The UK energy trilemma

30 April 2012
Pylons graphic

The IET’s independent and authoritative advice is increasingly valued by the UK Government and Parliament alike, reports IET principal policy advisor for energy Helen Farr.

In the three years since I took over the Energy Policy portfolio in the IET’s Policy Department, energy policy has steadily risen in importance as the UK grapples with the ‘trilemma’ of energy security, affordability and low carbon. We are in the midst of the biggest transformation in energy policy since the UK energy supply industry was privatised in the 1980s. The changes required are profound and far-reaching and the IET has stepped up its activity accordingly with a highly expert Energy Policy Panel, under the chairmanship of Dr Simon Harrison, and an unprecedented level of activity.
While debate continues around the path to take, current government policy will require investment and infrastructure changes that only engineers can design and implement, at a scale not seen since the post-war expansion of the industry. Therefore we have a professional duty to ensure future decisions are based as much as possible on sound engineering principles; and gratifyingly, the independent and authoritative role that a body such as the IET can provide is increasingly appreciated and sought out. No longer do we wait for consultations to arrive in our in-box. Increasingly, the Department of Energy and Climate Change is contacting the IET proactively to seek our advice.

Energy as a system

While there is no shortage of companies and associations ably making the case for particular technologies, the IET’s Energy Policy Panel is very clear that the IET’s effort is best focused on the aspect of energy policy that governments find most difficult: that energy should be regarded as a system. Only by taking a broad view can we lay the foundations for a secure, affordable and low-carbon future. And the wider you draw the system boundaries, the greater the benefits. Examples include putting energy use reduction on a par with new energy generation; addressing heat - and to an extent transportation - as well as power; looking at energy storage in the round at individual and community scale as well as national scale.
Not surprisingly, therefore, much of the IET’s recent energy policy output has been on two key themes: Electricity Market Reform, and network issues, including connecting renewable energy, energy storage, smart grids and smart metering.

Department of Energy and Climate Change

Face-to-face meetings between the IET’s policy department and civil servants in DECC have increased significantly, and particularly in the area of smart metering. The icing on the cake was when the Energy Minister, Charles Hendry MP, attended dinner with the Energy Policy Panel in November last year. The Panel’s relationship with Charles Hendry began when he was opposition spokesman on energy and it is a tribute to the IET that he continues to find time for the Panel in his busy schedule. In January this year he told us: “The IET’s Energy Policy Panel is a truly valued source of knowledge on a variety of real-life energy issues. Their ability to provide independent and authoritative input is an asset that the Institution should be proud of.”

Going smart

The IET’s stance on ‘smart’ has always been that the implementation of smart metering in the UK should be designed to enable (or at the very least not create barriers to) the development of future Smart Grids. Without these the government’s energy policies, involving significant amounts of variable renewable generation, will not be achievable. This requires engineering rigour in the end-to-end system design with full regard to security and privacy. The IET is an influential voice in this debate by virtue of its inter-disciplinary expertise and independence. Within the IET, this is a truly collaborative activity with the Policy Panels on Energy, Communications, IT and Transport working closely together to provide multi-disciplinary advice. Each of these disciplines is key to the subject, and the IET is uniquely able to bring these disciplines together. Dr Simon Harrison, Chairman of the Energy Policy Panel said, "As a power specialist it has been truly illuminating to work together with colleagues from IT, communications and transport on smart metering and smart grid issues. Only through such collaborations can the full picture emerge for the complex multidisciplinary technologies of the future." The IET has published ‘The IET Smart Grid Wider Pictures’ to assist interdisciplinary understanding of the energy requirements of smart grids.


The IET’s relationship with Parliament has also grown stronger over the last year with links forged with the Energy and Climate Change Committee, one of the Select Committees to which the UK Government Departments are answerable in Parliament. The Clerk to the Committee attended a dinner discussion with the Energy Policy Panel in July and explained that the ECC now takes a proactive stance in advising DECC on upcoming issues rather than waiting to comment on past performance. Two submissions of written evidence in 2011 led to the IET’s experts being called to give oral evidence before the committee of MPs. These were on ‘A European Supergrid’ and ‘UK Energy Supply: Security or Independence’, both good energy system issues.
An increasing trend is for the professional institutions to collaborate on submissions to Parliament to achieve a united and authoritative voice. The IET led on most of the energy joint submissions in 2011 and the evidence referred to above was supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and the Institution of Chemical Engineers. Dr Simon Harrison commented, "Government listens to engineers when they speak with one voice. It is challenging to bring together the diverse views within the profession, but very pleasing that the IET has been proactive in doing this, and has taken a leading role for the profession in advising government across a range of issues.”
The IET is now regularly called on for input to the excellent ‘POSTnotes’ which are produced by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology as briefing material for MPs and Lords. The IET’s own Factfiles series is stocked by the House of Commons Library and in January 2012 the IET and the Parliamentary Group for Energy Studies jointly published ‘UK Energy Policy 1980-2010: A history and lessons learnt’ by Professor Peter Pearson and Professor Jim Watson. The IET has been associated with this group since its inception and Dr Simon Harrison is a member of the PGES Executive Council.
In addition to working with DECC and its equivalent Parliamentary Select Committee, the IET has also provided energy advice in the last year to the Treasury, the National Audit Office, Ofgem, the Committee on Climate Change, Infrastructure UK, and the Scottish Affairs Select Committee.
In the words of John Loughhead, IET past president and executive director of UKERC, “Members have often asked whether their voices can be heard through the IET. The achievements of the Energy Policy Panel in the last few years show not only that they can, but that when carefully prepared these messages are valued at the highest levels of Government.”

Get involved

Energy consultations from Government and Parliament are now flooding in at a rate of approximately 60 per year. All are reviewed but selectivity is vital and for the really important subjects submissions are supplemented by meetings with the Department concerned. The IET has made 37 formal submissions on energy in the last three years, which is roughly double the rate for the three years before that. In 2011 we made six submissions to Government and eight to Select Committees of Parliament and were twice called to give oral evidence.
Active consultations are posted on the website and wherever timescales allow interested members who have ticked relevant the ‘Policy Keys’ box are alerted by email. All inputs are potentially valuable, and typical policy positions and submissions to government contain significant content sourced from members in this way. It is the job of the Energy Policy Panel to ensure the range of member views are appropriately covered, but also that the weight of view is identified that constitutes the essence of an objective and balanced engineering response. The chair oversees this process before obtaining the endorsement of the Board of Trustees.
All of the IET’s policy outputs can be seen in the ‘Policy and Media’ section of the IET website. Here you will find a full listing of all submissions by year, a page devoted to the Energy Policy Panel, and also the policy positions and outputs listed by subject. See in particular the pages devoted to ‘Energy Key Topics’ and ‘Smart Grid Key Topics’. Your input and feedback is always welcome.

“The IET’s Energy Policy Panel is a truly valued source of knowledge on a variety of real-life energy issues. Their ability to provide independent and authoritative input is an asset that the Institution should be proud of.”

Charles Hendry MP, Minister of State for Energy, January 2012

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