Guest Blog: A short history of UK energy efficiency policy

Network News by David Vincent 08 Feb 2017

Former senior civil servant, David Vincent – who spent most of his career in energy efficiency and low carbon policy and programme implementation – gives a personal view on the ups and downs of energy efficiency policy through the Thatcher years and onto the present.

‘History is more or less bunk’. So said Henry Ford in 1916. Much to the despair of my 1960s history teacher, I agreed. Today, I can see how much can be learnt from history – even the history of energy efficiency policy in the UK. Not as exciting as the Tudors, but of value nevertheless to today’s energy efficiency policy makers as they rush from Ministers to meetings fitting policy thinking in between.

Energy efficiency policy has ebbed and flowed in importance and impact as Governments and events come and go. Effective energy efficiency policy making needs knowledge, experience and a political willingness to intervene in markets. Events, such as the Second World War and fuel rationing; the four-fold increases in oil prices of the 1970s; and anthropogenic climate change, raise policy interest. Cheap and plentiful energy; the relatively short-lived era of oil and gas self-sufficiency; and ‘more important things to think about’ lower interest. The unfortunate result of this ebb and flow is that the potential for energy efficiency to reduce energy bills, contribute towards energy security and reduce carbon emissions has, in my view, never been fully realised.

One policy initiative which swam against the tide was the creation of the Energy Efficiency Office (EEO) in 1986. The EEO came into existence not because of any rethinking of intervention by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but because she was keen, through the efficiency programme led by Derek Rayner in the early 1980s, to find Civil Service efficiency improvements and drive ‘cultural change’.

The EEO became the Government’s focal point for energy efficiency policy. Its success was in no small part due to the personal commitment and support of the then Secretary of State for Energy, Peter Walker. He replaced ‘Save It’ by ‘Monergy’ as the policy focus. Sandwiched between free market Secretaries of State, Nigel Lawson and Cecil Parkinson, Peter Walker provided the window of opportunity for the EEO and secured the funds to get programmes up and running.

For many, including me, the EEO was the high point of the UK’s energy efficiency policy. Unfortunately, the EEO came to an end in 1992. Also in 1992, the Government set up the Energy Saving Trust, and in 2001 the Carbon Trust, to design and deliver a range of energy efficiency initiatives funded by, but at arms’ length from, Government. Government funding for these organisations ended in early 2011. Since then, the energy companies have become the principal delivery agents for the Government’s energy efficiency policy via the Energy Company Obligation and other schemes. Energy efficiency policy formulation is now even further away from energy efficiency policy implementation and the opportunities to learn from experience are even more limited.

Readers, have I have got all this wrong? Am I guilty of confirmation bias? Is energy efficiency policy alive and well, achieving its full potential as a key part of energy and climate policy? Or is it struggling to keep its head above water?

Dr David Vincent is Director, David Vincent & Associates, and serves on the advisory boards of the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand, the London-Loughborough EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Energy Demand, and the Sussex Energy Group.

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