Friday, 17 May 2019

Why we may be heading for a Tory 'no deal' General Election

And how the only chance of stopping a Tory 'no dealer' winning that election is for Labour to declare its full, unqualified, support for another referendum on UK EU membership

Barring some miracle and Mrs May manages to stay in office as PM until much later in the year it looks almost certain that the next Tory leader will be pledged, in effect, to 'achieve' a 'no-deal' Brexit at the end of October this year.

There will be a Leadership election in which it is highly likely the winning candidate will promise to attempt to 'renegotiate' the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement to remove the backstop ( a la the 'Brady' plan), and failing that, to leave the EU as early as possible. This will probably mean the end of October. Given that the EU will not abandon the firm wishes of the Irish Republic to avoid a hard border, and assuming that the Tories will reject having separate trading and customs arrangements for Northern Ireland, then this leaves 'no deal' as the only option acceptable to a likely future Tory Leader.

The Tory grassroots, (who make the final choice between two candidates selected by the MPs) are almost certain to back a 'no deal' candidate, assuming at least one of the two candidates put to them is that way inclined! The polarisation at the Euro elections, leaving the Tories well behind the Brexit Party will give little succour to any Tory looking for a compromise Brexit.

In fact the Tory Govt is in a perilous Parliamentary position. It has just a nominal majority of 4 even with the DUP's continued support. That may not  survive the end of October when the Commons could well vote against a No deal (even to revoke Article 50), and leave the Government without any majority at all, - either that or the country would tumble into a chaotic exit with the Government taking the blame. Indeed that is what Corbyn would prefer to see in the event of a 'no deal' Brexit. Far better, from the Tory Leader's point of view, is to call an election (an offer Labour couldn't refuse) before the end of October. It would be an election, effectively about a 'no deal' Brexit. The Tories, (with most Remainer Tory MPs being cowed into submission) would have a coherent message.

But this would be perilous for Labour, because, if the more pro-EU vote splintered among Lib Dems, Greens, SNP, PC, ChangeUK and Labour, a right wing Tory Govt could be given a mandate for 5 years. By promising to leave at the end of October without any strings, the Tories could recapture most of the votes lost to the Brexit Party in the EU elections. Meanwhile if Labour continued with its ambivalent position it could lose - big time.

The only way that Labour could possibly win such an election would be to marshall the pro-EU vote by putting itself forward as the only Party able to deliver another referendum on the EU. Any other election stance - eg a continuation of the the present ambivalence - would play into the hands of a united pro-Brext front which would now be consolidated behind the Tories.

Corbyn has no other choice but to make an EU referendum the unequivocal Labour pledge under this scenario.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Committee on Climate Change sinks nuclear power in the UK in favour of renewables

Few people seem to have noticed how the Committee on Climate Change, in their 'Net Zero' report (net zero carbon emissions for 2050 for the UK), have effectively junked nuclear power in favour of renewable energy[1].

 Indeed a careful reading of the evidence produced by the CCC completely upends the former received wisdom that renewable energy could not, on its own, achieve the UK's long term carbon emission reduction targets. The late David McKay's argument (see 'Sustainable Energy without hot air') that large quantities of nuclear power were necessary have been quietly sidelined by the CCC. Rather, the evidence presented by the CCC says that not only can renewables do the whole job (on the supply side, having taken account of demand reduction measures), but renewables can do things much more cheaply than either nuclear power or carbon capture and storage. 

The CCC argues that investment in renewable energy will save consumers money, whilst investment in nuclear power and carbon capture and storage will cost a lot of money (eg see Table 2.3 page 43).

The CCC estimate renewable energy resources to be very large. According to the CCC: ‘Our updated resource estimates, in line with other assessments, suggest potential for 29-96 of GW of onshore wind, 145-615 GW of solar power and 95-245 GW of offshore wind in the UK’[2]

This is very interesting because if you turn this into electricity generated then even under the 'low' estimate the potential for  just wind and solar will provide all of the electricity needed for a net zero energy economy in the UK. That's not even counting other renewable energy sources, including biomass and marine renewables, and I believe there is great potential in tidal and wave power if they can exploit niche application to build up their economics. 

I analyse the numbers in the Table below. 

