The UK's 'energy trilemma' downgrade should worry us, but there could be a fix

24 Nov 2015

The World Energy Council recently downgraded the UK's 'energy trilemma index' from AAA to AAB, reflecting a fall in the accessibility and affordability of energy supply across the population. Amber Sharick, UKERC Business Engagement Manager, worries about the slip.

The World Energy Council (WEC) attempts to evaluate how countries are doing in addressing the often competing goals of affordability, sustainability and security related to energy.

This year’s downgrading of the UK’s Energy Trilemma Index rating by WEC, from AAA to AAB, reflecting a fall in the WEC's assessment of energy equity, might seem a surprise to some given the UK’s past leadership in attempting to tackle pressing issues related to the energy transition. While the UK still places a respectable fourth among 130 countries, for those of us living in the UK, it has been clear for some time that the country is losing balance on energy policy.

The WEC attributes the equity downgrade to comparatively high electricity prices in the UK. The UK also remains on the watch list for security.

The WEC states that the best performing countries are those developed countries with increasing shares of energy coming from low- or zero-carbon energy sources and longstanding energy efficiency programs.

The UK has been amongst this group, but that place is now at risk.

While the UK carbon budgets remain in place, many of the policies implementing them have been reviewed and subsequently scrapped over the last few months, e.g, Zero Carbon Homes, Zero Carbon Buildings, the Green Deal, solar support via the Renewables Obligation, and Differential Vehicle Excise Duty.

Ground-up trends such as divestment from fossil fuels are not yet linked to re-investment in demand reduction and low carbon new-build.

And, no matter how we all talk about market mechanisms, experience shows that investment follows solid policy, in the case of renewables this is FITs and ROCs.

The top-down push for nuclear, which is such a high-profile feature of current UK policy, needs years to get going and the question remains: what would we have got for an equal investment in efficiency and renewable power?

And, on what timescale?

The UK general election last May saw a transition from a centrist coalition government to a majority Conservative government more firmly rooted on the right.

At the same time, the technocratic tendencies of the current finance minister,Chancellor of the Exchequer,George Osborne have led to the creation of a new government body, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), backed with a promise to spend £100 billion on infrastructure over the next five years.

This is a promising as the WEC watch list for security was expanded, in part, because of countries neglecting much needed infrastructure upgrades and investment.

The NIC will produce a report at the start of each five-year Parliament, offering recommendations for priority infrastructure projects, according to the UK Government.

At this point, it’s hard to say whether this body will do more in the energy space than pay lip-service to sustainability and low carbon while getting a new airport runway built.

However, there seems to be some hope that the group might be able to take steps to restoring balance in energy policy more broadly.

By prioritizing projects that have benefits for consumers, making energy more affordable, and for the larger economy as a whole, making services more secure and sustainable, the NIC would be providing much needed leadership.

Incorporating the evidence base into decision-making and prioritizing energy efficiency, and targeting demand reduction in particular, as an infrastructure priority would be a good start and might allow the UK to, if not lead, at least be able to reap the benefits of an orderly transition to a low-carbon economy.

A version of this article originally appeared in Energy Voice and is reproduced here with permission.