Wednesday, 2 October 2019

How the Fixed Term Parliament Act has destroyed our constitution

The coalition between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives tore a gaping hole in the British constitution that was not understood at the time but through which we are now falling headlong. It has allowed a zombie Government to stagger about in the middle of the greatest British political crisis for several decades when in fact it should already have resigned.

The hole was created by the Fixed Term Parliament Act (FTPA) which was seen at the time as a clever expedient to ensure that the coalition led by David Cameron could not be easily dismantled. But it had the unintended consequence of destroying the carefully woven set of conventions that underpinned the notion of confidence in the Government.

The Government is apparently ignoring the pre-existing convention that it should resign if it loses a vote of confidence using the excuse that its wish to call an election has been thwarted under the rules of the FTPA. But the way our constitution has always worked is that whilst the outgoing PM had the power to call a General Election, this has been subservient to the fact that PMs have only stayed in office if they have the confidence of the House of Commons. You can see this in some examples quoted by Catherine Haddon, below. For example Baldwin resigned, in 1923, only after losing a vote on his Queen's Speech following the 1923 General Election to allow Ramsay Macdonald to form a Labour Government.

The way that the Government (aided implicitly by the Opposition in that they have so far not tabled a vote of confidence) have so far behaved is to make us look more unstable than Italian Government. In that case, as illustrated very recently, when it became apparent that he no longer had a Parliamentary majority (given Salvini's defection from the Govt), PM Conte tendered his resignation. He has only continued because a new Government coalition has been formed.

Yet Johnson, despite having no majority on the key issue of the day, has sat tight. The acid test of whether the British constitution has been totally blown is whether a) he will lose the vote on his Queen's Speech after October 14th and b) if he loses whether he resigns. If he does not resign, the UK will be an even bigger global laughing stock than it already is. Our constitution will be plainly totally shot, with conventions that no longer work in the light of the FTPA and the bankruptcy of British politicians.

It may not be the politicians' fault that there are deep divisions over Brexit, but it patently IS their fault that this zombie Government continues to stagger on. Either it should resign or the Opposition must no-confidence it under the terms of the FTPA if it won't go otherwise. Anything else is total lunacy.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Is Hinkley C going the same way as the French and Finnish EPR disasters??

As EDF announces major cost overruns and delays after having only recently started major construction works for Hinkley C, it seems that this project is heading for the same sort of financial disasters suffered already by the other two European Pressurised Reactors (EPRs) being built in Finland and France. Yet the Government is going ahead with a financial model, the 'Regulated Asset Base' (RAB) to finance the next EPR at Sizewell C, that would mean electricity consumers would have to pay for cost overruns over and above EDF's own ridiculously low estimates of costs.

EDF has announced cost overruns of up to £2.9 billion pounds and delays for HPC that almost certainly mean it will not be generating in 2025. This is on top of the already high cost of building EPRs - at a cost to the electricity consumer of £92.10 in 2012 prices (now over £100 per MWh), and even that is only so 'low' because the contract involves paying this price (inflation uprated) over 35 years!

EDF, in its statement issued today talks about the project being 'first of a kind' (in the UK). But the project is not 'first of a kind' at all when we look at similar designs being implemented in Finland (Olkiluoto) and France (Flamanville), still uncompleted over many years and with costs in these cases having risen to more than three times their initial estomates. Who would put any money on this being the last cost overrun announcement for Hinkley C from EDF? Certainly not me!

In fact EDF only started 'pouring concrete' on the base of the plant in Spring this year, so if there are cost overruns and delays projected now, much much worse is likely to come.

The most outrageous aspect of this affair is that EDF expect us to believe that Sizewell C will be substantially cheaper to build than even the projections EDF made before the latest cost overrun announcement. The Government has in effect agreed it will swallow such a projection by EDF and then undertake to saddle electricity consumers with cost overruns over and above these absudly low estimates.