Analysis of Committee of Climate Change estimates for potential renewable energy generation in UK

Offshore wind
Onshore wind
Solar PV
Low capacity estimate (GWe)
High capacity estimate (GWe)
Assumed capacity factor
Low estimate for generation (TWh/year) (3)
High estimate for generation (TWh/year)

The CCC estimated that total UK electricity demand to be, under its carbon reduction plan, 365 TWh in 2030 and 645 TWh in 2050 This compares to 335 TWh in 2018. Hence, under the 'high' estimate for wind and solar, renewable energy could supply nearly four times the total electricity requirement in a net zero energy economy. That is one under which transport and heating services are supplied through electricity as well as other services. 

Of course there's a crumb of comfort offered for nuclear power. Their costs might come down. But I've got a dose of cold shower here: nuclear costs have not gone down for decades. Why should they do so now? Moreover, renewable energy costs have been coming down a lot in recent years. Why shouldn't this trend continue?

Alas, news of all of this doesn't seem to have reached may of our senior policymakers who talk endlessly on the same old discourse about how nuclear is needed or else the lights will go out. Clearly they won't, except that is because the country is spending so much money on paying for nuclear cost overruns that we can't afford to pay our bills! 

Yet the Labour Party, who may be forming the next Government in the next year, are clinging to their pro-nuclear stance. Again, few people seem to be objecting to this, even though it is clear that most of the 'green' money promised by John McDonnell will be flowing into a nuclear black hole rather than renewables or energy efficiency! 

Shouldn't we be talking more about this?

[1] Committee on Climate Change (2019), ‘Net Zero Technical Report’,

[2] ibid, page 26
(3) The latest 12MW GE wind turbine boasts a cf of 63%, bi-facial solar pv installed by Gridserve will increase production by 20% and use of systems such as LiDAR are boosting onshore wind performance

Friday, 26 April 2019

Why UK's climate change politics reflect our broken political system

The suggestion that the UK should hold now hold 'citizens assemblies' about how to deal with climate change is an excellent one in my view, and one which parallels the best practice available in countries like Denmark. There (in Denmark) the approach has been on consensus building and bottom-up deliberations. This is in sharp contrast to the hierarchical and adversarial style of politics which dominates the traditional British approach to policymaking - an approach which, incidentally, has proved disastrous when dealing with Brexit ('nuff said on that one for the moment!).
Indeed I have written about the comparison between the Danish and British approaches to climate politics in an academic piece in the journal 'British Politics', which was co-authored with a Danish academic, Helle Orsted. Please see the paper 'Policy consultation and political styles: Renewable energy consultations in the UK and Denmark',

What does surprise me is that this idea of citizens assemblies hasn't taken off in a way that I would have expected, in that it would seem a natural follow-up to all the climate action mobilisations we have seen in recent times. Indeed, I have even seen someone muttering that people might come up with the 'wrong' answers. Look, for pity's sake, if we can't take the people with us on this one, we're not going to get very far!
But, I am relieved that this approach is being pursued at least somewhere, for example in an initiative being organised by Oxford City Council. See

We could do a lot worse than copy some of Denmark's approach in that a national conversation, informed by 'expert' reports, commissions etc, should take place, and of course lots of deliberation through citizen's assemblies. This type of approach is in sharp contrast to what happened in the UK in the wake of the passage of the 2008 Climate Change Act which established the target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent compared to 1990 by 2050. Now, I don't want to slag off the present Committee on Climate Change (CCC) under the current (wiser) leadership of Chris Stark, but the CCC could still do with being supplemented by bottom up citizen's deliberations and inputs.

But at the start (in 2007-2008)  the first inclination by the Government in setting up the climate change advisory machinery was to invite EDF onto the committee to establish the CCC. Not exactly bottom-up deliberation! The attitude seemed to be: don't bother consulting before you publish your proposals, the industrial hierarchy knows best. The answer, of course, was .......Focus mainly on  building lots of nuclear power stations, with a few wind turbines and solar panels to keep the greens quiet..........Indeed as late as 2011 the CCC issued a report saying that the Government should scale back efforts to build offshore windfarms and focus instead on nuclear power! (yes really!) see|) In that period the CC was claiming that nuclear power was even cheaper than onshore wind - despite arguments to the contrary even then. See my blog post at

However, fortunately, the management of CCC changed since then. But we shouldn't have to rely on the existence of a wise hierarchy, we should have bottom up discussions, of course informed by a range of expert opinions. Then, this country might start doing a bit better than it is doing at the moment!

