The Daily Telegraph
Rees-mogg’s nannying might help take the heat out of the energy crisis
Encouraging the public to turn down thermostats to curb demand for gas and electricity may be effective
When Jacob Rees-mogg becomes the voice of reason, the world really has turned on its axis. Yet, on one subject of major public concern, the new Business Secretary seems to be preparing some sensible advice rather than bait for his political enemies.
Rees-mogg is reportedly preparing to throw the Government’s weight behind a national campaign to encourage people to turn down their boilers and take other steps to curb demand for gas and electricity. It’s the sort of nannying that in normal times repels swathes of the population, and a Conservative administration would normally run a mile from. Rees-mogg himself advertises the credo: “I’m all for nannies, but not the nanny state.”
Libertarian Liz Truss, too, pledged to scrap Boris Johnson’s proposals for a ban on “buy one, get one free” deals on unhealthy products in the early days of the leadership contest, as well as levies on food laden with fat, sugar or salt.
Most Conservative voters detest the state micro-managing their lives. Such illiberal nagging has been repackaged as “nudge theory” in recent years, but has become no more popular on the Right. Yet these are extraordinary times in the energy market and there is good evidence that public messaging campaigns can be highly effective in curbing demand.
In California, blackouts have been prevented by text messages that ask households and businesses to curtail consumption during peak hours, according to the grid operator.
With the Golden State’s power supply pushed to the brink by air conditioners during record-breaking temperatures, officials were forced to take drastic action this week. Governor Gavin Newsom pressed the button on an emergency alert system for the first time, sending a message to 27m mobile phones urging everyone to turn-off or reduce non-essential power.
Within moments, there was a reduction of more than 2,000 megawatts, which in the UK would be enough to power 4m homes for an hour. Elliot Mainzer, the boss of California’s national grid, said the state was brought “back from the edge”.
Rees-mogg’s apparent enthusiasm for such gentle, yet effective, measures is encouraging. Ministers repeatedly resisted whenever Boris Johnson suggested that policies to reduce energy demand might help ease the cost of living squeeze. Blackouts or rationing would be much worse.
After Truss’s massive bailout for households and businesses this week, a public information campaign cannot come soon enough. The concern among energy bosses is that in standing full-square behind prices with a freeze, there is no incentive at all for people to exercise constraint.
Instead, some may wrongly see it as a signal to turn the thermostat up or leave the lights on unnecessarily if they think someone else is going to shoulder the cost. The threat to the taxpayer and the public finances is real. The risk, therefore, is that with gas prices expected to remain high by tight supply, the crisis will actually be prolonged by Britain spending an astonishing 5pc of its GDP trying to solve it. What a colossal waste of money that would be, even from a Government that turned extreme levels of public spending into an art form under Johnson.
Britain’s energy consumption has historically tended to be above the EU average, while our homes are among the most inefficient on the Continent.
With Switzerland considering jail sentences and fines for those that raise the thermostat above 19 degrees, is it too much to expect UK households to make some small changes to their daily habits? Research suggests that turning down your boiler doesn’t affect the warmth of your home, while the obvious way to encourage constraint at peak times is to reward frugality with larger discounts. Anti-poverty campaigners and charities tend to dislike what they see as scapegoating or blame-shifting because it can put the most vulnerable at risk.
But there’s a difference between the sort of trivial measures that some tone-deaf energy suppliers were mocked for, such as putting an extra-thick jumper on, and those that can actually make a difference but don’t put people at risk.
‘Massive bailout has raised concerns that price freeze means there is no incentive at all to exercise constraint’