With offshore wind costs having fallen to well under a half of the cost of Hinkley C, it seems especially odd that the Government should be giving financial preference to new nuclear power. Yet new nuclear power will make integration of renewables more difficult since the nuclear power will, according to their contracts, always run meaning more times that there will be excess renewable electricity generation. Of course, as suggested in the my last post, any excess renewable energy generation (which would happen even without nuclear power beiung on the system) could  be used to generate hydrogen (via electrolysis). This could be used in fuel cells to produce electricity when there was a shortage of wind or sun. This beggars the question, though, of why we are not investing in this technology alongside renewables rather than pouting more and more money down a nuclear black hole and slowing down the decarbonisaion process as a result.


Sunday, 22 September 2019

How renewable energy can provide its own reserve power through hydrogen

A regular complaint about variable sources of renewable energy is that they need so-called 'back-up' when the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow, but this problem can disappear if fuel cells powered by hydrogen are brought into play. When the electricity system is producing excessive quantities of renewable energy (as will happen as renewable generation increases) this energy can be stored in various forms, one form being hydrogen which can be stored and then used in fuel cells to produce electricity when it is needed.

An increasing number of demonstration projects are focussed on generating hydrogen from renewable energy sources using electrolysis of water. One project involves making hydrogen directly from seawater These systems (renewable energy-hydrogen-fuel cell) are coming down in cost as their constituent parts (wind and solar farms, electrolysis and fuel cells) all come down in price.

Fuel cell deployment is increasing at a rapid pace around the world as an option to provide back up power for buildings, displacing the role that has been performed by diesel generators. A fuel cell, if you like, is a sort of reverse battery in that it converts a fuel into an electric charge rather than the other way around. Fuel cells are considerably more energy efficient in creating motive power compared to internal combustion engines.

Of course we can use lithium or other types of batteries to reduce the need for 'firm' generating capacity to complement variable renewable energy (especially as the increasing amount of electric vehicles can use their battery power to, in effect, store power to be used in the grid). However the need for any fossil fuel or nuclear generating capacity can be completely abolished by building up the volume of fuel cells powered by renewable (so-called 'green') hydrogen.

As the amount of renewable energy generated increases, so the amount of renewable energy (RE) that is sometimes surplus to demand will increase. - The other side of the variable RE coin of course is that often too much energy is generated -  This surplus renewable energy (which will be available virtually free of charge) can be used for hydrogen production.

Of course this doesn't mean everything can be powered by hydrogen - many services are better provided by electricity. For example, electric rather than hydrogen cars seem to be taking hold in the market. In the provsion of ordinary space heating it is certainly much more energy efficient to use (electrically powered) heat pumps, either in district heating or individual houses, to provide heat to domestic and commercial buildings.  But we do have the resources to produce for some specialised hydrogen markets, and (besides fuel cells providing reserve power as discussed) this can include some specialised industrial heat markets and also aircraft travel.

Hydrogen powered aircraft seem, as a futuristic proposition, to have the edge on electrically powered aircraft since their weight might be a lot lower than that provided by batteries. This weight issue is not quite so crucial on the land, where the refuelling infrastructure that exists in the form of the electricity grid gives electric cars an advantage over hydrogen powered vehicles. However aircraft hydrogen powered flight might take off quicker (joke?) than battery powered planes.

After all, for example, there's enough offshore wind resource in parts of the North Sea to generate over thee times the energy consumption of the entire EU. See

But there is a note of warning to be sounded - we should make sure the increase in hydrogen use comes from electrolysis of water, not from traditional means of obtaining hydrogen from reformation of gas or coal - that is the opposite of decarbonisation.

Clearly what needs to be done is that rather than shovelling a lot of money down a nuclear black hole (eg the Government's plans for giving a huge handout to EDF via their proposed 'Regulated Asset Base' mechanism), they should be putting some money into encouraging deployment of fuel cells, electrolysis and hydrogen production from renewable energy.