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Why the UK's capacity mechanism should be scrapped in favour of a decentralised energy system

The UK's capacity mechanism (CM) is supposed to ensure that we have sufficient 'reserve' capacity to supply electricity whenever we need it. Under the system money is giving to large power stations in proportion to their generating capacity just to carry on being 'available' for generation.  In reality the CM is a major barrier in the transition to a 21st century renewable energy and energy efficiency based 'new energy economy'. It is giving billions of pounds of subsidies to a centralised power supply system which delays the development of a cleaner, cheaper, more flexible decentralised energy system. The CM should be scrapped as soon as possible.

The overall reason why it should be scrapped is that the very concept of propping up the 20th century model of centralised power plant delivering power through a vertically integrated system, which is what the capacity mechanism (CM) supports, is fundamentally wrong. The misplaced notion behind the CM is that the state needs to intervene to provide an additional signal (besides existing power markets) to ensure that conventional power plant  are brought into to balance the load of so-called 'intermittent' renewable energy sources. Policymakers have mainly identified as combined cycle gas turbines, CCGTs, or nuclear power plant, as supplying the needed 'firm' capacity. This traditional system of course is run by the utilities, whose policy advice the Government have swallowed whole.

But the advent of a new range of techniques and actors  means this model has become regressive. The new techniques, besides the variable (note: the output is predictable, not unpredictable as 'intermittent' implies) renewable energy sources include digitalisation, demand side response and battery storage. The new actors are companies able to manage these resources and techniques together with distributed fossil generators such as gas engines to contribute to, 'virtual power plant' services.

This way of doing things is much more compatible with increasing quantities of renewable energy resources since it is much more flexible and. crucially, involves much less fossil or nuclear generating capacity than is presently needed. Virtual power plant can, and is already to some degree, providing 'firm' capacity. Giving large subsidies to existing power plant (which is what the CM mainly funds) makes the system much less flexible and produces higher carbon emissions. Nuclear power plant already get the benefit of carbon taxes whilst the CCGTs, which form the majority of the plant given subsidies under the capacity mechanism respond inefficiently to system balancing requirements compared to decentralised plant. Indeed gas engines linked to local district heating systems can be replaced, in time, with large scale heat pumps and hot water storage systems that can store renewable energy supplies.

I discussed some of the 'disruptor' companies that form part of the new energy economy in a recent post - see I mentioned Gridserve, Social Energy and Zenobe who are developing networks of energy consumers, renewable energy, and storage services. Other well known companies in this sector include Limejump, Flexitricity and also Tempus energy. Tempus, who specialise in demand response services, were successful in forcing the UK Government to seek permission to give state aid (from the European Union) for the CM. And there's plenty of state aid. The UK has so far pledged some £5.6 billion of aid going mainly to conventional fossil and nuclear power plant that already exist.

But not only is this money wasted to prop up power plant that would be replaced by virtual power services at no subsidy, but the CM subsidies actually make it more expensive for the 'new energy economy' services and companies to operate. That is because they act to depress market signals that allow the flexibility services, that is mixtures of renewables, storage, electric vehicle storage and demand response, to provide the firm power that is traditionally provided by centralised power plant. These technologies can make use of greater variation in system power prices to buy and sell electricity to get greater value for renewable energy supplies. As I argued earlier,, such services could eradicate the need for a third of (non-renewable) generating capacity in the medium term. That could be done in the context of supplying over 90 per cent of electricity from renewable energy sources.

It is quite possible that the Government could negotiate some better terms for demand side response for companies like Tempus Energy in a revised CM - currently demand side response is heavily discriminated against by the CM arrangements. But this would be only a quarter measure that would still leave the dead hand of unnecessary tens of GWes of centralised power plant online (and attendant pollution)  being backed by large state-handouts instead of flexible new energy economy technology.

In short, the Capacity Mechanism must be scrapped!

Some useful references:

Thursday, 4 April 2019

Can scientists also be climate activists? - How there is no such thing as an 'honest broker' in science discussions

The publishers, Routledge, have just released a free-to-download copy of a chapter from my book 'Low Carbon Politics' which discusses controversies about climate change and the role of scientists in such debates (see later link). In particular are scientists right in acting as climate activists?

