Saturday, 24 January 2015

Labour throws out green energy titbits - but would they do it without Green Party votes?




For Green energy supporters, both large and small, Labour seems to be a much more appealing prospect than the Conservatives. But only because there are other parties also offering a greener agenda than the Tories - and the Green Party is important here.

The Lib Dems support onshore wind - in contrast to the Tories - so it's a no-brainer here for Labour to back plans for more onshore wind. Labour's energy spokesperson Tom Greatrex (who is beginning to demonstrate that he has some ideas of his own) has taken three further useful steps. One is that he has backed the campaign to stop the corporate neo-liberals ban ordinary people raising ethical investment for renewable energy projects. He evidently wants to reverse the Financial Conduct Authority's drive to effectively ban renewable energy cooperatives. There's an article about this in The Guardian.

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2015/jan/23/community-energy-companies-big-six-big-society.

Greatrex has also distanced himself from the latest piece of largesse being handed to EDF in respect of the capacity mechanism payments their nuclear power plant output will receive as a consequence of the capacity auctions. There's sense in that. Why on earth people want to pay nuclear power stations for keeping running at peak times of the day when they would want to keep running anyway beats me. See:

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/91987576-8795-11e4-bc7c-00144feabdc0.html

Of course this falls a long way short of doing the UK a great service by avoiding the coming nuclear construction disaster that is Hinkley C.

Third, Labour has been making supportive sounds about the notion of a 'community feed-in tariff''. Now, that's a good idea (even if it falls short of the real feed in tariff that this blog was founded to promote!). Labour has allowed its long standing (and long suffering!) SERA to get some mileage in pushing this one. See http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/community-energy-would-bypass-the-big-six-under-labour-9923413.html

So, Labour is giving us green titbits - but how come all of a sudden! Well, the Green Party is getting a lot of votes. Labour of course will argue that green votes often come at Labour's expense, but the trouble is, that without the Green Party votes, and for that matter some distance between even the Lib Dems and the Tories on renewable energy, Labour would probably offer nothing new. 

But it's worse for the Tories. I remember one officer of a (actually rather conservative) countryside pressure group telling me that if the Tories were to win power they had to gain the support of 'the NGOs'. I am sure he meant the green lobby that David Cameron is now feeling necessary to ignore in order to pacify his right wing who threaten defection to UKIP. But the price is very high. A party like the Tories that can't even offer a few scraps to the green lobby looks like one that is heading out of office.......


Thursday, 15 January 2015

Why the SNP will have to moderate its demands on Labour in a hung Parliament

According to at least one election forecast (at the time of writing this post) the only Government with a majority that could be formed after the May 7th election would be a Labour led one, but one that would involve Labour having some sort of agreement with both the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party (SNP). But if you think that this would mean it is open season for the SNP to make Labour bow to a lot of demands, think again! That's because the SNP would have no credible alternative to providing Labour with a 'supply and confidence' majority. So in order to gain any political concessions the SNP would have to ensure that demands were both moderate and not incompatible with Labour's overall programme. They could do best by allying with existing interest groups within the Labour Party who favour certain priorities.

This emphasises the importance and usefulness of renewable energy in party political terms as something Labour could take on board and demonstrate that the SNP is gaining political benefits from any alliance with Labour. See my earlier post http://realfeed-intariffs.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/renewable-energy-near-top-of-snp.html

In theory the Government's existence would be in the hands of the SNP. But in practice the SNP would face severe damage (and lose many seats it is likely to gain in May 2015) at the following election if its actions resulted in the actuality or greater prospect of a Conservative Government at Westminster. They would simply confirm Labour propaganda about the SNP letting the Tories in to power at Westminster.

However, unless the Conservatives make significant gains by May 2015 on what the polls are at the moment, a Labour Government with pacts with the Lib Dems and SNP seems the most likely outcome. Many commentators seem to be saying that so long as the Conservatives emerge as the largest party, then they will form the Government. That's not necessarily the case at all. The Conservatives need to be able to mobilise the largest block of MPs, which is not the same as being the largest party. The SNP will not support a Conservative Government, and the SNP need to be seen to be backing a Labour administration as an alternative.

