has been halted.”

The government says it’s working to reduce over-spending on subsidies for renewables. But while many experts agree that reducing subsidies would eventually be necessary, they say the sudden decision to cut support for renewables was detrimental to the country’s energy market. […]

For now the country remains on track to meet its goal of reducing carbon emissions to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. But how it plans to continue this trend remains unclear.

“Given that the government is dismantling much of the framework to support improved levels of energy efficiency, it doesn’t seem likely that progress toward meeting its carbon budget commitments will continue,” says Dr. Bridget Woodman, member of the Energy Policy Group at the University of Exeter.

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