Malcolm Wicks, holder of the Government’s energy brief, believes that the key to tackling climate change will be the active citizen
February 22, 2008
Robin Pagnamenta, Energy and Environment Editor
The interview has not yet begun, but Malcolm Wicks has already left the building. Clutching his pager, the Energy Minister is scuttling through the glass doors of his Westminster office to a Commons vote on Northern Rock. “Just ten minutes!” he pleads as he leaps into the ministerial Prius for the 400-yard dash to the House.
Amid rising domestic energy bills, a flurry of big announcements on nuclear and renewable power and growing public concern about climate change and energy security, Mr Wicks has a lot on his plate.
Among the most pressing recent concerns have been price rises from five of Britain’s biggest energy suppliers that have sparked accusations of price collusion and anticompetitive behaviour.
Back at his desk, Mr Wicks says he believes that the UK market is fundamentally sound but that he sympathises with the concerns that have led to investigations by Ofgem, the regulator, and a Commons committee.
In particular, he says he has been talking with Ofgem about whether vulnerable people, including the poor and the elderly, are being forced to pay more for gas and electricity because suppliers tend to offer their cheapest tariffs on the internet. He fears that such pricing, which is based on the principle that online customers are cheaper to serve, leads to a system in which “the poor pay more” if they do not have a computer or are unfamiliar with the internet, and says that it is important to “ask critical questions”.
He adds: “I worry about that issue a lot . . . My question would be: how do we get beyond the internet cohort?”
Mr Wicks welcomed fresh scrutiny of the industry. “If you believe in markets, then it behoves us to make sure that market works properly,” he says.
He also sounds keen to dismantle barriers to entry. “We do only have six major supply companies,” he says. “That’s not bad . . . but I would like to see new entrants to the market.”
The minister says that this will be increasingly important if the Government is to achieve its aim of fostering more localised energy production including “microgeneration” from small solar, wind and hydropower schemes. “As we develop new forms of supply let’s just make sure there are no unnecessary barriers to entry,” he says, adding that the Government is considering introduction of a German-style subsidy regime known as a “feed-in tariff” to encourage such projects. Nevertheless, Mr Wicks acknowledges that there are clear reasons why the big power suppliers have been forced to raise prices lately. “Wholesale prices have been rising . . . and clean, green energy is more expensive than old energy,” he says.
The cost of the vast new schemes that will be required if Britain is to meet tough new EU targets to boost renewable electricity generation from 4 per cent to about 40 per cent by 2020 is clearly another key focus.
Despite scepticism from many quarters, Mr Wicks says that he believes the targets are achievable, but hinted that there could be some flexibility over timings and exact targets.
For example, he says that as long as Britain makes a start on the Severn Barrage project – which alone could generate 5 per cent of UK electricity – by 2020, that would count towards Britain’s target, even if the project is unfinished.
Mr Wicks grows increasingly animated when talking about technology. He is “enormously enthusiastic” about the emerging potential of carbon capture and storage, for which the Government has pledged hundreds of millions of pounds to sponsor a commercial-scale project to demonstrate how carbon can be stripped from a power plant’s flues and then stored safely underground – probably at sea in former oil and gas fields.
However, he makes a thinly veiled swipe at big oil companies such as BP and Shell, which have been pushing for the Government to sponsor a second competition focused on slightly different carbon capture technology.
“I’m mindful of the cost [to taxpayers] and I’m a little bit disappointed that some of the really big oil companies – those who are always talking about how green they are – aren’t investing more in this themselves,” he says, flashing a mischievous smile. “Isn’t it a little bit of a shame?”
Mr Wicks seems genuinely passionate about his role and “the preeminent challenge of the 21st century”, tackling the twin challenges of global climate change and rising energy insecurity.
However, although he expresses broad support for the EU’s ambitious new emissions targets, there are some elements of the package with which the minister appears uncomfortable.
One is the EU proposal for 10 per cent of EU vehicle fuel to come from biofuels by 2020. He notes that it was the Department for Transport that took the lead on this issue. “I think that biomass and biofuels have an important role to play, but none of us should feel comfortable if that means rainforests being chopped down and expensively shipped to Britain and Berlin to make us feel better,” he says. “We have to examine these things very carefully.”
Nevertheless, Mr Wicks insists that he is an optimist. “This is a tremendous challenge, but I firmly believe we will achieve it,” he says.
The deciding factor in tackling climate change will be action by individuals. “As with recycling,” he says, “I believe the major driver in all of this will be the active citizen.”