If Labour, together with the SNP (and others such as PC, SDLP and Greens) achieves a larger number of seats than the Tories, DUP (and maybe UKIP) then the Lib Dems are likely to back a Labour minority government. The Lib Dems have a preference for Labour. See, for example: http://labourlist.org/2014/10/further-poll-finds-lib-dem-members-would-prefer-a-partnership-with-labour-over-tories/.  The Lib Dems would, if Conservatives were the largest party, follow convention and talk to them first about forming a Government. But if the Conservatives end up with less than 300 seats that could be a very short conversation. Instead they would have more serious talks with Labour.

Imagine the following scenario of parties and seats:

Conservatives   290

Labour               271

SNP                     32

Lib Dems            30

DUP                      8

PC                         3

SDLP                     3

UKIP                     3

Greens                   1

SDLP                     3

Sinn Fein               5

This is a variation on the numbers coming out of the website: http://www.electionforecast.co.uk/
  which in fact at the time of writing gives Labour a seat lead. Even this calculation by Hanretty et al assumes that the Conservatives will be doing better in the polls at the time of the election than they are now. - so the seat scenario I make above assumes that there is a significant swing towards the Conservatives between now (Jan 16th) and the election to give them a lead of 2.5- 3 per cent in votes cast over Labour.

At least 323 seats are needed for a practical majority in the Commons since Sinn Fein do not attend the Commons votes (otherwise it would be 326 out of 651 MPs). Using my scenario the Labour 'bloc' (Lab plus SNP, PC, Green, SDLP) will be 310. On the other hand the Tory bloc, even if we were to include DUP and UKIP (the latter being a questionable ally for the Conservatives in practice since they would repel the Lib Dems) would be only 301. Who would the Lib Dems go with in that scenario? Well the arithmetic favours going with the Labour bloc since that gives a more secure majority anyway, but the party political preferences also make Labour a more attractive option.

Note I am talking about supply and confidence pacts here as the mode of forming and sustaining a Government (perhaps for no more than 1 year). Coalitions seem much less likely (and not at all involving the SNP).

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

So why is renewable energy so much more expensive in the UK compared to other countries?

British renewable energy is a lot more costly compared to renewable energy in other European countries, according to a recently published report. You can see this on: http://www.wua-wien.at/images/stories/publikationen/renewable-energy-versus-nuclear-power.pdf

Now, I don't doubt the reports general findings. Indeed my own research prompts me to say that renewable energy in the UK is not only rather more expensive compared to the rest of Europe, but also most of the rest of the world! But, the question is, WHY? A colleague recently popped me this question and it is one I have been asked before. One German renewable energy official commented to me a couple of years ago: 'How do you (Brits) manage to make renewable energy so expensive ?'

I don't think it has anything to do with 'purchasing power parity', that is what a pound will buy here as opposed to somewhere else when converted into the local currency (just look at the comparisons to see what I mean), so other factors will be in play, and my own studies of the energy point me very firmly in one direction:

The system of financing renewable energy schemes in the UK is designed (whether by intention or otherwise) to give a very large proportion of the income stream, earmarked for renewable energy and financed by effective levies on consumer electricity bills, to the major electricity suppliers rather than pay the renewable energy schemes themselves.

Under the Renewables Obligation (RO) (to cut a longer story short) the renewable energy (RE) generators are dependent on the major electricity suppliers to give them the long term contract they would need to raise the necessary bank loans and satisfy equity investors. They (the Big Six) take a big cut for doing this 'service' - which can amount to around 30 per cent of the income stream dedicated to renewable energy. In other words, if we had a system of German style 'feed-in tariff' contract that was available to anybody the money needed to pay for a given amount of renewable energy would be up to 30 per cent less. Yes, if RE was financed this way RE would be at least 25 per cent cheaper. Well, certainly for onshore schemes. The offshore wind picture is a bit more complicated since there are more uncertainties involved in that (eg you don't know how much the ships you need are going to cost to hire in advance), but the Germans still manage to do this a lot more cheaply!

Ah, you might say, the Government, under Electricity Market Reform (EMR) is introducing precisely this sort of system now. But, if you said that, you'd be dead wrong (admittedly a common fallacy). The 'contract for differences' (CfD) system being introduced is only available to electricity suppliers, or companies who can effectively act like electricity suppliers by trading on the UK electricity markets. Even then banks will tend to lend money at reasonable rates only to projects that are backed by the biggest electricity companies.

So, in short, the new CfD system replicates the existing ability of the electricity majors to siphon off up to 30 per cent of the incomes supposedly paid by electricity consumers for renewable energy.

