One of the main narratives to emerge from the debris of the General Election has been that the Conservatives have a youth problem.
The young and youngish came out for Labour, robbing Theresa May of her majority and forcing her into an uncomfortable alliance with the socially conservative DUP, which may only exacerbate the issue.
With party strategists searching for something to offer a young, increasingly engaged and university-educated electorate, one obvious area for a youth movement is fixing the UK’s creaking energy system.
The Tories are tied to old ideas and old votes. Old coal plants are closing faster than expected, old nuclear is ageing and on its last legs, our oil and gas fields are in terminal decline and, despite being established industries, are being propped up by government subsides.
The jobs of the future are in clean tech
Meanwhile, the aspirational jobs of the future are in clean tech, decentralised energy and electric vehicles. In America there are more people employed in renewables than in coal, oil and gas combined. And the US clean energy sector is creating jobs 12 times faster than the rest of the economy.
There is no reason the UK – with its natural resources of wind, sun and tidal power – couldn’t make similar progress, breathing new life into post-industrial parts of the country. Siemen’s latest wind turbine factory, which employs a thousand people, is located in Hull, proving that addressing climate change and helping the economically left behind can go hand in hand.
The jobs of the past in coal, oil and gas not only have big unions behind them – they also have a powerful business lobby to boot. Clean energy is a market full of entrepreneurs, but government policy still favours big incumbents with dinosaur business models. Who is going to represent the young energy capitalists of the future?
The Prime Minister has talked a lot about lowering energy bills, but she did so while banning the very cheapest form of new electricity generation: onshore wind.
The cost of onshore wind has fallen 60 per cent in five years, constantly beating expectations, and is now so cheap it could go subsidy free – if only firms were allowed to bid for contracts.
The Shell-funded Energy Transitions Commission has called for a change in policy, arguing that by 2035 wind and solar could provide 98 per cent of power in developed countries such as the UK.
The moratorium, brought in to assuage nimbyist attitudes in already safe Conservative seats, unnecessarily ties the government’s hands. It undermines the manifesto ambition for the UK to have the cheapest energy prices in Europe, forcing the state to wade in with the controversial energy price cap.
Even the nimby argument feels shallow. We’ve got used to vast, grey electricity pylons crisscrossing the countryside – no doubt in time we’ll get used to far more elegant wind turbines. And a solar and wind-powered decentralised grid would actually mean the need for fewer pylons.
The good news is the manifesto hinted that the government was starting to realise it couldn’t hold back the inevitable clean energy tide for much longer. It proposed onshore wind on Scottish islands, and despite saying it didn’t believe that more “large-scale onshore wind power is right for England”, that doesn’t rule out such projects for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, nor smaller onshore wind projects elsewhere.
Clean energy is popular
Not only is onshore wind cheap and clean, it’s also popular even among Tory Brexiteers. Research by the think tank Bright Blue found that 85 per cent per cent of Conservatives were in favour of maintaining EU renewable energy targets after Brexit, including 81 percent of Conservative Leave voters.
The government’s own quarterly attitude tracking survey recently recorded public support for onshore wind at its highest ever point of 73 per cent, compared to only 38 per cent for nuclear and 19 per cent for fracking. Business and technological innovation has moved society – we’re now just waiting for the politicians to catch up.
If the Conservatives are serious about intergenerational fairness, addressing climate change would be a good start.
It is today’s young voters who will have to deal with the international and domestic consequences down the road. And it is something that Ruth Davidson, the Tories’ most impressive rising star, has long advocated for.
The Conservatives need to regain the pragmatic approach which has served them so well in the past, and show a new generation of engaged voters that they embrace the modern energy systems of the future.