After weeks of arguments and confusions, the mood was amazingly frolicsome at the Energy and Climate Change select committee this week, when the Energy minister John Hayes came before them to talk about nuclear power.
Hayes has caused no end of trouble for this government, whether deliberately or not, by giving anti-wind comments to the Mail and Telegraph and blowing up a huge storm (sadly one that powered no turbines). But a great thing about him – whether you share his views or not – is that, like Boris Johnson, he is refreshing unbowed by criticism.
We’re so used to seeing politicians bowing low before the press, and even though I’m a press it makes me uneasy, like seeing someone backing down in front of a bully. I’ve always thought that one reason people love Bozza so much is because he’s so freewheelingly unbothered by what papers say about him – he seems to have fortunate access to a longer perspective where he realises that today’s headlines too will fade.
And Hayes shares this happy viewpoint, jauntily sitting down in front of the committee, merrily brushing aside any little jabs about the wind farrago, and carrying on with his endearing habit of flannelling anyone and everyone he meets. (Sample line; “I am blessed with wonderful civil servants who bring joy to my heart each and every day.” Delivered drily enough to make a few people laugh aloud, including his civil servants.) I must admit I really do warm to him, although I suspect he could be forceful if crossed.
But charm only goes so far. In the Times this week Rachel Sylvester reported rumours of plans to cap renewable energy, in particular on-shore wind. In BusinessGreen James Murray added that apparently, for Secretary of State Ed Davey, offshore wind is the priority, and Davey might regard the cap as a price worth paying if it meant more money was released for other low carbon projects.
There is a bewildering feeling that on-shore wind – a proven technology, the cheapest form of renewable energy we have, easily available to local communities at low cost, and a massive and growing market around the world – is somehow being written out of the picture here. Hayes says he will judge it on “aesthetic grounds”; will he also be judging applications for open cast coal mines or gas pipelines on that basis?
Meanwhile plans for nuclear are, apparently bouncing ahead. Hayes told the committee that he’d met with Vincent de Rivaz, head of the French company that owns all our current nuclear reactors and is planning to build our next lot, the day before, and that he’d told him that he expected to have the deal more or less done by the end of the year.
How will they manage the finance, given the no subsidy promise? Hayes has a cunning answer to this. “The strike price [the price guaranteed to the power station for the energy they produce] for different technologies cost different amounts – on shore and offshore wind for for example.” In short, if you have a problem with nuclear energy receiving a higher strike price than say, gas, you also need to defend the fact that renewables get more money too. It’s neat.
In short, if we want renewables, then we have to accept nuclear. It’s close to blackmail really, but they’ve got the renewable lobby over a barrel – which is perhaps why some of it teamed up with the nuclear lobby this week to ask the government to hurry up and get its act together.