Friday, 29 August 2014

Is a European (nuclear?) war inevitable if Ukraine joins NATO?

Certainly we should deplore the Russian military intervention in Ukraine and the suffering in the East of that country, but is it worth risking a high likelihood that millions of people will die because the West ends up in a war with Russia? No. How can we save thousands of lives by a war that will kill millions? Yet we are running precisely that risk if we allow Ukraine to join NATO. This will mean that the West will have a duty to go to war with Russia if the Russians refuse an ultimatum to back down - and we should not trust the lives of millions on whether Vladimir Putin can stomach losing face over having to back down.

Certainly Putin is delusional. He is delusional to believe that if he succeeds in capturing large parts of Eastern Ukraine that there will be and end to fighting - it won't, and (unlike Crimea) he will find consistent armed resistance to his forces. Many in the East do not like the Kiev Government, but they do not want to be occupied by the Russian army either. Also Putin is delusional when he goads the west with statements such as: '"Thank God, I think no one is thinking of unleashing a large-scale conflict with Russia. I want to remind you that Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers." See http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/vladimir-putin/11064209/Vladimir-Putin-Dont-mess-with-nuclear-armed-Russia.html

The trouble is that this is precisely what is likely to happen if the Ukraine joins NATO. The road to the first world war was paved with such delusions - on both sides.

The West has long suffered under the logic of  'something must be done' without appreciating whether killing more people will actually make things better. Now I'm not a pacifist, but I do not think that we should take actions that make a bad situation into a catastrophe. Rather we should press the Ukrainians to settle for a solution that will eventually be more or less the same anyway - some sort of Federal relationship involving a autonomy for the Donbas Region.

The Putin regime is very unsavoury, that is for sure, and he will come unstuck as he persists with his current strategy. But the best way to deal with him is to let have him have enough rope, so that he becomes more and more bogged down in a quagmire of an unwinnable war inside Ukraine. That way he either have to come to terms or he will lose, but millions of people across Europe will not die in the process.

Friday, 22 August 2014

So why don't tidal stream projects get long contracts and loan guarantees like nuclear power?


Is the UK Government right to gain plaudits for the announcement of construction of a 6 MW tidal stream project in Pentland Firth? After all, they have come up with a £10 million grant. But, when you compare this with the deal offered to EDF for Hinkley C, there is a credibility gap.  There is talk of extending the tidal stream project from 6 MW to '398 MW', but there is very little chance of this happening unless the project gets conditions similar to that given to Hinkley C nuclear power station. First a much longer contract is required. The tidal stream project has to make do with a 15 contract during which time it will receive its premium prices. EDF gets 35 years. Second, EDF gets £10 billion worth of loan guarantees. That's not a grant of course, but it stands a very good chance of turning into one given the history of nuclear power construction cost overruns!  Tidal stream developers really need loan guarantees to turn their plans into reality.

But then, as we all know, nuclear power is much newer, more innovative, technology which needs much greater support than tidal stream technology (sarcasm implied here for anybody suffering a tinge of asperger-politics)

See the announcement at
http://www.renewableuk.com/en/news/press-releases.cfm/world-s-largest-tidal-energy-project-to-be-built-in-the-uk

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Onshore wind much more popular among public than nuclear or shale gas says DECC survey



The latest 'tracker' polls issued by DECC show that support for onshore wind among the public is 67 per cent, with just 11 per cent opposed. Solar power is the most popular renewable fuel (82 per cent support) with offshore wind a bit ahead of onshore wind in popularity. By contrast support and opposition for shale gas is tied at 24 per cent and nuclear power is supported by 36 per cent compared to 24 per cent opposed.

Once again this demonstrates just how out of step the Conservatives are with public opinion. The Conservatives, fond of fulminating against onshore wind and solar, want to cut off all funding for onshore wind after 2020. Eric Pickles delights in cancelling planning consents for wind and solar farms even when the planners have agreed to them.

Of course the Tories feel they are on the run pursued by UKIP who claim to oppose the alleged green frippery liked by the 'political classes'. The opinion surveys suggest things are the other way around. Right wing political classes are ignoring the voice of the people and subverting it in favour of what one columnist (in today's Financial Times) calls 'sour censorious provincialism'.

