|George Osborne's Liberal Democrat deputy, Danny Alexander will call for a target and criticise his boss's attitude to low carbon tech at the Lib-Dem party conference.|
The role of gas-fired generation and the setting of a 2030 decarbonisation target for the electricity market has become the focus of a bitter battle between Lib Dems and George Osborne.
Yesterday, Edward Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, responded to a letter from the Committee on Climate Change, signed by its new Chairman, Lord Deben, criticising the recent Government statement that gas would continue to play an important role in the energy mix beyond 2030, not restricted to providing backup to renewables".
The letter added that this position could be illegal under the Climate Change Act 2008, and “weakens the signal provided by carbon budgets to investors" in clean tech.
It also recommends the setting of a clear carbon emission objective for electricity market reform, of around 50g of CO2 per kilowatt-hour by 2030.
Earlier this year George Osborne ruled out such a measure, expressing concern that such a target would undermine investor confidence in the gas industry, which he wants to build up.
In short, the argument between Osborne and DECC is about whether investment should be predominantly directed into renewables or gas. Gas, being cheaper, is favoured by Osborne.
But it is also an argument between the Lib Dems and Conservatives. Osborne's Liberal Democrat deputy, Danny Alexander, has signalled that he will call for a 2030 decarbonisation goal to be implemented when he speaks at the party's conference in two weeks.
He will also use his speech to attack the Conservatives for not acknowledging the economic benefits of investing in low carbon tech.
In reply to the CCC letter, Mr Davey, who this week adopted responsibility for renewables policy that was previously the ex-energy minister Charles Hendry's brief, issued a statement.
This said that a target is "under consideration" but argued that the Government's "existing plans are consistent with significant decarbonisation of the power sector".
Davey is known to believe that a limit on carbon emissions from the sector could be achieved using a statutory instrument instead of being included in the Energy Bill.
Osborne is currently sanguine about DECC's consultation on a carbon emissions limit for 2030, because he doesn't think it would make a material difference in practice.
But Davey's ace in his hand remains the carbon budgets that have been agreed by Parliament, which could trump Treasury policy provided that it is played with a strong suit.
Davey's response to the Committee's letter emphasises this, that the statutory carbon budgets that are set by the Committee, and agreed by Parliament, underscore all policy and planned market reforms.
“We have always said [our reforms] will include gas fired plant," the statement says, “which is quick to build and flexible." But "after 2030 we expect that gas will increasingly be used only as back up, or fitted with Carbon Capture and Storage technology.
"Alongside up-scaling of renewables, nuclear new build, and eventually with carbon capture and storage, gas has an important role to play in the transition to a low carbon grid."
But how much gas generation could be installed and still permit the UK realistically to meet its carbon budgets?
“Our numbers show that we can accommodate around 30 to 45GW of unabated gas over the next twenty years and still hit our carbon targets, but any further fossil fuels will need CCS, which is not yet commercially viable," Davey said on Wednesday.
This means over a dozen new gas-fired power plants in the next 15 years.
While the Committee's letter was greeted with approval by the clean tech sector, this response by Davey has been met with scepticism.
Utility company SSE tweeted that, contrary to the Treasury view, a "2030 decarbonisation target in EMR would provide much-needed certainty for low-carbon investors and developers".
Climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace, Joss Garman, calculated that “where you have as much as 45GW of unabated gas in 2030 (and if you assume demand by then of around 420TWh), this would require that all those gas stations are only operating for 15% of the time if we are to keep on track with carbon targets. It also requires all of the UK’s coal stations are shut down or operating with fully functioning Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)."
"The UK is already over-reliant on gas, which was the main driver behind recent energy bill rises," said Keith Allott, head of climate change at WWF.
The cross-party energy select committee, led by Tim Yeo, has also reiterated calls for a 2030 decarbonisation goal.
“Our gas generation strategy work is about providing certainty to investors to ensure sufficient investment comes forward, whilst also living within our legally binding carbon budgets,” concluded Ed Davey's statement.
To Garman and the other objectors, this seems like trying to have your cake and eat it.