In conversation with George Eustice MP

“The smaller and easier you make each step towards decarbonisation; the more likely people are to take it, and take it early.” George Eustice

George Eustice MP

Ahead of this year’s industry EXPO Margaret Major, Publishing Director for Fuel Oil News, spoke with George Eustice MP, one of the event’s key speakers, to hear more about his involvement with the industry’s Future Ready Fuels campaign. George’s name is familiar to many in the community thanks to his pivotal role in delivering the Government’s Energy Bill amendment, so we took the opportunity to find out how he became so integral to the industry’s efforts and why the campaign was even necessary in the first place.

“It was a big breakthrough,” George acknowledged, referring to the passing of the amendment and the promise of a consultation to consider incentivising the uptake of sustainable liquid fuels for domestic heating. “It was quite the achievement, because the government wasn’t really up for it, but we found the right approach and got it done.”

Why did the Government assume a domestic heat strategy tied to electrification and a single technology before the bill even came into place?

“It goes back to Theresa May and the original strategy document on green energy in domestic settings that concluded that it should be ‘electrification first’ in the context of domestic settings.

“The government interpreted this as meaning heat pumps and, in their mind, it was set in stone. It’s exactly what can go wrong in government or civil service because, whatever comes after that, unless it fits the mantra of electric, it’s considered not the right thing to do.

“In reality, other technologies, such as renewable fuels, progress, meaning that constant reappraisal is needed to ensure the right policy mix. But the principles they believe they have already locked down, and publicly committed to, create an impossible hurdle.

“That’s what caused the problem – an outdated strategy based around electrification first.”

So those involved with heat pump technology believed their job was ‘done’ since everything was held up to the light of ‘electrification first’?

“Yes. And, in fact, it was worse than that, as nothing was even held up to a light. The policy became a filter that prevented other developments coming through, even where there was a strong intellectual case for them.

“That’s why, when you develop strategies, you must keep the space for new technologies to emerge and for existing ones to be refined. Where we often go wrong with net zero is trying to lock down premature decisions.”

Yet you still believed it possible to overcome that extremely opaque filter to get an alternative solution on the table? You must have felt like a modern-day King Canute trying to turn the tide back.

“Anything you do in politics is an uphill struggle because you have to win a consensus and have the numbers to be able to defeat the Government. There were a few things that were in our favour. Firstly, in the Energy Bill we had what we call a legislative vehicle. That’s crucial, as that enables the introduction of amendments.

“Secondly, it’s about numbers. At the time there are a significant number of Conservative MPs, as well as MPs from Northern Ireland and some Labour MPs from Wales, who were extremely concerned about the impact on rural communities of the proposed early ban on oil boilers.

“You need the vehicle, and you need MP numbers to, if you like, hijack it, to get a legislative change.

“The government held the line for as long as they could, but the truth was, it was the right thing to do. The impact of the ULEZ charge on the London by-election also made them realise that the decision to prematurely ban boilers in rural areas was a potential ULEZ equivalent for those communities.

“It became a big story – I just joined the dots. It was an expedient thing to do because you need to win the intellectual argument, which we had done, but you need to also win the political argument and that may mean slightly different tactics – our approach certainly worked.”

It did indeed, with a significant number of MPs coming on board and doing the right thing for their constituents. But let’s go back – a few years ago, HVO wasn’t on the radar for domestic heating. How did you become involved, and at what point did you believe there to be an alternative solution?

“I was in the boat of not having heard of HVO as a heating fuel but became aware through the Weedons – owners of Cornwall-based distributor, Mitchell and Webber. One of their early HVO projects involved a school at Gwinear, in my constituency and, during COP26, John and Robert invited me to visit it.

“I remember being quite struck by this interesting idea. Several meetings with them followed and then they rolled out the wider pilot scheme in Kehelland.

“When you have a unique project like that happening in your own constituency, involving a whole village, I just felt it was something that I needed to champion. And when I spotted that there was an energy bill coming up, I knew then that we had a chance.”

What input did you have in the industry campaign? Were you able to advise on achieving a strong lobbying position?

“The industry shared what would be helpful to them to make this come to fruition and to facilitate a national roll out. From there, I drafted clauses that would create the commitment we were looking for.