Hopefully the Conservatives will reap the rewards of their dash to the right at the polls next May, and lose political office. As the Conservatives tilt ever more towards the right, the future of civilisation as we know it is dependent on this outcome!

See
https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/public-attitudes-tracking-survey-wave-10

and

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/c322a272-2144-11e4-b96e-00144feabdc0.html?ftcamp=published_links%2Frss%2Fcomment%2Ffeed%2F%2Fproduct#axzz3ABQWe8Hy

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Labour set to lose heavily to SNP after 'no' vote without strong devolution package


Labour's chances of being the largest party in the House of Commons at the General Election in 2015 are significantly blighted by the likelihood that they will lose several seats to the SNP - whatever the referendum result. Hitherto many Scottish voters who have voted for the SNP for the Scottish Parliament have taken the view that since Labour are likely to form a Government in London then they are more likely to be an effective champion their interest than the SNP. However, things are likely to change on May 7th  2010  when the voting takes place.

In the case of a 'Yes' vote in the referendum on independence the SNP will claim to be the most effective party in campaigning for a better deal for Scotland in the negotiations about terms for Scottish independence. In the case of a 'No' vote the SNP will claim they are going to be more effective in arguing for more powers for the Scottish Government and Parliament in the new devolution settlement that will be decided after the 2015 General election.

In the past many voters who would otherwise vote SNP for Holyrood elections have had a perceived common policy agenda with Labour and Liberal Democrats, in opposition to the Conservatives. Hence the need to vote SNP at Westminster elections to avoid Tory rule did not seem so convincing. But at the 2015 General Election a particularly salient issue for many Scottish voters will be more powers for Scottish Government - a specifically Scottish issue - and that is something upon which that the SNP will claim to focus more of their energy compared to the conventional UK- wide parties.

When it comes to reporting opinion polls most attention has been on the referendum, with the 'No' vote now heading for a win of 55-60 per cent for 'No' to 40-45 per cent for 'Yes'. But anything over 40 per cent will be loudly claimed by the SNP as a brilliant success, and without a major effort by Labour (and the others) to beef up their specific commitments for further devolution the SNP is likely to capture several more seats off both Labour and also a couple from the Liberal Democrats. The recent polls on party support within Scotland at the next General Election make pretty stark reading for the UK-wide parties. The SNP has a clear lead and has, according to the polls, literally doubled their support since the 2010 election. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are the biggest losers to the SNP. See :

http://whatscotlandthinks.org/questions/how-would-you-be-likely-to-vote-in-a-uk-general-election#line
and 
http://ukpollingreport.co.uk/blog/archives/category/scotland

A couple of dozen Labour (and even four or five) of sitting Liberal Democrat MPs are so well entrenched it is difficult to see the SNP displacing them but it is, giving the recent opinion poll figures, very plausible that the SNP will increase their MPs by a dozen, even taking into account the boost sitting MPs receive at General Elections to withstand swings in opinion. If Labour loses ten seats overall, and only returns 31 as opposed to the 41 seats it won in 2010 then this could well make the difference between there being a Labour as opposed to Tory led Government. The prize in the 2015 General Election is not so much who will win an overall majority, which will be difficult for either Labour or Conservatives to achieve, but who will have the most seats and who therefore is almost certain to form the next Government.

If one assumes that during the election campaign the Conservatives increase their vote moderately (thoughout the UK) then one could bet on the Conservatives coming slightly ahead of Labour in votes, but maybe just a few seats behind labour in seats. That is the way the system works since fewer people vote in Labour held areas (eg Merseyside) compared to Tory held areas (eg Surrey). So if Labour loses a few seats in Scotland ......... Currently in Scotland Labour holds 41 seats, Liberal Democrats 11, SNP 6 and Conservatives 1.

Of course the SNP will claim that in a tight, hung, Parliament it will be in a good position to bargain with other parties, and in the meantime there will be pressure on the other parties to come up with strong proposals for more devolution....and this had better be more than just saying the Scots can have power to increase taxes on themselves!

