UK’s energy sector needs to put more power behind its communications
Regular users of the M62 in Yorkshire will be familiar with the iconic trail of coal-fired power stations between Leeds and Goole, symbolising decades of energy production from the three giants of Eggborough, Ferrybridge and Drax.
But in 12 weeks’ time two of these major power stations – Eggborough, which delivers four per cent of the UK’s electricity needs, and Ferrybridge, which at one point last year provided 35.4 per cent of the UK’s electricity – will stop generating power.
The reason? Because wholesale energy prices are falling, while costs and carbon taxes are rising, making operation financially unsustainable.
While it is part of the Government’s wider energy policy to close all Britain’s coal-fired power stations by 2025, coal currently provides around 28 per cent of the UK’s electricity.
The original plan was that nuclear, renewable and green power would be expected to make up the slack.
However, the lack of reliable renewable alternatives to coal, and slow progress in delivering new nuclear installations because of funding issues and regulations, is raising concern over future energy security.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out that if the coal stations shut, yet there is nothing operational to replace the amount of power produced on the same scale, at some point there will be a shortage.
There is a whole other blog to be written about whether the UK’s current energy policy is right but for me, at the minute, the more immediate problem is one of communication.
In 2014 we wrote a blog saying that the energy industry’s biggest challenge is explaining why we’re facing a new energy crisis, and what needs to be done to prevent it.
And two years on I’m not really sure things have moved much further forward.
While the communication from those in the industry has made it very clear there is an energy crisis, and the terms ‘fracking’ and ‘nuclear power’ have become much more prevalent, I’m not hearing a lot of clear messages about exactly what the plan is to prevent a crisis.
In fact, the gap in consistent and clear messaging seems to be getting wider.
Three months ago the National Grid had to invoke emergency procedures to prevent a supply crunch, paying large businesses to cut down their energy usage. And we started 2016 with reports that it is likely to have to take emergency measures again this winter in order to balance supply and demand.
Yet alongside this stream of communications from the industry that the cost of producing energy is rising, and power stations can’t afford to produce it, certainly not in the quantity needed, the Government is calling for energy companies to lower prices to consumers.
There seems to be a big dichotomy in the messages from the industry (producing energy is too costly) and the Government (energy costs are too high and can be cheaper).
It’s time for some consistency and clarity and for politicians and the energy industry to work together to agree a singular approach and communicate clearly to customers and end users.
At the minute, disjointed communications and conflicting messages from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) through to suppliers are creating a confused and disorganised image of everyone in the industry.
When I started my research for this blog, it became apparent pretty quickly that this is not a simple problem and there isn’t one clear-cut solution to the communications battle.
But it needs to start with a concerted effort to ensure the current energy policy is clear, with an emphasis on outlining how the UK’s energy needs will be met, and how all those in the energy sector should and will deliver it.
It’s a tricky balancing act for all involved. From the middle men (National Grid and regulator Ofgem), to those at either end (operators, providers and the DECC). No-one wants to be accused of scaremongering or ineffectiveness but, by the same token, what they all need to do is inform and educate consumers that there is a deliverable plan for the industry.
Consumers need someone to take the lead – be it the DECC or the industry bodies – and communicate clearly and consistently that there is a plan and that next winter consumers will be able to turn on a light and heat their homes in a way that won’t cost the earth.