The turning of the year is a fine time for new beginnings, as the recently departed David Bowie knew well. In December 2015, close to 340,000 customers began a relationship with a new electricity supplier, shopping around for better deals and saving money to help cover the cost of Christmas extravagance. Whether these Changes will Set the World on Fire, provide suppliers with Dollar Days and consumers with Golden Years of Heat remains to be seen – perhaps the happiness will last Five Years or Slip Away by Valentine’s Day.
The turning of the year also marked my own personal energy transition. On the winter solstice I accepted an offer to leave the Department of Energy and Climate Change and to join Energy UK. It is a wonderful experience to step through the looking glass, and these early days when the similarities and differences between government and industry are most apparent are fascinating and precious. With the inevitable caveat that a rounded judgement is tricky when hours in the role can still be counted on fingers and toes, first impressions are positive.
The esteem with which Energy UK and its membership from the wider UK electricity industry are held in government is clearly justified, and happily for my future conversations with old colleagues and friends, many individuals in DECC are remembered by name and well-regarded by industry. Energy industry working methods, vocabulary, office organisation and practices are largely similar across the public/private divide, and it is encouraging to confirm that each sector’s understanding of the other’s priorities and practices is largely correct.
The most interesting differences arise from structural elements inherent to each sector and diverging requirements for individual career progression. The future Sir Humphreys who will a decade hence be running the country – or officially, advising the sensible men and women temporarily holding ministerial office – must develop the ability to see the biggest of pictures and balance competing (and occasionally diametrically opposing) priorities to maximise national happiness. Consequently, the brightest civil servants change portfolios, policy areas and departments almost with the seasons. Such is the nature of government; when interests must be balanced and difficult choices made, capable generalists must rise to the top. The private sector – blessed with the luxury of a P/L account and a bottom line – has more tangible objectives best advanced by knowledgeable specialists. As such, companies should – and do – employ and promote those who know the industry best, and indeed, the depth of knowledge of colleagues with experience measured in decades is both awe-inspiring and reassuring. The industry is clearly in safe hands.
Looking ahead, the days will grow longer, temperatures will rise and April's Tooth of Gold will bite through the present winter chill. In legislative and regulatory terms, the Energy Secretary promised in November to ‘reset’ UK energy policy – Amber will still go green, although perhaps in a rather different way. Time will march onward and the year ahead promises to be both exciting and eventful.