You would be very welcome to ask why this is tolerated. Perhaps the simple answer is twofold. First, in the UK the Government has, by design or at least in effect, allowed the major electricity companies to cream off what economists call an 'economic rent' from renewable energy in order to compensate for the lost production from their power stations. I mean 'lost' in the sense that the power stations would be generating more if it was not for the renewable energy production.  - A sort of Faustian bargain. I have heard it said that RE is practically the only thing the Big Six can earn profits from now. Quite. This doesn't happen in Germany of course,where the electricity majors, as we hear, are suffering very badly indeed!

This leads us onto the second reason why this is happening. Now one can write lots of stuff about interest group theory to explain how this happens without there being any public discussion, but, again, the short answer is that it does not serve any of the major interest groups to raise the issue. Obviously the electricity majors like it; the Government is happy so long as they are happy and nobody else is able to make a big enough fuss, and the renewable energy industry is tolerant so long as they can carry on with their projects. The anti-windfarm/solar farm lobby won't be very interested in going on about how windfarms/solar farms could be a lot cheaper if the Government organised things differently.

The only interest groups that have tried to do anything about this are some independent renewables companies and some environmental groups. To give them their proper due. Friends of the Earth (FOE) actually published (two years ago) a report I wrote calling for German style feed-in tariffs (available to all-comers) to be established. See www.foe.co.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/david_toke_fits.pdf

I am very grateful to FOE for doing what they could here (it was certainly worth a try), but the report actually got rather more interest from abroad than it did in the UK! Some independent renewable energy companies tried pushing the boat out in the direction of looking for a broadly comparable solution, but sadly, they have too little political clout to make a crucial difference in political competition with the Big Six.

You have to remember that in Germany the independent renewables sector runs the RE industry. There the political interest group pressure is almost 180 per cent different to the UK. In this country it is the Big Six, give or take a couple of other multinational energy corporations, who will influence contractual terms. They are not too keen on opening up the market to real competition; indeed much nonsense is spouted in support of the the CfD system in that it is integrated to the British electricity market. Preserved for the sole indulgence of the big companies you mean! The biggest prize of course is to pay whatever it takes to preserve the idea of nuclear power, hence the likely bottomless incomes stream that will be opened up for Hinkley C and which will wipe out RE funding in the future. You can read my other posts on this I am sure.

I am not going to be completely pessimistic though. Smaller suppliers are entering the market, maybe even some ones backed by local authorities under what OFGEM calls its new 'supplier lite' scheme. That might change things. If we get Labour in power we might get a dedicated 'community feed-in tariff' - although that wouldn't apply to all independents, just ones owned in some sense by a community. But change in the UK is likely to come only slowly, and then under the impact of people doing things on the ground and building up the pressure that way. Small projects can gain funding under the small renewables feed-in tariff (in effect up to a MW or so). But that's only a start.

See below for some links to various recent argument on the subject. Note that there are a couple of comments below on the Government's new capacity mechanism. This now looks ever much more like a PR device that does little more than give more money to the Big Six and conventional power generators to try to keep them afloat from the threat of RE and other new technologies for that little but longer...........

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/community-energy-would-bypass-the-big-six-under-labour-9923413.html

http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/dec/14/edf-3bn-windfall-existing-power-plants

http://projects.exeter.ac.uk/igov/britains-dinosaur-capacity-market-will-worsen-energy-trilemma/

http://www.intelligentutility.com/magazine/article/382571/are-virtual-power-plants-future-european-utilities

http://www.carboncommentary.com/blog/2014/12/22/the-uk-capacity-auction-a-backdoor-way-of-staving-off-the-utility-death-spiral

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/91987576-8795-11e4-bc7c-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3NCIJOIK2
19th December Tom Greatrex, Labour’s shadow energy minister, welcomed the broad framework of the policy. However, he repeated his argument that existing nuclear power stations — which cannot vary output in response to short-term peaks and troughs in demand — were being unnecessarily subsidised by the scheme.

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/aug/15/green-energy-co-ops-blocked-by-government-regulator

http://realfeed-intariffs.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/hinkley-c-deal-likely-to-wipe-out-uk.html

http://party.coop/wp-content/blogs.dir/5/files/2014/12/next-gen-final-web.pdf?8b5145&8b5145

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Mass redundancies in social science and humanities likely if research funding proposals are implemented


The Government is not only cutting back on the amount of research money available to universities, but it is considering a plan that is likely to radically shift the balance of research funding away from the residual elements still given to arts and social sciences and towards science subjects. This will, using my back-of-the-envelope calculation, lead to the loss of around 6000 academic jobs in social sciences, humanities and arts.

