The challenge of energy generation in the future has to be met by policy decided today. Well, by 14 April. And the government needs your help to do it
I was delighted that Malcolm Wicks was given the energy brief at the DTI after the last election. Delighted because Malcolm is a thoughtful and able minister who has the intellectual grasp and political nous to steer a sensible course through a treacherous minefield. Delighted, but also a touch apprehensive because of the scale and the nature of the problem he has to resolve.
Our Energy Challenge, the consultation paper he issued early in the new year, sets out the issues with admirable clarity. It talks about the growing urgency of action to tackle climate change, the heightened concerns about the security of our energy supplies, the impact of steep rises in energy prices and the threat they pose to the poor and vulnerable as well as to industry.
As the foreword emphasises, there is no single, let alone simple, solution. The issues are complex, and any credible long-term energy policy has to reconcile a number of apparently conflicting pressures. The best reaction seems to be a mix of responses, including measures to reduce demand, improve the efficiency of supply, invest in new technology and modify our lifestyles. But they need to be combined cleverly if we are to emerge with an energy policy capable of meeting the government's targets.
Yet ironically the public debate has failed to rise much beyond slogans. "Wind farms good; nuclear bad", or vice versa, is about as far as it has progressed to date. This is simply not good enough, and all of us who care about the huge issues at stake have a responsibility to raise the tone and the quality of the debate.
The construction industry is exceptionally well placed to counter these simplistic tendencies. The industry has practical experience of almost all the technologies likely to be involved, as well as a detailed understanding of the impact of different approaches on demand and supply.
Taking the former, we know that there is considerable scope to reduce consumption. We also know that it is not sufficient simply to focus on the new. Older homes must be retrofitted with energy-saving features. The really telling statistic is that we are adding only 0.8% to the national stock of homes each year. However excellent the new ones are in terms of eco-rating, their impact is marginal in relation to the total - a message that needs to be forcibly conveyed to those in ODPM responsible for the upgrading of Part L of the Building Regulations.
Those in the public eye can burnish their environmental credentials by installing solar panels and dwarf wind turbines
Just as important are measures relating to the production of building materials, where the main industries are generally heavy energy users. And the design and planning issues of new developments can make it easier for people to adapt to low-emission lifestyles, including less dependence on the car.
On the supply side we need to balance economics of scale delivered by large-scale energy generation, against the lower distribution costs and greater personal responsibility associated with microgeneration. While those in the public eye can burnish their environmental credentials by installing solar panels and dwarf wind turbines on their roofs, is this really a cost-effective and dependable solution?
Similarly we need a realistic appraisal of the contribution from renewable and quasi-renewable sources, and we need to balance views about the impact of wind farms on the environment. While many can admire the elegance of a well-sited group of turbines in a wild landscape, I can't be the only person to worry about proliferation on a massive scale. Any visitor to central Spain can hardly fail to be struck by the Quixotic transformation of the landscape by literally thousands of turbines. Is this really what we want the next generation to inherit?
And of course there is the nuclear issue and much more. So with only a few weeks to go before the consultation phase ends on 14 April, there is a real responsibility on the construction industry to pull together its collective expertise to help raise the level of the debate and ensure that Malcolm Wicks has the soundest possible evidence on which to reach his conclusions.
Nick Raynsford is a former construction minister and deputy chairman of the Construction Industry Council