Intelligent Energy

Speed kills: UK Energy Secretary quits amid traffic charges

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The embattled head of Britain's Department of Energy and Climate Change steps down as 9-year-old speeding ticket haunts him. Prime Minister Cameron names new boss, who faces choppy waters.

Resigned: Chris Huhne steps down as Britain's embattled energy boss.

Chris Huhne, the UK's top energy official, resigned today to fight criminal charges that he allegedly asked his ex-wife to accept penalty points on her driver's license for his own speeding infractions in 2003.

Police began investigating the case 8 months ago, during a wild week in British energy politics. Today, Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer said the Crown Prosecution Service has "sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against both Mr. Huhne and Ms. Pryce  (his ex-wife Vicky Pryce) for perverting the course of justice," the BBC reports.

Huhne, who headed up the country's Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), denies the charges.

"I am innocent of these charges and I intend to fight this in the courts and I am confident that a jury will agree," Huhne said in the BBC report. He said his resignation would "avoid distraction" as DECC gets on with the business of overseeing Britain's energy future and renewables policies.

Prime Minister David Cameron named Ed Davey, the former Business Minister, as Huhne's replacement. Like Huhne, Davey is a member of the Liberal Democrat party, which rules in coalition with Cameron's Tories.

Huhne has helped to elevate renewable awareness in the UK, and has ushered in several policies aimed at reducing CO2 emissions and reliance on fossil fuels. But one of those policies, the feed-in tariff (FiT), has come under heavy fire from critics.

The FiT pays homeowners substantially for generating solar and other renewable electricity. Huhne has been trying to slash the 22-month-old subsidy ahead of schedule. The solar industry has led a legal movement to prevent the cuts, and it recently won a High Court appeal. Huhne said he'd take the issue to the Supreme Court. The uncertainty creates a zany environment for investors.

New Captain: Huhne's replacement Ed Davey will have to navigate choppy waters.

Huhne has argued that a steep decline in solar panel prices means that FiTs should now come down substantially in order to "help reduce pressure on the budget." It's a curious remark, because the government does not fund the FiTs, so the FiT does not directly apply pressure on the government's budget.

Rather, utilities fund the FiT, in part by raising rates for customers who do not have the upfront cash to install solar panels.

My interpretation: Without a cut in FiTs, DECC might come under pressure to help fund utility-backed FiTs and prevent further hikes in consumer bills. This would then reduce the amount the government would have to fund other renewables or energy projects. The UK wants more nuclear power. On a related matter, a grand scheme to possibly tap tidal power has never found financial backing.

Huhne's replacement, Davey, will now have to navigate these choppy waters. As he peers out from the helm, he might ponder whether Huhne's political and energy opponents had anything to do with a 9-year-old speeding ticket costing the Energy Secretary his job.

Photos from DECC via Flickr

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Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure