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Cameron: we will build £1bn 'smart grid' to green Britain

Guardian Environment 16th January 2009

David Cameron will set out his vision today for a low carbon Britain built around a £1bn investment in a hi-tech National Grid that would include putting "smart meters" in every home in the UK.

The network would allow energy companies to tell people when it is cheapest to use electricity, cutting bills and making the system more efficient.

The Conservative leader's intervention will attempt to rub salt into Labour's wounds, opened yesterday by the its decision to press ahead with a third runway at Heathrow airport.

The government's move has angered green campaigners who promised legal challenges and disruption.

In an interview with the Guardian, Cameron said "smart grid technology", one of the centrepieces of Barack Obama's planned multibillion dollar infrastructure investment programme, was the equivalent of "the internet for electricity. It is the thing that brings our plans all together, that makes it all possible and will deliver a genuinely low carbon world".

He said his party had already held talks with the National Grid and would be in a position to approve the investment as soon as it came to office. The smart meters would also allow consumers to feed the electricity they generate through solar panels into the grid.

The launch of the Conservative strategy today comes 24-hours after ministers finally approved the expansion of Heathrow, and Cameron reaffirmed the Tories' commitment to scrap the third runway should they come to power.

The Tory leader said: "What business needs to recognise is that the third runway is just not going to happen. There is such a coalition of forces against it. There's such an environmental case against."

He also said he did not believe an incoming Conservative government would need to pay compensation, as BAA would have made little financial outlay on the new runway by the next election.

His comments came after Geoff Hoon, the transport minister, told parliament yesterday that he expected BAA to "bring forward" a planning application for a new runway so that it would be ready to operate as close to 2015 as possible.

The government had previously called for a new runway by 2020. Arguing the case in the Commons, Hoon told MPs Heathrow is "our most important international gateway".

"It connects us with the growth markets of the future - essential for every great trading nation," he said. He tried to sweeten the pill by announcing that the government was putting an initial cap on the number of additional flights from the new runway at 125,000 a year, only half of what BAA had requested.

The expanded Heathrow would therefore handle 605,000 flights a year, up from 480,000 currently. Even with a less than full new runway the number of daily flights over London would rise by about 350 to 1,650.

The new slots would be "green slots" and must be used only by the cleanest planes. As expected he also announced details of his aspiration, a high-speed rail link from the airport.

Lord Smith, the chairman of the Environment Agency, the government's pollution watchdog, criticised the decision. "By giving the go-ahead to Heathrow's third runway, I believe it has made the wrong decision and the Environment Agency is now in the unusual position of being asked to enforce air quality targets in relation to a policy we advised against," he said.

Ministers were also accused of using "fantasy economics" to justify Heathrow's expansion The government's economic argument for expansion centres on a total net financial benefit of £5.5bn to the UK economy. But the New Economics Foundation thinktank said it used an excessively low estimate for the cost of the CO2 emitted by the enlarged airport. Andrew Simms, policy director at the thinktank, said the true climate cost could be up to £20bn - wiping out any economic benefits.

Ed Miliband, the climate change secretary, claimed a partial victory because yesterday's deal included a target to limit greenhouse gas emissions from flying - the government announced it intended to ensure total UK aviation emissions were brought beneath 2005 levels by 2050.

Yesterday's decision split the government, with at least six ministers opposing the decision at a cabinet meeting on Tuesday. Opposition was voiced by Miliband as well as the skills secretary, John Denham, Labour's deputy leader, Harriet Harman, the environment secretary, Hilary Benn and the leader of the Lords, Lady Royall.

In the Commons, John McDonnell, the MP for Hayes and Harlington, covering Heathrow, was suspended for five days by the deputy speaker after he picked up the mace and shouted: "It is a disgrace."

The incident led to a row between broadcasters and parliamentary authorities who last night asked the BBC, ITV and Sky not to broadcast footage of McDonnell's protest. Commons authorities said they were considering whether to take further action against the companies after they continued broadcasting the footage.

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