By focusing mostly on taxation powers the UK-wide parties are missing out on large areas of regulation and policy discretion. Take energy for example. It is very practical for the Scottish Government to be able to regulate to control nearly half of their electricity bills, including supply costs, network distribution, environmental and low carbon surcharges. But are they talking about this? No. Not a murmur. Sure, Labour are proposing an energy price freeze across the UK, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if the SNP countered by saying that Scotland should be given its own Energy Regulator. And the Scottish Greens of course.

More on this issue to come....




Friday, 25 July 2014

Government cuts onshore wind deployment by 50 per cent and solar farms to zero

Yesterday the Government announced what amounts to a cut in deployment of onshore wind power by 50 per cent and a cut in the amount of large scale solar farms that can be deployed to more or less zero.

Since 2010 onshore wind has been installed at a rate of around 1000 MW (1GW) a year. But yesterdays announcement, with only £50 million per year of extra money allocated for new projects for so-called 'mature' technologies such as onshore wind and solar farms, means that there is not enough money for more than around 500 MW of onshore wind to be deployed a year until 2020. This means that only around 2500 MW,  less than half the 7000 MW of consented onshore windfarms (and none of the many proposed solar farms,) can be deployed.

(Note: £50 million a year will fund about 1.1TWh new electricity a year assuming around £45 per MWh is needed to make up the difference between a wholesale electricity price of £45-50 per MWh and a cost of £90-95 per MWh set by the Government to be paid to onshore windfarms. 1.1 TWh a year will be generated from around 500 MW of wind power).

The Solar Trade Association has highlighted the effective end of the large solar farm deployment programme. Less attention has been paid to the cuts in onshore windfarms, although RenewableUK have expressed their disappointment in the Government announcement. Both solar and wind will be competing for the same pot of money, and despite considerable falls in cost in recent years, solar is still likely to be undercut by onshore wind.

This policy speaks volumes about the Liberal Democrats lack of influence, and the extent of the policy victory won by Conservative opponents of onshore large scale renewables. Instead the Conservatives are succeeding in their policy of mainly funding only some of the more expensive renewables, namely  some offshore wind projects and some rooftop solar pv schemes.

This result falls in line with my earlier projections that the UK will miss meeting its EU renewable energy target by a large margin. See:

http://realfeed-intariffs.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/uk-on-track-to-miss-eu-renewables.html
and the government's announcement of a 'boost' to renewable energy at:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/indicative-cfd-budget-notice-for-the-autumn-2014-cfd-allocation-round

Monday, 21 July 2014

Nuclear power: will it continue to fail as 'baseload' plant?


Nuclear power has a lot of the best Public Relations (PR) workers in the world, but nothing they can do can obscure the difference between the facts of UK nuclear performance and what is now wishful consensus thinking of the UK state. Should one get too annoyed with this? Or just smile? There is a cynical argument that one might as well not bother campaigning against nuclear power if you don't like it because its best enemy and destroyer is itself.

In Britain nuclear's recent record for availability is not outstanding - 65 per cent according to the Digest of UK Energy Statistics for the year 2008-2012. Remember this is for a technology that is supposed to be on for as much as the time as is possible, and the bulk of the downtime on the  figures is accounted for by unplanned, often sudden, outages that jeopardise electricity grid stability. At least you can usually make a reasonable prediction about wind output for particular windfarm, but you cannot predict sudden unplanned outages from nuclear. But we are told that nuclear is necessary as a 'baseload' plant. Well I suppose it is baseload as much as it operates some of the time, but not really if it often does not work when you want it to!

Of course the most modern plant, Sizewell B, has an average availability of around 83 per cent, and this is often held up as the comparator for the new nuclear developments planned by EDF. But Sizewell B was a very well known technology (PWR) when it was constructed, although despite that, it cost a lot more than was projected before construction started.

Hinkley C is a new, untried nuclear technology, the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR). It could well end up having at least some of the difficulties in operation as the British designed AGR nuclear plant. Ominously they took a long time to build (like the EPRs). The augurs are not good.

