Thursday, 11 August 2011

Media bias, rising power bills spell trouble for clean energy

The UK media continues its climate trance. Latest figures from the Centre for Science and Policy Research at the University of Colorado show that the downturn in media coverage of climate change has carried on through 2011.

It may be more useful to see the climate change debate in the context of energy policy. I have previously suggested that UK media coverage of climate change has evolved over the last couple of years. The focus is now more on energy technologies than the latest bad news about rising global temperatures. Yet the media’s interest in energy innovation may not be a new thing. Last month, Matt Nisbet pointed to a forthcoming study that provides the first cross-national comparisons of how energy policy has been covered and debated in the news. Apparently, the study shows that from 1991 to 2006, the focus in the UK and Finland has been on energy technologies, especially nuclear build.

And whether it’s a new fad or an old theme, the media’s interest in energy technologies may not be good news for supporters of renewables. Duncan Clark of The Guardian recently reported on a study by the Public Interest Research Centre (PRIC). The PIRC study found that in July 2009, more than half of the coverage of renewable energy in the mainstream press was negative. He argues that such media bias matters

… in a country where planning obstacles are a major barrier to new renewable energy installations [and] where fairly small numbers of "antis" can block or delay major installations, every negative story or piece of misinformation counts.


As Pirc researcher Tim Holmes points out in his introduction, press coverage is important because it can influence not only "what people perceive and believe" but also "what politicians think they believe". Indeed, politicians take the temperature of public opinion partly through the barometer of the press, and consistently negative coverage of renewables will doubtless "limit the perception of political space and impetus for political action", as Holmes puts it.

Let’s not get too carried away. The media is not a quasi-magical device that tells most people what to think, most of the time. Energy Issues 2009, carried out for Ofgem by Ipsos MORI, said:

The various forms of renewable energy are most popular with the British public as sources of electricity, led by hydro power, and fossil fuels are the least popular, though nuclear energy is apparently viewed more similarly to a fossil fuel method. Tidal power, wave power, offshore wind energy and large-scale solar power are also very popular. Wind farms on land are somewhat less popular, but still ahead of the various methods that involve combustion. Most favoured of these is biomass, followed by gas. Nuclear energy is less likely to be preferred than any other form except coal, which is bottom of the ranking.

Earlier this year, the Understanding Risk /MORI poll showed that solar power, wind power, hydroelectric and biomass are the most popular energy sources, well ahead of coal, nuclear and oil. (Click here for the analysis by Climate Sock.)

But things may be about to change. Hardly a week goes by without one of the major energy companies announcing a big rise in consumer bills. They blame a surge in wholesale gas prices, not always convincingly.

Some government policies that are designed to boost low carbon energy sources, including renewables, are loaded on to consumers’ energy bills. The extent to which those policies push up power bills is already being grossly exaggerated by the Daily Mail, and others. DECC says that the policies add 4% to the average gas price and 14% to the average electricity price. Last year, DECC estimated that domestic retail gas prices would be 18% higher and retail electricity prices 33% higher in 2020 as a result of energy and climate change policies. But energy efficiency measures may blunt the policies’ impact on consumer bills.

The government’s planned reforms to the electricity market will also have an impact, with DECC arguing they will cause a net reduction in energy bills. (To be sure, those reforms are designed to support a range of low carbon energy sources, including nuclear.) Later this year, the government is due to publish a new assessment of how energy and climate change policies will affect consumers' power bills.

But we all know how perceptions can trump reality. And over the next few years, the public’s pro-renewable instincts will come up against greater concerns about the rising cost of living, especially higher energy bills. A recent Populus poll found that 87 per cent of 2,000 respondents were "very” or “somewhat” concerned about rising gas and electricity prices. Energy costs are nearly twice as important to the public as the NHS, unemployment and public sector cuts, which have all received far greater attention from the media.

If a biased media chisels away at public support for renewables, with energy prices are rising and household budgets under acute pressure, the government may feel under pressure to do a U-turn on its clean energy policies.

Do DECC ministers and the renewable energy lobby know how they are going to handle the coming backlash?

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