Published on October 3, 2013

The price of energy

By Clive Mitchell

Clive Mitchell is Head of Operations at Involve.

Fog with lightsEnergy, and the prices we all pay for it, have been on the agenda at the party conferences. Labour promises to freeze household energy bills, the Conservatives promise to freeze fuel duty. This blog post isn’t about the political tug of war over voter favour, but I do want to say something about transparency and about how we (us consumers and citizens) are viewed in the energy debate.

Which?, the consumer champion organisation, published a paper in July on the challenge of decarbonising UK energy supplies and the impact on consumers. The Imbalance of Power estimates that households are already paying on average £50 a year through their bills to fund investments in low-carbon energy generation. It forecasts that this will rise to £120 a year by 2020 (£135 if you heat your home with electricity). Yet, according to Which?, only 1 in 4 consumers is aware that they are paying for these policies through their bills (I was one of the 3 in 4). Which? argues that these costs amount to public spending and should be subject to the same level of scrutiny as other government spending.

The Which? paper (and another one on wholesale energy markets) was debated at a recent Institute for Public Policy Research roundtable. The roundtable discussion is summarised in this IPPR paper. Participant views were fairly divergent, but two areas of broad agreement at the roundtable were a need for greater transparency in the wholesale energy markets and the need to ensure “the voices of consumers are fully represented in debates on decarbonisation policies”.

As a consumer I want greater transparency in my energy bills. But I want this openness on my terms so that it meets my needs. This has real implications for how industry and government go about trying to be transparent. It means turning the picture on its head and seeing things from the point of view of people. It suggests co-design , highly reflective forms of operating, and organisations that value public voice and are willing to share some power.

But I’m not just a consumer. I’m also a citizen who wants to be confident that we are building a sustainable future, both in terms of security of energy supply and carbon use. It would be nice if we could have a meaningful public discourse about this, underpinned by greater transparency in public policy making. At present, the debate is clouded by arguments over climate change (which, interestingly, seem to be shifting following the latest Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change report), party-political debates over the cost of living, and some lack of coherence in national strategy (the UK aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050, and yet the government is keen on a dash for shale gas. This may be a legitimate element of our energy security, but the road map for transition to low carbon is elusive).

I don’t want to pay through the nose for my energy, but I am willing to invest in our sustainable future and I would like to see the market treat vulnerable people with dignity. I want security of supply and am willing to make trade-offs, but I’d like to contribute to the policy debate here. It would be nice if both energy markets and public policy making were genuinely transparent and open.

Photo credit: GS+

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