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Event report: Energy we can all afford? public meeting

event report

Who’s put off by a bit of snow and a cold wind? Not the people of Cheadle at any rate, who showed their interest in the energy debate by braving the chilly weather to come along to our Energy We Can All Afford? public meeting on Friday 22 March.

Our hosts for the night were Cheadle Hulme Methodist Church, who have already supported green energy by installing solar panels on their roof and donating 20% of the feed-in tariff revenues to a local charity.

The meeting, chaired by Dave Coleman from Manchester Carbon Literacy, focused on the themes of Warmer Homes, Lower Bills, Cooler Planet—a recognition that the measures needed to hit the UK’s carbon targets will also lead to our homes becoming easier (and cheaper) to heat.

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Our panel – from left to right, Mark Hunter MP, Donna Hume, Dave Coleman (chair), Martyn Williams and Lucie Newsam

Panel members Mark Hunter MP, Donna Hume from national Friends of the Earth, Martyn Williams from the Energy Bill Revolution campaign and Lucie Newsam from Age UK Stockport opened with their own views on the energy debate. Lucie said fuel poverty is a big issue for the elderly; the annual cost of illness from poorly heated homes is £1.36 billion, and existing programmes to address energy efficiency are inadequate. We need revenues from a carbon tax to ‘help stem the growing cost of the cold’. Martyn agreed that carbon tax revenues should be returned to those in fuel poverty, and even if people switch to a minimum tariff they will be back at square one again within a year or two due to the rise in gas bills. Cold homes also affect young people: babies gain weight slowly, children suffer from health problems and teenagers lag behind at school due to a lack of a warm room of their own to revise in.

For Friends of the Earth, Donna agreed that fuel poverty is a crucial issue, and we need an Energy Bill that ‘gets us off the hook of rocketing fossil fuel prices’. The existing energy system needs a £100 billion upgrade over the next ten years, and decisions made right now will have ‘very long-term consequences for the economy’. The most cost-effective way to meet our carbon targets is to decarbonise the energy sector by 2030. She said the Chancellor’s current plan for new gas-fired power stations has been described as ‘plan Z’ by the Committee on Climate Change, and we need to get our MPs to back the clean power target put forward in Tim Yeo’s amendments to the Energy Bill.

Mark Hunter, the Lib Dem MP for Cheadle, said the coalition’s Green Deal is a ‘huge step forward in helping to ensure warmer homes’ and will ‘fully support those attempts to have a target’ in the Energy Bill. He was upbeat about the chances of achieving this, and reminded the audience that what were once fringe issues have now become centre stage, so we are making progress.

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Mark Hunter MP answers a question from the audience

Following this, the question time part of the evening began, and Dave invited the audience to join in. A local councillor wondered whether we would need nuclear and thought wind power had ‘extravagant claims’ made on its behalf. However, Donna pointed out that the UK has huge renewable resources, so much so that we would only need to use one third of them to become a net exporter of electricity. She added that nuclear power stations can’t be brought into service fast enough and are subject to cost increases. Mark has long been unconvinced of the role of nuclear and believes ‘onshore wind is one of the cheapest forms of renewable energy’, which is already on a large enough scale to power 2.5 million homes.

The next set of questions looked at community energy projects and whether we should be burning biofuels as part of the power sector. Donna told us both of these are being targeted by amendments backed by Friends of the Earth, one aiming to get the feed-in tariff cap lifted and the other stopping ‘whole-tree burning’ in power stations. Mark said ‘burning of biofuels doesn’t make any kind of sense’ and diverting products from food to fuel is ‘anathema’ to him. There was also a question looking at building regulations, but Martyn said it is far more important to look at retrofitting, as in 2030 we will nearly all be living in houses that have already been built.

Another controversial energy issue is fracking for shale gas, and this was raised later in the evening. Mark was concerned about some of the effects (such as earthquakes) associated with fracking, but with respect to the security of energy supply he was of the opinion that we might need to look at extracting shale gas ‘safely and securely’. He did not mention its impact on carbon targets. This was one of the objections Donna mentioned, along with the difficulty of going ahead with fracking in the UK, with its complex geology, high population density and planning regime. Even if we extract all our shale gas, she said, gas prices will continue to rise.

Finally, Mark was asked what efforts he will be making personally to ensure the decarbonisation target ends up in the bill, in line with last year’s Lib Dem conference resolution. He was ‘loath to speculate’, as the bill is a package of measures, but said he is ‘fairly confident’ about it getting passed.

Manchester Friends of the Earth would like to thank all four panel members, chair Dave Coleman, our hosts Cheadle Hulme Methodist Church and Stockport Friends of the Earth for making this evening such a success.

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