Catherine Caine


– Catherine Caine (PhD Student, Newcastle University)

We’re all aware of the recent news pieces that have hit the headlines over the past weeks following labour leader, Ed Miliband’s, claim to freeze energy prices. The average householder has been hit with arguments that such a price freeze is not possible, as well as fears of impending blackouts to their power supply over the next five years and the prospect of large price rises from the major energy suppliers. With this barrage of news, one could be forgiven for regarding this as a fairly murky time for those who require electricity in their day-to-day lives (to quote a certain political parties’ mantra “we’re all in this together”). With every new story that blesses the front pages, we are led to further question the energy “master plan” that our government has put in place, and whether these plans provide for secure energy in the future. After all, how much of the political posturing on energy prices that we hear is realistic? To what extent is a four year government capable of planning for sustainable energy generation in the future? Is our government bound by law to certain energy deals? And can the government change the goalposts on energy projects that have already been agreed?

With an upcoming election in the UK, party conferences are promising a considerable number of changes to energy policies with the assumed aim of winning around the average voter who is discontented by the cost of his energy bills. However in reality, the chances of these glamorous promises becoming practice are slim. The reasons behind this claim are not due to political backtracking, or the realisation of our financial situation (both reasons will, and have, played a major part in politicians reneging) but are due to reasons such as inability to break contractual obligations that have been made, and the need to comply with European and International law. For example, take the recent proposal from the Conservative Party to prevent the growth of wind farms and other forms of renewable energy from blighting the countryside. Recent claims from the Conservative Party have accused wind farms of becoming a “gravy train threatening to career out of control” with an average of seven wind farm applications being made in Scotland on a daily basis.  As a result, the Government has hit back against its own policy, claiming that by removing funding and subsidies from green energy, the bill-payer’s bill will automatically be reduced by £110. However, this claim has been swiftly rejected by a senior member of the Liberal Democrat party who argues that cutting such subsidies would not be legally possible, as the contracts for green energy construction have already been agreed.

In addition to the legal barrier of having to cancel existing construction contracts for green energy sources, the Government must also be mindful of the European and international obligations that it has agreed to adhere to. For example, under the Conservative’s claim that it will curb the construction of green projects, the UK runs the risk of not complying with certain European Directives that it has entered into regarding renewable energy and climate change. A recent report from the European Union indicates that the UK has already failed to meet its 2010 targets for increasing the share of renewable energy in the electricity sector, and shows that the failings in the European Union are most prominent in the wind sector. It is suggested that, given the fact that the UK has already fared poorly with regards to meeting its renewable energy target within the EU, Government proposals to cut green energy further may result in the UK risking non-compliance with the Directive. In addition to the commitments that the UK has made under the European Union, there are also a number of international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol (as recently amended by the Doha Amendment) that must be taken into consideration when making allowances for our future energy supply.

It seems, therefore, that lurking behind all of the political posturing that currently lines the newspapers; there remains a set number of obligations and legally binding contracts that the UK has already committed itself to regardless of what is being said in order to win an election. As we have seen, the comments made by politicians leading up to the election have already had a profound effect on the actions of energy companies. Since Ed Miliband’s claim to freeze energy prices, two of the major energy companies have declared large price increases, resulting in thousands of customers deciding to switch suppliers before price rises affect them. Ed Miliband’s claims have been called irresponsible by some for their impact on current energy prices, whilst others criticise the plans for their ability to stunt investment and growth in the energy sector. Whether or not you agree with Mr Miliband’s answer to high energy prices, his suggestion, along with its consequences, serves as a good example of the pitfalls that face an energy sector that is guided by short-term governments. Energy generation and supply requires long term planning. Combine this with evidence of climate change, and a desire to lower carbon emissions, and we are left with a need for this long term planning to be sustainable. With a government in the UK that often works around a 4 year plan, politicians are left with the choice of being a hero today and stunting investment in the energy sector in future, or the unpopular decision of raising consumer bills in order to invest in green energy today.

In summary, the outlook on our future energy generation is unclear. Whilst we are bombarded with policies from politicians who claim to be acting in our best interest, it is important to scrutinise the validity of such claims in light of the legal contracts and obligations that already exist. We are all aware that politicians may well make promises and claims ahead of an election that they will not keep (the chime of “tuition fees” remains a sore subject for many). However, point scoring and election tactics will not prevent the lights from going out if action isn’t taken to secure our energy future.




unsplash_52af24879b3cb_1– Catherine Caine (LLM Environmental Law and Policy, Newcastle University)

Last week brought both the news that the UK’s shale gas reserves are greater than expected and the fact that the UK is not on track to hit its climate change targets through the 2020s. It has been argued that whilst shale gas is cleaner than coal, it is still a fossil fuel and will not help the UK towards meeting its climate targets within the European Union. Under the Climate Change Act 2008, the UK is committed to ensuring that the net UK emissions of carbon dioxide are 80% lower in the year of 2050, than they were in 1990. In addition to this, the UK is also required to increase its renewable energy production to fifteen percent by 2020 under the 2009 European Directive on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources. However, despite these targets, the coalition government remains undeterred from its march towards the exploitation of shale gas.