A debate has been occurring in recent years about the role of scientists, such as Michael Mann, who are identified as 'activists' in support of action to counter climate change. They have been accused of muddying the boundary between science and political activism, and, even , according to some charges ( the so-called 'climategate' affair) they have even been guilty of bending the evidence to suit their political cause. But have they really?

As I discuss in the (free) Chapter, concerns about 'climategate' have been used by those opposed to green-egalitarian strategies to discredit such strategies - yet this has obscured the fact that Mann's work (eg on the 'hockey stick' showing how temperatures today are hotter than anytime in the last 1000 years) has been replicated since and shown to be valid.

On the other hand, people such as Roger Pielke (jnr) have criticised alleged scientific activism and claimed that it is possible for scientists to act as 'honest brokers'. Himself, and largely in parallel, Bjorn Lomborg have argued that whilst climate change is happening, there is no need for immediate drastic action demanded by green activists; precautionary 'no regrets' policies that we would do on other grounds are what should be the order of the day.

I go through these arguments in my book, and I argue that there is no such thing as pure science as divorced from advocacy anyway - as in the old philosophical debates, how do you separate out values from scientific 'facts'? Essentially, not only will people be interested in different sets of facts over time but they will interpret them differently according to their value sets. Conservatives, which I take to include Pielke and Lomborg may or may not claim to be above advocacy, but in stressing particular interpretations are themselves being advocates for political positions.

Of course that doesn't mean there's no such thing as scientific truth, but merely that you have to consider its usefulness according to your sets of values. Indeed, the values to which advocates of various sorts appeal are crucial. In particular in the energy and climate debates what actors decide is the right energy strategy seems heavily influenced by their cultural bias rather than the scientific facts per se.

Moreover, when commentators such as Pielke talk about the need for a 'no regrets' policy, we can also interpret this as being a green strategy which will lead to cheaper energy outcomes.

You can see these arguments expanded in the free chapter on science controversies from my book 'Low Carbon Politics'. You can get this from the link:

Even better, order my book for your library, details at the link here:

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Labour undermines renewable energy pledges with state ownership plan for new nuclear power plant

Labour's energy spokesperson, Rebecca Long-Bailey, having previously pledged to put renewable energy on top of the energy agenda has now relegated it far below nuclear power. They have done this with a pledge to take partial state ownership of new nuclear power projects and saying they will do this for nuclear projects that have been abandoned. But giving state priority to these projects, far from keeping the lights on will actually ruin the chances of aspiring renewable energy generators.

The figures speak for themselves. Bailey pledges to reverse what she calls the Government's 'cancellations' of new nuclear projects (Moorside, Oldbury, Wylfa) (factcheck; it was the developers who cancelled them despite being promised tens of billions of state aid). If these projects are brought on line (in addition to the existing Sizewell B and still-not-cancelled projects of Hinkley C and Sizewell C) then nuclear generation will climb to at least 35 per cent of current generation - and even that does not count the Chinese led project at Bradwell.

Meanwhile renewable energy generated 33% of UK electricity in 2018, a figure that, with the recently announced 'sector deal' for offshore wind, will increase to around 65% by 2030 even without any more onshore wind and solar pv which the Labour Party claims to support. It doesn't need a mathematical genius to work out that with 35% coming from nuclear power, there simply will not be any market space for any more renewable energy.

Yet renewable energy, as we have discussed is cheap, becoming cheaper, and needs little or no public subsidy - a big contrast with nuclear, which despite all the promised support, high consumer subsidies, public guarantees of loan funding (none of which is available for new renewable schemes) has failed so far to generate a single kWh. And it will not until at least 2026 even if EDF's schedules for Hinkley C construction prove (miraculously in the light of recent nuclear construction history) to be achievable.

Of course there's no electricity generation shortfall in the near term, and in the medium term there cannot be either, given the amount of renewable energy coming online. There's no capacity shortage either, and there certainly won't be in the medium term given the potential replacement of up to 30 per cent of  our peak generating capacity by battery storage, or failing that, flexible gas generation. That's going to be much cheaper than nuclear power and much more certainly brought on line when we want it compared to nuclear. Batteries will be much cheaper than nuclear and right now gas engines and open cycle plant that are twenty times cheaper than nuclear power to install.