“There was already a similar, long-standing, regime under the renewable transport fuel obligation (RTFO), so it was a choice to either seek an extension to the RTFO or to replicate it for heating oils. We chose the latter.”

With the amendment accepted, and a commitment to a consultation, what is the likelihood of that being delivered before a general election?

“It will happen. The commitment given by ministers is for a consultation within a year. In practice that means before the general election. The consultation is being drafted and I expect it to be published maybe sometime in June.

“It’s a big breakthrough to get this commitment in the legislation and for it to be happening. The real issue is that it will fall to whoever is in government after the next election to follow through on it and use the powers that we’ve given them.”

But delivering the proposed policy is not a significant financial decision for the Government?

“It’s not really, and it is encouraging that, simultaneously, the government moved the ban on replacement boilers – that’s quite significant. The Labour Party has confirmed they wouldn’t change that ban back which pushes it out to 2035.

“The combination of taking the legal power to introduce the measure, and simultaneously moving out the ban means clear space of about 8 years to properly deploy and refine the technology and put in place the measures.

“We’ll be lobbying whoever is in power after the election to make sure that they use the powers we’ve given them.”

The industry has also made it very clear that the push back on the boiler ban is not an excuse to delay domestic decarbonisation but, rather, an opportunity to do it in a more just way.

“Yes. And to make use of other technologies. Renewable fuels have come on in many ways with a whole host of different technologies in that renewable fuel space.

“We just got a bit too hung up 7 or 8 years ago on electrification. There is a role for heat pumps, but we need a range of technologies to tackle this challenge in the most effective way.”

Do you feel some of those may be transitional solutions?

“Absolutely. HVO gives a 90% reduction in greenhouse gases, so why wouldn’t you take an easy option to bank 90% early to achieve carbon budget 5 and more? Beyond that, you go further and move to a different technology, but we need to be making use of some of these transitional steps.

“To get widespread uptake of lower carbon technologies you make the step as simple and as easy as possible. If they haven’t got to buy a new boiler, and just need to adapt their current one, it’s an easy step to make, and very easy to get people to buy into it.

“If you’re asking them to have a completely new system, that’s a big step.”

Was that one of the things that convinced you that an alternative solution was needed for some off grid settings?

“Absolutely. I felt that, in all of these things, if you can achieve 90% of what you’re trying to aim for by making a very small step, that’s easy for people to do, then there is a strong argument for doing that rather than trying to make people do very difficult things just to get the extra 10%.”

What of the concerns around availability and sustainability or aviation fuel demand?

“That was the main argument that was put forward by the Department for Energy and Net Zero. The industry has done quite a bit of research around this and found there was more than sufficient to cover what would be needed for domestic heating fuels.

“There is already an accreditation scheme in place for the RTFO to demonstrate genuine sustainability, and the supply is growing as biowaste recycling improves, so we were able to alleviate those concerns.”

What needs to happen now?

“The most important first step is to establish the RTFO equivalent to deliver cost parity for HVO and kerosene. A significant price difference is going to hamper uptake and the irony is that there isn’t much duty on kerosene. We need to change the regime so, at the very least, you get parity to make it a no brainer to switch.

“Achieve that and I think you would get rapid uptake of HVO.

“This is a very straightforward solution to make it an obvious and affordable choice for those homes that are off grid. It means available money can be used elsewhere, where there are no other solutions or where support is needed to drive electrification.”

It’s about finding the right solutions for the right settings and making those as easy and immediate as possible?

“Absolutely. The smaller and easier you make each step towards decarbonisation; the more likely people are to take it, and take it early.”

You spoke to a lot of your constituents involved in the Kehelland project. Were they driven by different motivations?

“There were certainly residents who didn’t like the idea of a heat pump but wanted to do their bit to tackle climate change and then there was the local Chapel – very serious about the climate and with their own climate change spokesman. For the Chapel, they want to be able to turn the heat on for certain events during the week, but they don’t want constant heat, so a heat pump isn’t right for them.

“For them the motivation was both moral and pragmatic. The HVO route gave them the heat that they needed, and it was renewable.”