The real reason why the Government abandoned their plan to cut university tuition fees

The story emerging that the Government has abandoned its intentions to cut student fees (to £7500 a year does give a boost to Labour and the Greens in their promises to end student fees, but it also ushers in a load of nonsense about the alleged 'poor value' of university education.

We live in a captialist consumer society where few people turn a hair at the conspicuous consumption that captivates society, yet the right wing press cannot stop spluttering with rage at the thought that some students get the opportunity to study subjects which they don't deem economically or philosophically worthy.

Yet the reality is that far from university education being overvalued it is grossly under-valued, even on market never mind philosophical criteria. People may rail at the spectacle of the not-so-trendy universities charging the full rate of student fees, but meanwhile the top earners get a tremendous bargain by their children being able to go to the highest ranking universities for little more than £9000 a year.

The really odd thing, if you want to look at things on a market basis, is not that the University of somewhere in the shires charges £9,250 a year but that few seem to realise Oxbridge, Imperial, UCL and others could charge an awful lot more if there was a real market in university fees. Just look at the USA where if you want a place at Harvard you're looking at paying $70,000 a year!

It seems the Government has too much to spend on Brexit preparation plans. This will no doubt include paying for the farm produce tariffs that will accrue once we leave the EU in order to avoid lots of British farmers going bust and blocking up the roads woith theoir tractors in protest if the Government doesn't help them. Hence the Treasury refused to fund a drop in fees - the other option, of course, that of just ctting university income would have achieved an incredible policy outcome if actually implemented. - Chaos on campuses as protests erupted and the threat by leading universities simply to go private and charge their own fee levels - with the result that fees at the highest ranking universities would increase by large amounts, the opposite of what the Government wants.

At the back of this is quite a lot of upper middle class disdain at the thought that universities should be open to people they think shouldn't get in (ie people who don't earn as much as them) - but of course these upper middle class people don't want to pay the higher fees that a really free market in university tuition would generate.

Of course a left of centre Government that wouldn't have to spend all the money involved in ameliorating a hard Brexit could afford to scrap all tuition fees and deliver university education as the public good it should be - for free.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

No it wasn't the wind turbines that caused the blackout but batteries are likely to benefit from reaction

In the aftermath of last Friday's blackout the usual suspects are blaming wind turbines', but that's not what the electricity market nerds are saying. They are pointing to the fact that big power outages have happened before the age of large-scale renewable energy penetration and that stories of crisis at the National Grid are well overblown.

I certainly remember the blackout of 2008 which was caused by the near simultaneous disconnection of Sizewell B (nuclear) and Longannet (coal), but then of course we did not see anything in the media about how it was all the fault of nuclear or coal-fired power plant. This time a large gas fired power plant tripped, followed a little later by a big offshore windfarm. Now there is talk of how the grid has become more unstable because of increasing renewable energy penetration (now around 35% of electricity on an anuual basis) and how, depending on people's interest a) we ought to stop this nonsense and get back to having real large power plant or b) we need more batteries and/or other stuff.

In fact such an approach is decried by top electricity system management experts such as Nigel Cornwall. He tweeted in response to stories that the National Grid was beset with a splurge of 'near misses' and last-gasp efforts:
 “Near misses” and “last minute contracts” is the way the system - and all electricity systems - is designed to operate. (National Grid) has done a huge amount to modernise it’s balancing services, and I am struggling to understand whose agenda this is. 
Two large power stations failed at the evening peak, when the system was already calling for more output/demand turndown. This was almost an occurrence of Titanic probabilities. You can of course contract for a huge amount of extra reserve but at immense cost to consumers'

Of course two big blackouts in eleven or so years is two big blackouts too many, so, reasonably, the public will expect action to improve the situation. People are looking at how to do this. Jeremy Nicolson, another electricity market nerd commented: 
'We'll have to wait and see what emerges from Nat Grid's report to Ofgem and other enquiries. But I suspect the cost of ensuring adequate frequency control so a double generator trip doesn't result in outages of the sort that occurred last Friday would not be especially high'. -

In recent times batteries have emerged as a much quicker and increasingly cheaper means of ensuring fast response to drops in system frequency (that can be caused by unexpected power plant breakdowns). But despite the fact that batteries are seen as a friend to renewable energy, some battery interests seem to be jumping on an alleged increase in system vulnerability to demand a big increase in battery provision. Now we could do with more batteires simply to replace the need for large gas fired power plant, but it is sad if battery interests are also peddling myths of greater system vulnerability due to renewable energy.

