All through conference, my LibDemVoice colleague Helen Duffett has arranged a series of blogger interviews of key figures in the Lib Dems, including several ministers. I think it’s a testament to their openness that Lib Dem ministers, including the most senior, still make themselves available for interviews in this way. A large group of people interviewed Nick Clegg yesterday, and today a group including me convened to talk to Chris Huhne, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.
It is quite remarkable how little you can get through in an hour when the person you are talking to is on top of his brief and really enthusiastic to talk about what is planned. We heard at great length about plans for the New Green Deal, which should be starting its process through parliament this autumn, ready to start being delivered by 2012.
This massively extends previous projects to get world class insulation into the vast majority of British homes which are woefully energy inefficient. Most energy efficiency projects like this actually pay for themselves by savings in energy costs, but many take 10 or 15 years before the payment is complete. The scheme Huhne is promoting will borrow the money from future energy bills, meaning that householders do not need to take on any personal debt to do it or affect their credit history. The money will sit between the energy provider and the householder and be paid off as part of future energy bills. Moving house will still be possible as future owners of your house will still have lower energy bills than had the work not been done and the prospect of drastically lower bills once the cost of the scheme has been paid.
In addition, the work will create a new industry. Huhne estimates there are only about 20-30,000 people working in this field at present, and in the future there will be a sustainable need for ten times that. The scheme will need carefully planned training courses, but is a reasonably simple construction type activity that a lot of people could learn to do relatively easily. Best of all, there will be a need for people to work in this field right across the country. Wherever there are houses there will need to be people working to implement the Green New Deal.
When it came to my turn to ask a question of Chris Huhne, I chose to ask about the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). RHI is a scheme the last government consulted on but ran out of time to implement. Like the Renewable Obligation Certificate (ROC) and Carbon Emissions Reduction Target (CERT) this is a pot of money designed to transfer money from old energy to new energy to make the transition away from carbon more manageable. ROCs take money from carbon based energy generation and pay them to renewable generators. And CERT is a levy on energy companies that goes to pay for energy efficiency in people’s houses – in Nottingham this is delivered by the Warmzone work.
RHI is particularly important in my work as a director of EnviroEnergy, Nottingham’s district heating system. This massive heat system transfers waste heat from the incinerator to heat many of the civic buildings in Nottingham and thousands of homes, largely in the Victoria Centre flats and St Anns. The company has struggled to break even in recent times, but is predicted to start making a profit real soon now.
What would help enormously with its finances is an injection of RHI cash. So I asked Huhne what the plans were for RHI.
His upfront position was that it will happen; that everyone in government sees the need; and that heat is central to meeting the legal target the UK has to generate 15% of its energy needs from renewables by 2020.
Chris Huhne said:
It’s inconceivable that we couldn’t support heat, because it’s such a crucial part of our renewable energy objectives. It’s absolutely key.
There is a minor “but” however. Unlike ROCs and CERTs, which are funded by levying industry, the RHI will be funded directly from taxpayers’ money. As such, it is part of the comprehensive spending review, which is indeed proving comprehensive. So until that process is complete, a little over a month from now, the details and the price are simply not certain. But RHI is definitely on its way.
Chris Huhne added:
“I have said as plainly as I can to the industry, ‘Hang on in there, the cavalry is coming.'”