So we have a double risk - the usual likely outcome that nuclear construction costs will be even higher than those now projected (with the UK taxpayer guaranteeing to pick up a big tab of cost overruns) and the risk that the new power station(s) will struggle to generate much electricity, which will mean that the UK taxpayer will have to pay out even more money. Of course, without the effective UK Government blank cheque and the plant being built by a consortium of foreign state owned companies able to bear much greater risk than private companies we would  not have any Hinkley C deal at all.

It may well be that EDF will end up building only one (1.6 GW) of the twin reactor plant at Hinkley. There is, in reality, a very good chance that this will be the only one that will ever be built in the UK. By 2023 when the plant is supposed to be completed the project will no doubt be late, experiencing considerable financial difficulties, receiving more guarantees and more future support from UK electricity consumers than are planned at the moment. At the same time wholesale electricity prices will probably be less than they are now. Gas prices are sinking. This will make the Hinkley C deal look even worse than it looks now.

People complain now that renewable plant are being paid money that will increase electricity prices for many years. Yet the renewable plant funded by the Renewables Obligation cannot receive any premium prices beyond 2027. Future renewable projects will be on premium prices for only 15 years. On the other hand Hinkley C may have barely started operating by 2027 and will still have 35 years of premium prices to enjoy after that.

Of course you would think that the EPR programme is swimming ahead without problems. But all of the EPRs being built are increasingly behind schedule. The plants in France and Finland were begun in 2005, and the plant in China was begun in 2008. Yet the EDF PR teams manage to promote this is a success. The project, in China, at Taishan, receives glowing marks for progress. See
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/1061f90a-e272-11e3-89fd-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3869kNYCY

Yet, they say it is two years behind schedule. We can rely on it not taking any longer of course, because EDF says so! If they cannot get a nuclear power plant finished on time in a tightly controlled state like China, how are they going to do it in the UK?

Of course, when the Hinkley C plant proves to be uncompleted, financially ever more disastrous, and unnecessary by 2023 then we are unlikely to continue a policy of giving a blank cheque to nuclear power. And without that blank cheque it won't happen. But, I am not totally cynical. I think it is worthwhile campaigning against this, because otherwise resources could have been much better diverted elsewhere.

For some statistics and coverage see:

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/279546/DUKES_2013_Chapter_5.pdf

http://www.iaea.org/pris/CountryStatistics/ReactorDetails.aspx?current=263

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/energy/10688788/EDF-to-miss-its-own-deadline-for-Hinkley-Point-nuclear-decision-as-EC-state-aid-investigation-drags-on.html


Monday, 30 June 2014

Boost renewable energy by giving more energy powers to Scotland


As can be seen in the story and letter in the Sunday Herald, myself and others are calling for energy powers to be devolved in Scotland even if there is a 'no' vote on September 18th. Establishing a Scottish Energy regulator will boost renewable energy (and also, potentially energy efficiency programmes) by allowing Scottish authorities to alter regulations to allow electricity network companies to be more proactive in investing in upgrades of electricity networks.

Currently planned renewable energy projects are saddled with high charges for connecting their projects to networks because the costs of connection are assessed on a scheme by scheme basis. This is as opposed to the Networks being able to take a forward looking stance and invest in upgrades that will allow more schemes to be set up on the basis that they will be charged lower connection costs. This will benefit both large and small schemes, and community renewables projects above all who are the least able to argue with the grid connection quotes issued by the Network Operators.

Since network charges are calculated and paid by consumers on a network by network basis, such a change would have no consequences for consumers outside Scotland. So why should energy regulatory powers over such matters be reserved to Westminster and OFGEM?

A second idea promoted in the Sunday herald is that the Scottish Government should be given a big slice of the low carbon energy funds to allocate as they wish, rather than is at present happening where low carbon energy spending is being parcelled out to meet English priorities rather than Scottish ones. Scotland is not going to build any nuclear power stations. It wants renewables and it wants to be free to be able to choose the options and the levels and types of incentives for those options, which should not be dictated by English priorities. If a Conservative Government is elected then they will decide to ban onshore windfarms, and no doubt most of the money will, according to Tory priorities, be spent on nuclear power with a bit of funding maybe left over for English rooftop solar and English offshore windfarms.