If we want to stop the occasional grand blackouts from happening, or at least make them less likely, then increasing battery provision is one among several options. One analyst, Thamas Edwards,  who works for the consultant company that Nigel Cornwall runs commented that besides batteries 'there could be other things such as changing the frequency settings on relays, which could be cheaper'.

The 2008 blackout:

recent coverage

Monday, 12 August 2019

Government in cynical ploy to boost northern election hopes with fanciful smr power plant

In what must count as one of the most cynical election ploys on record the UK Government has attempted to link a faltering and unlikely 'small modular reactor' (SMR) nuclear programme with target seats which the Conservatives hope to win in the North in the forthcoming General Election. The (so-called) SMR programme seems highly unlikely on financial grounds alone as it would require a massive Government commitment, and and on top of that engineering questions undermine the credibility of the programme.

The Government has issued a press briefing mentioning 'Sheffield City, Cumbria, Lancashire and Cheshire' as sites for the SMRs. Like many of Boris Johnson's schemes, this particular promotion has little grounding in reality and the promotion of these sites seems to have more to do with a cynical election ploy than serious planning of a nuclear power programme.

The UK's SMR programme, such as it is, is neither modular or small or, for that matter, much in existence. The Government are backing plans by Rolls Royce, and have promised an initial £18million, but in reality even to build one prototype plant would require Governmen to commit to spending over a billion pounds. This is because even if the cost of the reactor were to turn out close to what Rolls Ryce claim (£500 million) it would require an additional several hundred £million for the rector design to go through the required 'General Design Assessment' (GDA) required of all new reactors (by the Office for Nuclear Regulation). As if this was not enough, I understand that Rolls Royce have demanded, as the price of going through a GDA, a Government commitment to effectively underwrite several reactors requiring a Government commitment to raise several £billions before there is any chance of any power ever being generated.

This financial background alone suggests that this SMR plan is a fantasy that is even less credible than Boris's plans for a Thames Estuary airport or even a bridge between Scotland and Ireland.

However, basic engineering questions also suggest that that the SMR plans will go nowhere very slowly. The idea of building what is, in historical terms, a medium sized nuclear power plant (440 MW), defies the logic of nuclear power development since WW2. This has involved building steadily bigger reactors in order to, apart from anything else 'calculate down' (in the words of Mycle Schneider) the costs of nuclear safety measures. Smaller(er) reactors may (or may not) reduce expensive delays in construction time, but they are counterbalanced by the lack of economies of scale. Indeed the size of the proposed Rolls Royce SMR is roughly the size of the UK's first grid connected 'Magnox' reactors. The number and scope of safety measures required for new reactors has increased dramatically since the 1950s (extra containment, redundancy in primary and secondary safety injection systems, back up diesel generator sets etc), so intuitively a smaller reactor does not seem the way to go.

Ordinary engineering rules suggest that costs will not be lower per kW. eg you still need to make the same number of many of the parts (eg reactor pressure vessel) even thought the parts may be smaller; hence savings in cost do not reduce propritionately to size. Rolls Royce plans, whose own projections of cheap generating costs must be treated with a wagon-load of salt, are highly unlikely to go very far, apart from that is in terms of uselessly soaking up a few tend of millions of pound of Government funds.

