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has investor confidence in the UK energy sector dipped? Simon Hobday, partner at Osborne Clarke, suggests that inconsistency, lack of transparency and unpredictability in government policy remain key concerns.
Government subsidy has encouraged a fall in prices across renewable technologies. It is appropriate for subsidies to be seen as a bridge to enable market costings, but there is a question as to whether overnight removal of subsidy—as effectively
happened last year—is good for the industry. Similarly, the cuts to the solar subsidy were a little premature, and could have been introduced in a more timely and considered manner.
Such policy changes give rise to a mixture of unpredictability and the feeling among some investors that words are not matched by actions. This has again been seen in the level of consultation that is undertaken, and the way in which the government
supports value for money energy prices for consumers while at the same time supporting high-cost forms of renewables.
Such inconsistency and unpredictability of policy is having a widespread impact on confidence in the sector.
In order to predict changes to government policy, we need to understand the current policy and its overall objectives, goals and approach, and there is currently not that level of visibility.
Interestingly, this is the second year in a row that carbon dioxide emissions have stalled, despite economic growth. The global debate has moved from whether global warming is happening to how best to deal with it, and there is a significant challenge
in moving to a post-fossil fuel world. The global Apollo programme to combat climate change is an interesting approach and certainly worth considering.
In terms of the government response and changes to policy, however, the government is not beholden to any sector of the industry–policies are driven by a range of issues.
Investors need clarity on policy and predictability. This does not mean no change—change always happens and if you have a feel for the change that is coming you can take a view on it. It is the ability to take a view due to the unpredictability
of the change that is lacking at the moment.
Another factor to consider is the media interest in the energy sector. Energy companies have been publically battered by negative press. However, the level of knowledge about what is really going on in the industry is relatively low. Much of the
public disquiet aimed at energy companies is in fact the result of policy decisions going back over ten years or longer, such as the wrapping up of social and environmental objectives in consumer bills, rather than paying for them by other
sources. Increased clarity and a greater awareness of who is deciding what is needed in order to achieve a more realistic picture of the industry in the public eye.
In the same way, the press often portrays a distorted view of the energy market as a whole by focussing only on a narrow UK perspective—subsidy and approach to energy requirements varies between countries and so a global perspective is needed.
Criticism that comes from the press without any sense of global awareness is not helping the industry.
In the long-term, industry will be innovating to deal with the challenges of today’s energy systems. Innovations (as with all investment) will need to be paid for if payment is not to come from a subsidy then private sector funding will
be required. Inconsistency and lack of clarity will not help private sector funding solutions to develop.
Personally, I question the real difference that COP 21 will make. It is good from an aspirational and theoretical point of view in terms of providing an important framework, statement of intent and landmark agreement. However, because it is aspirational,
legally it is not clear what difference it will make. On the one hand we have a commitment to achieving carbon goals, and on the other, there remain some real questions about how genuine that commitment is.
COP 21 is important from a global perspective, and the fact that it recognises global warming is certainly encouraging. However, it is the national government regulations and global and national entities that will have the greatest impact in nations
around the globe, including the UK.
Simon is a partner at international legal practice Osborne Clarke, specialising in the commercial and regulatory energy sector. He advises energy companies, regulators, governments and commercial customers on regulatory issues and projects, with a key focus on smart grid, power management and decentralised energy projects.
Interviewed by Jenny Rayner.
The views expressed by our Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.Lexis®PSL subscribers can enjoy expert guidance, if you are not a subscriber, you can take a free Lexis®PSL Environment trial here.
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