Just last week (7 February 2012) the government published the most up-to-date data on UK greenhouse gas emissions. Things don't look too good: despite a dip in emissions in the previous year due to the recession-driven economic slowdown, the 2010 data externallink show emissions increased by 3.1%, with the main sector contributing to this rise being residential. According to the official press release, the weather is mainly to blame – an exceptionally cold winter meant most of us were turning up the heating or leaving it on for longer – along with the switch away from nuclear generation back to using coal and gas.

Edward (Ed) Davey, the newly appointed Secretary for Energy and Climate Change, had only been in his job for a couple of days when this announcement was made. But whether by accident or design (you decide!), he swung his new broom into frenetic action. First he accompanied Nick Clegg on a tour of the BRE Innovation Park externallink, just outside Watford, where he pledged himself to the green agenda. Next he was whisked all the way to Chelsea, for a high level meeting with industry leaders at the John Lewis Partnership flagship store, Peter Jones. There he announced his big idea – an Energy Efficiency Deployment Office, to be known as EEDO, and made up of some 50 staff based at DECC's Whitehall offices. Then it was off to Walney in Cumbria for the official opening of the world's largest offshore windfarm, where he also discussed externallink the government's plans for reform of the troubled Feed-in Tariffs (FITs) scheme, which is intended to encourage the uptake of renewable energy technologies.

By any standards, that makes for a pretty busy week. But once the dust has settled, what does all this mean for the nation's energy policies and, ultimately, our carbon emission targets?

The answer at this stage is probably "not much". The most telling phrase of Mr Davey's first public outing was: "There may have been a change at the helm, but there'll be no change in direction or ambition." This may be good or bad news, depending on your view of current policies!

The two core threads of his first week – how best to encourage the growth and uptake of renewable sources of energy and how to reduce energy demand across the board – are sound ambitions, in terms of sustainability. Whether DECC's strategies for achieving these aims will work is a different question.

FITs and starts

The FITs scheme dates back to Spring 2010 when it was launched by Ed Miliband, and within a year it had proved so popular that it was being referred to as a "solar gold rush", with several companies developing pay-as-you-save and other incentive schemes to help homeowners fund the start-up costs of buying and installing solar photovoltaic (PV) equipment (estimated at the time to be £10,000-£12,000 per installation).

By April 2011 some 28,000 installations had registered to claim the FITs and the scheme was proving to be, if anything, too popular. Despite proposals that the amount of subsidy should be reviewed, uptake continued to grow. But news that the government was considering a change in the level of the FITs from 43.3p per kilowatt hour (kW•h) down to 21p, as revealed in late October 2011 externallink, caused an outcry from the industry and resulted in legal challenges in the High Court and Court of Appeal.

According to the most recent DECC information (February 2012) the solar FITs budget was overspent by £31 million in January 2012.

The Secretary of State's announcement about FITs on 9 February 2012 externallink aimed to clarify the situation for future consumers and thereby calm the market, but the situation remains unclear for those solar panels installed up to the cut-off date of 3 March, due to the government's pending legal appeal to the Supreme Court.

In practice, this means that the tariff will be 21p per kW•h from 1 April 2012, for domestic-size solar panels, and properties installing solar panels on or after that date will be required to produce an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) with a rating of 'D' or above to qualify for the full FITs. There are also changes to the provisions for multi-installation schemes. Meanwhile the consultation process externallink will continue, covering cost controls for solar PV and reviewing the tariffs for other renewables including wind and hydro power, micro-CHP and anaerobic digestion.

Overall, the government estimates that the new lower rate FITs for solar PV will mean two-and-a-half times more installations will be possible by 2015 than under the old rate, keeping within the spending review period.

Couple these changes with the renewables obligation (RO) for large-scale renewable electricity projects and the renewable heat incentive (RHI), which will become available later in 2012, and it appears that there is a concerted action towards reaching the government's target of having 15% of energy capacity from renewables by 2020, as set out in the UK Renewable Energy Roadmap externallink. However, the financial incentive schemes have been criticized by some campaign groups for targeting the better off energy consumers. People who lack the financial capacity or stability to invest (and have smaller roofs!) will need to wait until the final details of the Green Deal are released later in 2012. In the meantime, though, they may find themselves targeted under Mr Davey's new pet project, the EEDO.

Massive turn-off?

Call me an old cynic (it won't be the first time), but the Energy Efficiency Deployment Office sounds like something Mr Davey's big new broom might have found lurking under the office carpet while having a moving-in-day cleaning blitz. Take away the militaristic-sounding "deployment" and you're left with the EEO, the dear old Energy Efficiency Office set up under the Thatcher government and launched with a flourish in 1986, aka "Energy Efficiency Year" (and, incidentally, the year when the English House Condition Survey was first published). Remember that? I don't suppose Mr Davey does – he was still at Oxford at the time.

The EEO, originally part of the Department for the Energy, was ahead of its time in many ways, not least for starting the long tradition of government-sponsored energy-related campaigns for all industry sectors and users. By the early 1990s, it was under the remit of the Department of the Environment and, in its heyday, was the source of the first good practice guides, fuel efficiency booklets and a series of energy consumption guides, not to mention countless events and free project-specific guidance. Eventually, having survived several departmental changes and reconfigurations, it was abandoned, with its guidance and advisory functions being shared among two quangos – the Energy Saving Trust and the Carbon Trust.

The new EEDO is targeted with supporting the delivery of the Green Deal, smart meters and renewable heat policies, as well as developing "a new energy efficiency strategy to identify the potential for further energy efficiency across the economy".

Its first action has been to call for ideas as to how it might best achieve that last target, launching an eight-week-long "call for evidence". Its new web page asks, among other things: "Have you ever been involved in, or are you aware of, any case studies where energy efficiency benefits have been realized and effectively measured? What were the benefits of these projects and what were the costs, including those of monitoring?"

Hopefully they will be so inundated with the 25 years' worth of case studies and evidence – from both industry and academia (including a recent report commissioned by DECC, discussed in The science of changing "energy behaviour" externallink) – that they might actually start to learn from what, to some EEDO staff, may seem like ancient history!

Here are three ideas to start them off:

  • Take a look at the new report from AECB, the sustainable building association, called Less is more: Energy security after oil (LIM) externallink, which has reviewed the past 15 years' accumulated energy-related activity, including the development of new policies, financing energy efficiency in buildings and examples of international best practice. The report has had input from a large number of key industry players and academics and is well worth a read.
  • Make friends with the Energy Saving Trust (EST) externallink who, coincidentally, acquired a new leader this February too. They have been engaging the public through successful marketing campaigns and gathering case studies for nearly 20 years (see, for example, their Savings and statistics for Great Britain – media factsheet 2011-2012 externallink). They are already working hard to resolve another of the consultation's questions: how to build trust in the market.
  • Have a chat with your colleagues at the Treasury, who pulled the plug on funding for government advertising campaigns almost as soon as they took office. No matter how successful past advertising campaigns have been, key messages have to be restated constantly. The big bad wolf in the Monergy externallink ads of the 1980s may seem anachronistic these days (take a look; the ads are great!), but a new breed of ad gurus suitably armed with social media skills could do more to promote an energy-efficiency "turn it off" campaign among young people with just one viral than any amount of traditional leaflet/website combos.

There is no shame in digging out and dusting off old policies and ideas (remember "Come Dancing" anyone?), and there's no shame in reinventing the wheel (it worked for Apple, after all) – providing the new wheel is tailored to the needs of current and future consumers and isn't just so much sparkly spin. So keep going with your new broom, Mr Davey, and let's hope that 2010 rise in carbon emissions really was just a weather-related blip.