We can expect a lot more of this bull and fantasy in September when Boris's notion of 'green energy' is launched. Like many of his other pronouncements they are oriented to to seduce people by their apparent simplicity, but in reality are fatally undermined by their impraticality. Such is the dark allure of populist politics.

Rolls Royce plans:

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Why Greens need a Progressive Alliance not a Lib-Dem-Green Alliance

As the UK faces the worst political crisis since WW2, with the political and economic dangers of a no-deal Brexit, the last thing pro-EU parties need to do is to actively split the forces trying to combat a no-deal. Yet, I fear, if a Lib-Dem-Green Alliance takes shape which treats Labour as a more or less  equal electoral foe compared to the Conservative and Brexit Parties, it may ensure a Boris Johnson victory. As far as the Green Party is concerned I am very concerned that they are moving towards a position of preferring the Lib Dems to Labour.

If it does become the case that Greens back the Lib Dems ahead of Labour in seats where Labour are the leading contenders with the Tories then I suspect that many Green Party members will wonder why they joined the Green Party in the first place. Even a deal involving Greens stepping aside to back the Lib Dems in contests with Labour could have disastrous impacts on the Green Party.

Now I want to make it clear that 'Remain' is my first option. However, simply having a general alliance between avowed Remain parties at the coming General Election may well play into the hands of what could well turn out to be a soft electoral alliance between Brexit Party supporters and Conservative candidates committed to tolerating 'no-deal'.

There was an effective soft alliance at the 2015 election between many UKIP sympathisers and the Conservatives; indeed it was a successful strategy so that where the Conservatives (committed to holding a referendum). were in close contention with Labour, including many northern seats, UKIP sympathisers often voted tactically for the Conservatives. Cameron won an overall majority. The danger of the current situation is that this general pattern could be repeated (with the Brexit Party replacing UKIP of course), this time in support for 'no deal'.

Ironically, as much as Jo Swinson may declare her dislike of Corbyn,  the main chance of getting another referendum is to get a (almost certainly minority) Government led by Corbyn to organise a three way referendum. This would be about whatever 'deal' he cooked up with the EU, remaining or no-deal. It is fairly transparent nonsense for Lib-Dems to claim that they will refuse to support a minority Corbyn Government (in confidence votes) so long it is following such a path. No, the Labour Party is not going to ditch Corbyn as leader in the week following a General Election at which the Conservatives have lost their majority. It strains credulity to think that the Lib Dems are going to (or even be allowed to) call another election in short notice (it could be very bad news if they did). Given that the Lib Dems cannot do a deal with Bojo, that doesn't leave many other options.

The Lib Dems were willing to be a full coalition partner in a five year austerity Cameron Government, tolerating xenophobic immigration initatives, Hinkley C, shale gas and so on, but are they seriously saying they won't even back a minority Corbyn Government on a short term basis? If they won't back Corbyn what would they do? Have another General Eection quickly so that Bojo could drive us into a no-deal Brexit?  And the Green Party is going to be at their side when this happens?

Having a pure Remain Alliance may work well in a place like Brecon where the Lib Dems are the most credible alternative to a 'no-deal is tolerable' Conservative, but it would be disastrous in a place like Peterborough where the choice was between a 'no-deal' candidate  and Labour. There was, in Peterborough, a wise decision not to have a pure-Remain alliance, but instead, to have an implicit soft tactical voting alliance to support the Labour candidate. That's the pattern we need. If, on the other hand Greens agree to back Lib Dems in battles where lib Dems and Labour are the leading contenders then whatever benefits the Greens get in return, strategically the Greens will then be dismissed as a an adjunct of the Lib Dems, and will lose left wing support.

If as seems very likely, there is a pattern of tactical voting between the Brexit Party and the Conservatives, then there needs to be an equivalent pattern of tactical voting between the anti-no-deal parties. Indeed, there ought to be one anyway, regardless of what Brexit Party voters do or not do. We desperately need to stop a no-deal? Comprendi? That's what I call a Progressive Alliance.