The large bulk of the research money already goes to science. In the case of the Research Councils, who fund research on a project by project basis, less than 10 per cent of the money goes to social science, humanities or arts. It is the so-called 'QR' funding stream, awarded mainly on the basis of the 6 yearly ''research excellence framework' audits, that gives a larger amount of research money for non-science subjects (about 30 per cent of 'QR' funds).

But, as can be seen in the Guardian article (see link below), the Government is backing a plan to distribute the QR money in the future through the Research Councils. If the Research Councils distribute the funds diverted from QR in the same proportions to science, social science etc as they do now, then funding for social science, arts and humanities will be cut from its current figure of around £730 million to about £400 million - a massive cutback. How many social science and humanities academics do you lose for £330 million? - quite a lot!

Of course a lot of argument might persuade the Government to allow a higher proportion of total funds to be given to Research Councils such as the ESRC and AHRC than is the case now, but the losses to the social sciences arts and humanities compared to the present system are still likely to be massive. This is especially when you take into account the real decline in total research spending that is happening.

How can the Government get away with this? Well, maybe they hope to win by divide and rule. After all, the scientists, engineers etc will get more money...............

But the social science and humanities academics had better wise up (and rise up!) pretty quick, or maybe just emigrate!

If you want to look at the stats and stories, see some references below:

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/dec/21/university-funding-reform-brain-drain-london

http://blog.universitiesuk.ac.uk/2014/06/12/funding-changes-impact-university-research-new-report/

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/332767/bis-14-750-science-research-funding-allocations-2015-2016-corrected.pdf

http://www.hefce.ac.uk/whatwedo/invest/institns/annallocns/

Friday, 12 December 2014

Renewable Energy near top of SNP shopping list in case of minority Labour Government

The left's hopes of keeping the Tories out of office rose significantly when Alex Salmond implied that the SNP Westminster MPs would support a minority Labour Government after the May General Election, assuming a 'hung' Parliament. But the SNP would be demanding concessions, including some key renewable energy demands, for this to happen. Of course if the SNP is to be seen to be seriously about keeping the Tories out of office it has to make demands that Ed Miliband and his team might accept. Giving concessions on renewable energy policy would seem to be high on the list of 'plausible' demands. And of course this agenda would overlap mostly with that of the Green Party. But what sort of issues could that include?

An obvious one would be to make sure that reasonable incentives continue to be available for onshore wind, but, in contrast to the Tory/UKIP hatred of onshore wind, the SNP would be pushing at an open door as far as Labour is concerned - so this would not really count as a concession. Labour would continue to support onshore wind anyway. But the position on other issues is not so clear.

First the SNP is likely to demand a scheme to ensure there is 'proactive' investment in electricity distribution networks in Scotland. At the moment many wind schemes are stalled are stymied because of high costs and/or long waiting times to be connected to the grid. Smaller and community owned schemes are especially vulnerable here.

Second on the nationalist/green shopping list is going to be grid connections for renewable energy schemes on Scottish Islands. Currently there is an impasse on this, with transmission charges to high for the projects to pay and no wires to carry the power to the mainland anyway.

Third is support for Scottish offshore wind power. SSE has been given a contract for difference (CfD) for the 500 MW 'Beatrice' windfarm, but are the terms good enough to execute this project? SSE seems to be waiting until the election to find out and negotiate further.

Fourth is the issue of support for marine energy, wave and tidal power. There is quite an astonishing contrast between the sort of loan guarantees offered for nuclear power and the limited support offered for marine energy projects by the UK Government. The Scottish Government is having to bear the responsibility of funding much of the R&D for marine energy out of its discretionary funds. So the UK Government will be expected to come up with more support here.

Fifth will be more influence for the Scottish Government generally on renewable energy policy. Although the Scottish and Westminster governments have been actively cooperating on issues that directly affect Scotland, the trouble is that a lot of the main policies underpinning Electricity Market Reform have been discussed and implemented with little account being taken of the views of the Scottish Government. Given the fact that Scotland sites such a large proportion of UK renewable energy this sounds strange. This must change.

