ITV must show BBC the way on accurate green reporting
Energy prices are a hot topic. Rises of up to 19% last year were the main driver of the high inflation that left many families complaining about squeezed living standards. These rises followed an increase in the average bill from £605 in 2004 to £1060 in 2010. Given these astronomical increases, it is no surprise that energy prices are the subject of intense public, media and political interest.
This evening’s edition of ITN Tonight will look at the impact of renewable energy policies on consumers’ bills. In this highly contentious area of debate, the media have a responsibility to provide accurate and balanced coverage. Recent newspaper headlines have claimed that policies to support renewable technologies are a major burden on our energy bills. The numbers quoted have varied widely from report to report but it has been comprehensively shown that recent bill increases are due to rises in the wholesale cost of gas and not renewable policies. The Committee on Climate Change has calculated that of the £455 increase to the average bill that occurred between 2004 and 2010 £290 was due to rises in the wholesale costs of gas compared with £30 due to investments in low carbon power generation.
A recent edition of Panorama on energy prices, which focused mainly on the costs of wind power, was widely criticised for failing to note the importance of increases in wholesale gas costs. The BBC has since issued a clarification acknowledging that they should have been clearer on this issue. On areas of high public interest, such as energy prices and climate change, broadcasters have a particular responsibility to provide accurate and balanced coverage.
Putting aside the short term political interest in energy prices, it is important that the debate about the costs of renewable energy are conducted in the context of other fuel costs. Gas would be the most likely alternative and does have a vital role to play in the UK’s energy mix but its future price is far from certain. Gas prices have slumped dramatically in the US due to the discovery of large shale gas reserves but evidence suggests that this is unlikely to impact significantly on costs in the UK.As renewable energy can be generated in the UK it offers consumers some insulation from fluctuating prices on global energy markets whereas a greater reliance on gaswould leave consumers more vulnerable to variations. Regardless, a greater role for gas in the UK’s future energy mix than currently envisaged has not been demonstrated as compatible with our legally binding target to reduce carbon emissions by 2050.
Decisions about our energy mix also have implications for Britain’s future prosperity. A global race for clean energy markets is now underway with the major emerging economies like China, India and Brazil piling investment into technologies such as solar and wind. There are major growth opportunities here for the UK, particularly in off-shore wind where the UK is widely perceived to be the global leader. However, advocates of renewables need better evidence to demonstrate the value of these markets and that the UK can win and prosper from them.
The reality for consumers is that regardless of our energy mix, prices are likely to remain high. Ways must be found to limit bills with forthcoming research by the IPPR showing that if anti-competitive pricing behaviour by the Big 6 energy companies is tackled, it will be easier for new entrants to enter the market. This would result in prices potentially falling for all consumers.
ITN Tonight’s programme on energy bills will find a large and interested audience on this controversial issue. There are many conflicting claims on the cost of renewable policies and broadcasters have a responsibility to provide accurate and balanced coverage. Most importantly it must be made clear that the wholesale costs of gas and not renewable policies are the cause of our high energy bills.