It is believed that there is as much as 1,300 trillion cubic feet of shale gas expected at the Bowland site in Lancashire. Shale gas is extracted using the controversial process of fracking. Fracking is the process whereby rock is fractured using high pressure jets of water in order to gain access to the trapped gas within. The process is big in America where it has brought down energy prices, and ensured that America can use its own resources instead of importing from other states. Conversely, in the UK, the process was banned in 2011 after exploration in the Blackpool area led to earth tremors. This ban has now been lifted, as theories concerning earth tremors have been dispelled. However, the concern of tremors has been replaced with a new fear of water contamination caused by the chemicals and sand that are blasted into the rocks deep below the earth.

Lawrence Carter from Greenpeace claims that “the idea that shale gas is going to get the economy moving again is groundless” and Friends of the Earth campaigner Tony Bosworth believes that “shale gas is not the solution to the UK’s energy challenges. Its potential has been hugely over-hyped and there’s little evidence it will drive down fuel prices.” Whether you love or hate shale gas, the Coalition Government is determined to push through with plans. With at least £100,000 in benefits on offer to each Community that decides to exploit shale gas, along with 1 per cent of the overall revenues – the offer is certainly tempting. Nevertheless the question remains: will financial encouragement be enough to entice Communities to get involved with the scheme?

Shale gas wells require permits from the Environment Agency, and the Department for Energy and Climate Change, as well as permission from health and safety officials before they can be built. Despite the long list of permissions required, it has been argued that the largest obstacle facing shale gas exploitation is support from local authorities. The Chief Executive of the UK Onshore Operators Group, Ken Cronin, believes that planning is the “most difficult part” for firms wanting to explore shale gas.  He argues that shale gas exploitation is not a new venture as we have been drilling wells for oil and gas for a considerable amount of time in the UK. Nonetheless, with the additional publicity that shale gas has received concerning Earth tremors, and water pollution, local authorities will be left with a decision to take the financial gain and face the consequences, or to play it safe and risk being left behind.

Only the test of time will tell how many local authorities give consent to shale gas exploitation in their area, however with constant threats that the monies raised will not necessary benefit local communities – it is far from certain whether shale gas will be able to provide an adequate solution to our energy problems.


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– Catherine Caine (LLM Environmental Law and Policy, Newcastle University)

Wind farms have often managed to divide the nation. Whilst some view wind turbines as a clean solution to our energy sourcing problems, others regard them as a blight on our countryside. Both sides have fought their arguments with passion and rigorous debate. However, one undeniable fact running alongside the wind farm debate is that our need to mitigate climate change cannot be ignored. By agreeing to increase the proportion of renewable energy in the UK’s total energy consumption figures to fifteen percent by 2020, the UK has already made a commitment within the European Commission to change for the future. However, recent news indicates that a change in planning guidance could compromise the UK’s ability to meet such targets.

Following on from the Coalition Government’s Localism Act 2011, the focus on planning law has shifted towards a decentralised system whereby local communities are afforded the opportunity to have their say in local planning decisions. Within this, a general power of competence was afforded to local authorities to allow them to take reasonable action needed for the benefit of the authority, relevant area and residents. It is anticipated that upcoming planning guidance will allow local authorities and residents to have a greater say on whether or not wind turbines should be erected within their area. The announcement has created somewhat of a double-edged sword whereby local communities are capable of overriding national energy requirements by refusing plans to construct wind farms; however, increased financial incentives will be imposed to encourage local communities to consider wind energy. The Energy Secretary, Edward Davey, has stated that the announcement “will ensure that communities see the windfall from hosting developments near to them, not just the wind farm”.

The expected planning guidance will “see a five-fold rise in the benefits paid by developers to communities hosting wind farms”, with subsidies provided to the local communities that decide to include wind farms in their planning decisions. The wind farm company RES in Meikle Carewe near Aberdeen has demonstrated how a similar scheme can be of benefit to the local community with local residents receiving £122 off of their annual electricity bills. Interest in the scheme has been expressed in Bryn Llywelyn, Wales, with three-quarters of residents showing an interest in taking part in the scheme offered by RES. By providing a financial incentive to local residents for the construction of wind farms, it is arguable that wind farm development will begin to see a shift in popularity.

However, as well as providing a financial incentive to the communities that do wish to utilise wind energy, the planning guidance will also allow communities that do not wish to reap the benefits of wind energy to refuse wind farm development in their area. Many views on this aspect of the proposed guidance suggest that the reforms could in fact allow a nation of ‘NIMBYs’ (“not in my back yard”) to kill our future of onshore wind farms. The argument presented by Mark Prisk, Housing Minister, clearly states that the need to meet the UK’s energy targets does not justify “the wrong development in the wrong location.” However, the extent to which a community should have the right to determine the energy infrastructure of the UK can be called into question. Indeed, if the local communities surrounding some of our largest power stations had the opportunity to refuse their development on the basis of a NIMBY attitude, the energy infrastructure that the UK enjoys today would look dramatically different. It is well understood that nobody wants to suffer an eyesore in their area. However, without the eyesore, there can be no energy generation.

The anticipated planning guidance will not only have an impact on a local scale. With the potential refusal from local communities to tolerate onshore wind farms, the UK’s targets within the European Commission could also be affected. However, with the Coalition Government opposing attempts to set new renewable energy targets, opting instead to focus on a new decarbonisation target for 2030, it has been argued that the Government is refusing to commit to renewable energy through its preference for the use of shale gas. The anticipated planning guidelines reflect this non-committed approach from the Government towards the use of renewable energy as a main source of the UK’s energy.

Whilst the effect that the upcoming planning guidance will have on future wind farm developments in the UK remains uncertain – the fact that wind farms divide the nation, and are likely to continue to do so, remains undisputable.