Of course we don't know if the Parliamentary arithmetic will allow such pressures to bear fruit. But if the arithmetic does suggest that a Labour Government is plausible (and this is highly likely to be a minority one) then the pressures on both the SNP and Labour leaderships to come to a deal, even though it will be a 'supply and confidence' deal, will be immense. The renewable energy demands should be obvious parts of an agreement between Labour and the SNP.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

New study highlights enthusiasm of British farmers for renewable energy



A new study published by 'Forum For the Future' highlights the enthusiasm for investing and deploying renewable energy by farmers on their farms. This comes out at the same time that the Government is trying to stop farmers installing solar pv on their farms in an effort to throw a sop to UKIP.

'Forum For the Future', in collaboration with Nottingham Trent University, blow away the alleged conservatism of British farmers by indicating how large quantities of British electricity supply (much larger than that provided by Hinkley C) could be installed by 2020 - And integrated with existing levels of food production and increased biodiversity protection.

Yet Environment Secretary Liz Truss is keen to stifle such moves. She has orchestrated the removal of farm subsidies from land that is used for solar pv. Meanwhile the Department of Energy and Climate Change has said that solar farms must compete with large scale. windfarms for the same limited pot of money for long term contracts.

The report can be be seen at:
http://www.forumforthefuture.org/sites/default/files/Farm%20Power_Size%20of%20the%20Prize%20report_Nov-2014.pdf

As Jonathon Porritt (the founder of Forum for the Future) says on his blog:

'The National Farmers Union loves it – and you can’t say that very often! It’s true, of course, that wind has fallen out of favour with your coalition partners, who are competing furiously with UKIP to see who can more effectively trash our wind industry while simultaneously hammering the rural economy.
Despite the media and political spin, the majority of Brits like wind power. But solar power is really very popular. Not just on roofs (farmhouses and farm buildings have lots of roofs pointing in the right direction, or so I’m told!), but mounted on the ground.' 
The blog entry from which this quote is drawn can be seen at:  http://www.jonathonporritt.com/blog/some-friendly-advice-secretary-state


Friday, 28 November 2014

Government implies it may not sign Hinkley C deal before General Election


The Government has refused to confirm that it it will sign a contract with EDF allowing Hinkley C to be built before April 2015, which is only a few weeks before the General Election. This can be seen in the text below which contains an answer to a Parliamentary Question tabled by Caroline Lucas. This evasive response underlines the shaky status of the Hinkley C nuclear project. See the text below:

The Department for Energy and Climate Change has provided the following answer to your written parliamentary question (215723):
Question:
To ask the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, whether he plans to sign a contract with EDF for Hinkley C nuclear power station before April 2015; and if he will make a statement. (215723)
Tabled on: 24 November 2014
Answer:
Matthew Hancock:
The Government is continuing to negotiate with EDF on both the Contract for Difference and the UK Guarantee for Hinkley Point C, and plans to sign a contract in due course.

The answer was submitted on 28 Nov 2014 at 13:36.


The project was supposed to be backed by investments from AREVA and also Chinese state owned nuclear companies, but investment from both of these sources (around half of the total equity capital) is now under question. AREVA, the state-owned French nuclear constructor and parent of the failing EPR reactor design,  is going bust and cannot afford the Hinkley C investment on its current balance sheet. The Chinese nuclear companies apparently want a greater share of the work on the project than EDF is willing to give. This underlines the core of the surviving French interest in the project - the interest of powerful nationalised French corporations to preserve their jobs in a declining industry. They have the power of the state at their disposal, ranged against the political inclinations of the Hollande Presidency to try to stop the nuclear dinosaur that controls the French state from eating up so much of its resources.

Now EDF are courting the Saudis and the Qataris for equity investment. It seems very doubtful, given the catastrophic nature of the EPR building programme so far in France and Finland, that these oil states would consider investing in Hinkley C as an attractive money-making venture. France does have good relations with these countries through arms sales that it makes to them. But, logically, it may be the case that such investments may only be procured if the French (or/and British state) agrees some formula to 'guarantee' the investments made by Qatar/Saudi Arabia.

The UK has already agreed to guarantee two thirds of the notional cost of the project so that EDF can take out a bank loan, (note the word 'notional' as if many people still believe this window dressing). As discussed in other posts, the UK will doubtless be horribly burned for a lot more money than has even been committed now if, as seems all but certain, the project goes wrong. But some guarantee from the French state will also be needed. Has Hollande been bludgeoned into agreeing this? Will the Treasury be suckered into also effectively guaranteeing  part or all of the cost overruns in the likely future debacle? The resources of the British and French states are needed to preserve the French nuclear dinosaur!