With the whole ‘electric first’ drive, it seemed that anyone suggesting there may be settings for which a heat pump is not the best solution was considered the devil incarnate. Is this changing?

“I think it’s moved. I talk regularly with some of the heat pump manufacturers as I am very supportive of that sector, which has an important role. They would prefer homeowners to adopt their technology because it feels right and works for them not because they feel compelled by a legislative change.

“For that reason, they didn’t like the idea of an early ban on replacement boilers for off-grid and quite welcomed it being removed.”

Another call from all sides is to decouple the electricity and gas prices.

“Personally, I feel it does need to happen. A major incentive for adoption of renewables was improved protection from volatile gas prices. With an electricity market that’s geared around gas, it clearly doesn’t make much sense.”

Are you looking forward to speaking with the industry in Liverpool?

Very much! It’ll be a good event and it is great to have the opportunity to be there and to meet the people in the industry.

And what of your own future, George, what are your plans beyond Parliament?

“I have formed my own small consultancy offering advice in agriculture, food and energy sectors, working on projects in the Defra space. Currently I have projects around biodiversity net gain and methane capture and a water conservation project.

“I studied horticulture and worked in the family food producing business. I did nine years in Defra, and it’s very unusual for a minister to stay in the same place for more than two years – often no more than one. Nine years is very unusual. It meant that I built up a detailed knowledge in that time.”

Have you had enough of politics?

“I’ve been an MP for 15 years and a Senior Minister for 9, and I’ve been 25 years in politics. I’ll be 53 by the time of the next election and I just felt I have time for one more career. I wanted to have a change and do something back in business and I believe that, if you’re feeling ready for a change, then you shouldn’t idle about. Turn the chapter and move on.”

Do you see the Future Fuels campaign one of the more significant that you’ve been involved with?

“There’s a few of them, but this is definitely the main one I’ve done since coming out of government. It is something that I prioritised way back at the end of 2022 when I could see that the bill was a chance to do something.

“And do something we did.”

It’s a journey that began in 2019 with the launch of the industry-led Future Ready Fuel campaign and the first oil boiler in the UK converted to run on HVO in Scorrier, Cornwall in 2020. With George coming on board in 2022, the campaign accelerated eventually resulting in the Government putting forward the Energy Bill amendment in September 2023.

It has not been an easy road and there is plenty still to be done to deliver the goal of a national roll out, but the seemingly impossible has already been achieved.

Timeline of key events

John Weedon, Director of Mitchell & Webber, shares the key moments along the campaign trail.

19th November 2020 – a Zoom call with George, where we advised him that “The bungalow at Scorrier” (in his constituency) was the first property in the UK to run its boiler on HVO and that perhaps, whilst it was early days, this new fuel should be considered to help rural homes to decarbonise.

10th June 2021 – In advance of the G7 in Cornwall, George came to visit “Gwinear School”, the first School in the UK to run on HVO, evidencing how well oil-fired systems run on this new renewable fuel.

9th December 2022 – George agreed to meet and took the time to speak with the residents of the first HVO village in the UK, as well as the local school and Church, to hear real world evidence about how well the fuel works. Ken Cronin, CEO UKIFDA, was also able to join us to give an overview of the extensive national trials taking place. The feedback was so compelling that George could see the potential and promised to raise it in Parliament

11th January 2023 – George put forward a Ten-minute rule bill to highlight the benefits of this fuel for heating. It proved to be a massive springboard to cross party support. George hosted us at the House of Commons, creating a lot of media interest that enabled George, Ken, myself and Robert Weedon, Director M&W, to all contribute to very positive media coverage.

9th May 2023 – George made another excellent speech in the House of Commons about HVO at Kehelland, in advance of the upcoming Energy bill.

10th August 2023 – Following George’s piece in the Telegraph likening the Boiler ban to a rural ULEZ, George helped with the BBC filming at Kehelland to highlight the success of the village.

5th September 2023 – George made a powerful speech presenting an extremely compelling and well-reasoned argument for the use of a sustainable liquid fuel solution in the decarbonisation of domestic heating that successfully ensured the Government put forward amendments to the Energy bill that mirrored the amendments George had proposed. This delivered a commitment to a consultation on the creation of an obligation for the use of this renewable fuel in domestic heating.