Analysis: Conservative Party report: The Low Carbon Economy

The Conservatives have unveiled their latest environmental policy document. Tom Idle analyses the party's plans - which centre around a 'blueprint for a better energy future', and a call for an 'electricity internet'

We have a vision of a different Britain," begins Conservative leader David Cameron in the foreword to his party's latest environmental policy document. "It is a vision of a Britain in which our cars run on electricity; high speed trains whisk us from North to South in less time than it takes to get across greater London; we produce much more but use much less energy to do it; and our power supplies no longer depend to any great extent on imported oil and gas." And so it goes on.

Of course, we've been here before: At the beginning of last year, the Tories' Blueprint for a Green Economy set out the opposition's position on how the UK can best head towards a low-carbon economy. The report, produced by John Gummer and Zac Goldsmith, was big on ideas but little on details. It was sketchy to say the least. And, as the UK headed into recession, the party has shied away from putting sustainability and energy efficiency at the heart of its responsive policy.

And so this new policy green paper, the Low Carbon Economy: Security, Stability & Green Growth, is very welcome. Unlike its predecessor, which attempted to address everything from water resources to waste management, this document concentrates on what Cameron describes as a "blueprint for a better energy future".

The Conservatives' main proposal centres on powering the UK's machinery and transport on low-carbon electricity provided via a new "electricity internet". In order to change the way our energy is produced and transmitted from place to place - a system that is "stuck in the 1950s" according to the party - computing intelligence needs to become a part of electricity networks, with smart meters being used in people's homes in order to manage supply and demand intelligently. "Communications technology has now made this type of interactivity commonplace in many aspects of our lives - but not in energy," says the report.

For the Tories, making these changes would unlock many opportunities. For starters, the large-scale use of renewables would become feasible because a smart grid can manage domestic and commercial appliances to use more energy when it is abundant and less at peak times. "The vast and barely exploited renwewable resources that Britain has in abundance - tidal power, offshore wind, wave energy - can be exploited and fed into the national grid."

And establishing an electricity internet might also allow anyone that wants to contribute to it being able to do so. The Conservatives propose creating a decentralised energy grid, whereby homes businesses, schools and hospitals can contribute from their own micro-generation of energy, via smart meters, earning money in the process. On top of this, Cameron wants to vastly expand the amount of offshore wind and marine power by giving the National Grid incentives to build a new network of undersea direct-current cables.

Unsurprisingly, Friends of the Earth is delighted by the Conservative ideas on developing the UK's energy infrastructure. Executive director, Andy Atkins said: "Their vision for a super smart grid that will manage electricity demand and cut emissions would help create a clean and safe future for us all.

"Their aspiration impresses, and many of their policies are spot on. It is essential that the party now puts delivery of a low-carbon economy at the heart of its strategy for tackling the recession."

New energy sources
Elsewhere, the Tories plan to tackle the issue of oil depletion and energy security by investing in new energy sources. They will do this by adding carbon capture and storage technology to every new coal plant and introducing new biogas plants. In fact, the methane produced from the anaerobic disgestion of farm and food wastes could replace up to 50% of the UK's residential gas heating - if the regulatory regime is changed for gas grid and feed-in tariffs for biogas are introduced.

On buildings, the party proposes introducing a new entitlement for every home in the UK to be fitted with up to £6,500 of approved energy-efficiency improvements, like insulation and double glazing. The cost would be repaid through fuel bills over a 25-year period.

Energy companies would be made to include energy data on all gas and electricity bills. Another interesting idea is allowing businesses to meet their own carbon reduction commitments by sponsoring the energy-efficient actions of their staff at home.

The Conservatives' opposition to the third Heathrow runway has been well documented. Here, they suggest the immediate construction of a new high-speed rail line linking cities in the North and South of the country as an alternative. Yet it's a proposal that doesn't sit well with the CBI. "High speed rail links alone are not the solution to Heathrow's capacity problems," says Neil Bentley, director of business environment.

If, or when, the Tories come into power, it will be interesting to see how many of the plans published in this latest document get past the various hurdles and obstacles that tend to get in the way.

After all, the details here are not too dissimilar to those voiced by the current government. And, while these proposals sit well with environmental idealists, they won't please everybody.

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