In fact of course the low carbon programme would be much more cost effective if it was spent on onshore windfarms and onshore solar farms, both of which are being increasingly squeezed by political pressure from the Conservatives. Yet the Scottish Government could promote both these technologies as well as innovative marine technologies such as tidal stream technology, if it had control over some of the incentives.

Under Electricity Market Reform Scotland has been stripped of its powers to set incentives for renewable energy. The Treasury says that it will not allow the Scottish Government (SG) to set incentives that will increase consumers' bills outside of Scotland. But the Treasury could still apportion part of the funds that it caps for spending on low carbon energy (under the 'Levy Control Framework' - LCF) to be disbursed by the Scottish Government. That would not increase consumers bills outside of Scotland, and it would help solve an area of significant political conflict between Holyrood and Westminster.

But even the Scottish Labour Party, who you would think would be a bit more imaginative, has so far not embraced ideas such as these. The only mention of energy in their devolution discussion document issued in April was about Scottish Islands - but even that did not mention how giving more energy powers to the Scottish Government (SG) could help them, and the rest of Scotland of course. See

http://s.bsd.net/scotlab/default/page/file/26e0eb4bdf4c775d14_ram6b81bk.pdf

Why not? Do they prefer English Conservative priorities to predominate over Scottish ones? Or maybe they are so supportive of nuclear power that they want to stop any powers being given to Scotland to promote renewable energy? Surely not.

Among the three biggest unionist parties, the Liberal Democrats appear to leave the door open for enhanced powers for Scotland in the energy sphere. Points 167 and 168 of their document on a 'Federal UK' issued in 2012 say:

'matters such as energy policy and transport policy could
be dealt with by partnership-working, where the Scottish Parliament would
enjoy freshly enhanced rights to influence decision on these matters.
168. Strategic decisions over the National Grid, energy planning and the security of
energy supply, carbon trading and renewable developments are clearly of
importance to both federal and Scottish Governments. A more federal structure
lends itself to sensible decisions over the UK electricity market'

By contrast, Labour and Conservatives focus on taxation and spending powers in the economic/welfare sphere. OK, that's a very important issue, but in some ways they appear to be talking big whilst ignoring, or distracting attention, away from other very important issues - including low carbon energy issues. But there are big differences of priorities between Scotland and England on this subject, so this (low carbon energy) ought to be the focus of proposals on devolution.

The pro-independence parties are intrinsically advocating more energy powers being given to Scotland, and the Scottish Government's proposals certainly stress having a Scottish Energy Regulator. However, the lines of authority are not drawn as clearly as you might think. In the Scottish Government's 'Guide to An Independent Scotland' there is some ambiguity about the control over incentives for renewable energy. The SG appear to want the English to carry on paying for new renewables in Scotland whilst ensuring that the Scots do not pay for rUK nuclear power. After 2020, at least, that seems rather hopeful. There are thus still unanswered questions about who would pay the incentives necessary for new schemes in an independent Scotland.

I have argued, as the lead author of the 'DREUD Report', issued last December, that an independent Scotland in pursuit of its renewable energy targets would not necessarily be worse off in terms of electricity prices compared to continued union. Certainly this applies to a UK where everybody is lumbered with an expensive nuclear programme, especially if the Conservatives ideas of excluding most onshore renewables developments makes the renewables programme more expensive as well. However, it is not clear that independence would be superior to a 'devoplus' solution which included the reforms suggested above.

There is still a clear policy vacuum because the pro-independence parties (SNP and Greens) have not sketched out what they would prioritise in the way of further devolution the event of a 'no' vote, and the unionist parties' proposals are at best minimalistic and seem, for the most part, to imply something close to the status quo. We need also to have a discussion about the options for further energy devolution in the event of a 'no' vote on September 18th. Certainly one would hope that in this event the SNP and the Greens would come out with some clear plans for energy devolution - and hopefully they (and preferably also the unionist parties)  would take up proposals that would at least give effect to the aims expressed in the ideas in this blog.

For coverage of these issues in the Herald on Sunday see:


http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/home-news/energy-experts-call-for-scotland-to-have-power-to-escape-nuclear.24618125

http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/letters/control-of-energy-policy-is-needed.24604837