Even if only some of the new nuclear power which Labour wants to back came online, new renewable energy would still be crowded out. This is because electricity contracts given to nuclear power give them 'dispatch priority' over renewable energy, causing windfarms and solar farms to be turned off to give priority to nuclear power. Indeed, this is already happening with our current levels of nuclear and renewables, with, ironically, renewable energy detractors blaming the problem (and the compensation paid to the windfarms) on the windfarms themselves. So not only, in the future are we going to sink into an amazing public morass of handouts to fund these nuclear power stations, but in the process, at best, we are going to be ordering the turning off of renewable energy and paying the operators compensation for this! Of course this is crazy, and the result will be that many windfarms and solar will not be built if the new Labour plan to give priority to nuclear power is implemented.

What Labour ought to be talking about is how to expand the opportunities to substitute fossil fuels used in transport and heating so that the vast potential of renewable energy can be harnessed. Rather than throwing billions upon billions down nuclear black holes we need to spend (less) money on demonstration schemes for large scale heat pumps to serve new district heating systems, funding a much quicker roll-out of fast charge points for electric vehicles, reorganising the regulatory system to favour demand side response, decentralised generation and battery storage. I have written about how independent companies are doing this.  We need to support them. not nuclear power. In recent years electricity consumption has been falling, partly because of energy efficiency measures. We need to expand this strategy as well as giving more long term power purchase agreements to wind power and solar power both onshore and offshore.

There's certainly no shortage of renewable energy options. The Scottish Government is holding a consultation about issuing new offshore wind leases, and there is tremendous amount of onshore wind and solar pv being wasted, and then there are other renewable energy sources being developed, tidal of various sorts, and wave power.. Why doesn't the Labour Party insist on new buildings having to have solar pv installed by law (unless developers can show very good reason why not)?

Instead of giving priority to these things Labour have come out with a daft policy that threatens to take us back to the dinosaur age by comparison.

I really hate to say this, but because the Tories have actually (so far) stopped short of the financial insanities involved in getting all of the projected new more nuclear power stations online and are thus leaving some space for new renewable energy schemes, there is actually a plausible argument to say that now, compared to Labour's new policy position the Conservative Party policy actually favours renewable energy more than Labour!


Friday, 15 March 2019

How Wednesday's vote on Brexit postponement mirrors the Tories' catastrophic split in 1846

The split in the Conservative Party on Wednesday night when the majority of Tory MPs voted against the Government's proposals to delay Brexit is eerily similar to the catastrophic split the Tory Party suffered in 1846 as PM Robert Peel oversaw the repeal of the the Corn Laws. In 1846 the Tory party split irrevocably into two factions, one of which, the 'Peelites' later merged with the Whigs and Radicals to form the Liberal Party. The Tories were out of office for most of the next 30 years.

On Wednesday Mrs May, reflecting an earlier Commons vote to do all things possible to avoid  'no-deal' Brexit, proposed a motion saying that the Government would ask for Article 50 to be suspended.  - Not jut until the end of June, but potentially  for a long period if the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) was not approved by the House of Commons by March 20th. The motion was amazing in the sense that it was opposed by 60 per cent of the Tory MPs, and gained a majority (a good one at that) by dint of support from the Opposition. In 1846 Peel got his repeal of the Corn laws passed, but only after the measure was opposed by two-thirds of Tory MPs and passed with the help of the Opposition.
Of course May has an advantage over Peel in the sense that she has some levers to force the DUP and the hard line Brexiteers into line. With the DUP it is a question of squeezing their supporters with the threat of a no-deal tariff regime that allows tariff free access to goods from the Republic while having tariffs on good going south, something that would hit DUP supporting farmers where it hurts. That's the stick. The carrot is an offer of money to the DUP.
How much is a backstop worth? Or how much will the DUP have to be paid so that they will accept some face-saving gesture to get them to vote for the WA? And then the hardline Brexiteers are threatened with a scenario that a long Brexit delay could ultimately lead to a soft-deal Brexit or even a referendum and no Brexit at all.
Yes, Mrs May could go down as a modern version of Peel who ended up irrevocably splitting the Tories. Alternatively she could end up victorious and getting her WA passed and being hailed as a political magician....well for three weeks at least, before it sinks in that in terms of negotiating a final relationship with the EU, that was the easy bit!
On the other hand, if her Withdrawal Agreement is not approved..............