Only five months into his new job as head of the energy regulator Ofgem, Jonathan Brearley was already provoking fury among some of the sector's most powerful companies.
Scottish Power declared he had "flunked his first big test" with his draft plans in July to slash network operators' returns and limit spending, which would drag Britain "back to austerity", while National Grid warned of blackouts.
Fast-forward to December and the 47-year old has just handed operators his final decision – budging only an inch to allow for 4.3pc returns (40pc below current) and £30bn spending.
Relaxed even as he has yet to find out if any plan to appeal against his decision, Brearley is confident he made the right call. "It is more investment for roughly the same price. This requires them to perform efficiently and effectively. I think it is robust."
The tussle around the five-yearly price controls is likely to be just a taste of the battles ahead as Brearley tackles the huge challenge of helping the country meet its legally binding goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Overhauling the energy system to make way for more wind turbines, hydrogen, heat pumps, carbon-capture systems, electric cars and other lower-carbon technologies is expected to require about £50bn annual investment between 2030 and 2050, and lead to a doubling of electricity demand. Brearley's and Ofgem's role is to help encourage that level of spending – without letting customers' bills rocket, or the lights go off.
If he is daunted, Brearley is good at not showing it – albeit aware of its weight. "I think there is a way to do this where, by and large, although there will be costs in the system, those costs could be manageable and ultimately this could be a phenomenal opportunity for customers," he says.
"If we get this right then I think there is a very bright system for energy customers. But equally if we don't change the system, this will be costly and there will certainly be things customers are going to struggle with."
He has good reason to want to see the push to net zero through – he helped develop many of the policies that set the stage while a civil servant. After graduating in maths and physics from Glasgow University, Brearley did a master's degree in economics at Cambridge, joining Tony Blair's "strategy unit" in 2002.
Promoted into top roles in the Office of Climate Change and then Department of Energy and Climate Change, he led the development of the 2008 Climate Change Act, which first set out a legally binding carbon emissions target, and then the subsidy mechanisms for wind power.
Scepticism about renewable energy has fallen along with its costs. Boris Johnson – who once said wind power couldn't "pull the skin off a rice pudding" – is now one of its biggest evangelists, and investors are lining up, encouraged by the Prime Minister's ten-point plan for a "green industrial revolution" and last week's energy white paper.
"I think the joy of someone like me who has been around this for a long time is that we are seeing this happen much faster than we thought it would," says Brearley.
"As regulators and as policymakers, what we have to think about now is how do we configure that world and make sure it is best for customers."
The vision of that brave new world includes a much more hi-tech energy system, in which electric cars, fridges, and heat pumps will act like electricity traders, consuming and selling power to and from the grid depending on their needs and pricing during the day. The aim is for customers to save and even make money daily, but also to reduce the burdens on the grid, reigning in potentially booming network costs.
"If we run the system as we are and if people like me all plug their cars in during the evening, then the amount of infrastructure we need will undoubtedly bring increased costs for customers," says Brearley. "But if we can flex when we take power off the system, when we charge our batteries at different times to make sure we are making the absolute maximum of those assets, then yes, I believe those costs will be manageable."
The technology to run the system like that is still being developed to run at a large scale in the UK, much like many of the technologies that are likely to be needed to get to net zero – carbon capture and storage in particular, which is being relied upon to decarbonise gas-fired power stations.
Boosted by wind power's success, Brearley is confident it is more than optimistic thinking. "If I was to take you back to 2006 when I started in all of this, we didn't have renewable energy that was anywhere near a price you could have rolled out across the economy," he says, later adding: "I think all the technological indications are that CCS is feasible. If for any reason that is not the case, there are other options."
While the white paper has fleshed out details, many of the big questions about the shape and costs of the energy system remain unanswered. The paper includes estimates that dual fuel household energy bills will not rise over the decade.
But that does not include "the costs of policies still being developed" such as nuclear power beyond Hinkley Point C being built, hydrogen and deployment of heat pumps. Stripping carbon emissions from domestic heating will be one of the most costly parts. How does Brearley expect those costs to be shared?
"That will ultimately be a decision for government – that's where it has to step in as the cost trade-offs are enormous," he says. "This isn't really a zero sum game – there is a huge investment opportunity."
Signs of the complexities of the shift to renewables are already beginning to show in managing power supply. Since November National Grid's electricity system operator, which balances supply and demand, has issued three notices warning of stretched supply buffers, due to factors including low wind power.
"I don't think we should over-interpret them," says Brearley. "They are designed to tell generators it's to your economic advantage to come on to the system." Still, such notices had not been issued at all since 2016.
Ofgem is expected early in the new year to publish its view on the future of the ESO, which could see it prised from National Grid. "When we think about what is going to play out over the next five years, how we shape ourselves as institutions in the sector is going to be important," says Brearley. "Offshore wind, hydrogen balancing the system – things like that are very big strategic decisions, so you definitely need there to be much greater co-ordination somewhere."
Ofgem will also need to change, he adds, not least to "increase our pace to make sure we can keep up with all these things happening in the market".
That includes the convulsions in the retail market, where big beasts such as British Gas and EDF have had market share stolen by upstarts such as Ovo and Octopus.
Many suppliers feel squeezed by regulation including the price cap, and watch with dismay as underfunded tiny rivals enter the market, only to collapse leaving others to pick up debts. The white paper contains plans to auto-switch customers onto cheaper tariffs.
Brearley believes the price cap has been a success, cutting bills and forcing companies to be more efficient. Ofgem has tightened up the rules around suppliers' financial resilience, and Brearley says they are "considering whether any further measures are necessary". The regulator is also monitoring greenwashing – where companies overstate the carbon-friendliness of their tariffs. "Companies need to be honest with their customers," he says.
One thing that doesn't worry him is whether the net zero target is the right way to approach the problem of cutting carbon emissions.
"I think this does have widespread support," he says. "And indeed it really does help to have a clear goal. We as regulator, investors, customers – all of us have a clear goal and now is the time to make it happen – to deliver for net zero but also for customers."
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