Sunday, 24 December 2017

Four ways in which society is institutionally ageist

The revelation in today's paper that some UK companies have been manipulating Facebook to show job opportunities only to under 35s is just a iceberg-style manifestation of the ageism that permeates society and handicaps a lot of older people from getting an even break. Society is institutionally ageist in at least four ways.

First is that Government's way of presenting the data hides the immense level of unemployment of older people. The official records show that unemployment in the 50-64 year old age group is relatively low. But this is a construction based on the exclusion of nearly a third of people in this age-group as 'economically inactive'. In fact the unemployment among older people is massive, and much worse than younger age groups once this is taken into account. Indeed those older people that are classified as actively looking for a job find it much more difficult (they remain unemployed for much longer than average) than younger people.

Of course the figures then assume that people over 65 don't exist for unemployment purposes. They've got a pension, so they don't count. People in this age group who complain about age discrimination in employment are just laughed at. From an economic point of view, never mind individual rights angle, this is really stupid.

If we want a better economy, we need more people working - as opposed to more people living off their savings or state benefits, which should otherwise be invested in sustainable production (solar or wind power perhaps?). Ok, we shouldn't force people to work when they've had enough - but why make it difficult for older people to do stuff when they want?

The second way that society is institutionally ageist is the way that there is an incipient (sometimes overt) bias against older people in employment. When I was 31 (that was in 1983 by the way) I remember going to an IT training event put on by some government agency. Big affair. I got to see an adviser who then told me that I was too old. Apparently this age discrimination is a big thing in IT still. Of course these days it is against the law to overtly discriminate, but sometimes the veil falls off the implicit discrimination, as is the case with the Facebook story revealed today.

To many of course, the fact that the establishment, with all its many ills, is run largely by older people acts to obscure the suffering faced by the not-so-fortunate older people. But when you look at individual cases of how older people have got the top positions you realise that it didn't have anything to do with their age. I was certainly not appointed to my current job at the University of Aberdeen (at the age of 60) because I was old. Really. Neither, (going a long way further up the food chain!)  was Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Leader, or Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Labour Party appointed to be leaders because they are retiree age. They got these jobs because of their reputation and respect among their relevant party members (or some of them!). Of course being around a long time helps you build up experience and achievements that impresses people, but that does not automatically follow just because you're old! But the fact that you are old can certainly detract from your appeal in many people's eyes.

The third way that society is institutionally ageist is a very obvious one. Calling somebody old is an insult (even though it shouldn't be). The very fact that it IS an insult and is routinely used, often without any reflection, is a mark of the institutionalisation of ageism in the very fabric of modern culture. If you want to insult a politician, call them 'old'. If you don't like the people who voted for Brexit, call them old - now that's really common these days. It's a way of avoiding the argument, of appealing to your base (mainly young people) - it's a reverse of what people attack Trump for doing in fact. I think leaving the EU is a bad move, but it's got nothing to do with the age of the people who tend to like the idea, and everything to do with the arguments about internationalism, peace, fraternity etc.

The fourth way that society is institutionally ageist is the notion that somehow old people are assumed to have a better deal than younger people. Well, some do, some don't. But on average they certainly don't have higher pay. Household income for the over 65s is, despite some improvements in recent years, still only three-quarters of the average younger people. What's so marvellous about that? There's also the not inconsequential fact that the oldies on average have rather fewer years of healthy life ahead of them than the younger people. Yes, there's a lot of problems facing younger people that need sorting ...housing, tuition fees etc etc. But don't take it out on the oldies please.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Why wind power costs are crashing and soon could plunge well below wholesale electricity prices

Wind power costs are plunging and it might not take too long before they get down to £40 per MWh, well below recent UK wholesale power prices which have been at £45 per MWh in recent times.

Offshore wind power costs have seen the sharpest decline, although falling prices for onshore wind should also be evident in the UK if only the UK Government were offering long term power purchase agreements (PPAs) for them as well as offshore windfarms. Anti-renewable commentators are still quoting costs for onshore wind power (£70-£80 per MWh) that are grossly out of date, relying on nothing more than than the fact that the Government have not offered any PPAs for them recently.

Recent offshore wind farm auctions in the UK, Germany, Denmark and The Netherlands have seen prices plunge to below £60 per MWh and predictions are being made that prices will carry on falling.  But why is this happening? This is a question that befuddles some anti-renewable energy think tanks and spokesperson who seem to think that some of the world's leading corporations are spoofing us all. But there's no spoof - it's happening.

But how can this be, given that until recently offshore windfarms have sometimes been costing £100 per MWh or more?

There are six reasons for this that I can see.

First, advancements in computer modelling techniques have led to better designs of wind turbine blades that can capture more energy whilst weighing much less than previously. This has allowed wind turbines to be built that are much bigger and thus whose blades can take in a much larger swept area without substantially increasing the cost of the materials involved.

Second, digital control over wind turbines also increases the amount of energy converted into electricity.

Together this means that, for example, a turbine can be built that produces twice as much as designs of machines previously installed whilst only modestly increasing the weight of materials involved. This on its own cuts the total costs by almost a half.

Third, the benefits of installing a much smaller number of turbines can be utilised because, for example,  there needs to be only half as much expense per output needed to install a machine that produces 2x MWh a year as opposed to installing 2 machines which each generate x MWh a year.

Fourth, fabrication and construction techniques for building the windfarms have been dramatically improved. For example, whereas it would previously have taken several weeks to install and commission a wind turbine in the sea (once the monopile or jacket has been emplaced), now it can be done in a single day. This saves very large sums of money in terms of hiring vessels alone.

Fifth, considerable reduction in 'supply chain' costs have been achieved. For example. wind turbine manufacturing companies in the past have out-sourced manufacturing of gearboxes, but now they are done 'in house'. The large production lines and very large sizes of offshore windfarms has made this more practical.

Sixth, the fact that some big multinational corporations are now seeing renewable energy as the central, rather than peripheral, aspect of their power generation business has meant that they will use their cheapest in-house financing means to support them. When it comes to the cost of servicing debts, guarantees made by the biggest companies will slash financial costs.

The most recent UK auctions saw PPAs issued at £57.50 per MWh for the Hornsea 2 and Moray Firth windfarms. But it has been suggested from inside the industry that the costs of such developments have already fallen to around £50 per MWh and that a further reduction of around 20 per cent is already on the cards.

Much concern has been expressed over the fact that it was said in the recent Budget statement that there would be no new money for renewable energy until 2025. Whilst this is very bad news for developing technologies such as tidal stream, this will not matter at all if wind power can be delivered for no more than the wholesale power price.

Of course this shouldn't be a signal for people to say the Government doesn't need to do anything to promote wind power anymore. That is because without long term guarantees of minimum levels of income industry will not build the projects. They are capital intensive meaning that investors need to know that they will get their money back, and for that they need income stability. In addition the UK is now running short of new windfarm sites simply because The Crown Estates have not issued any new licenses since 2009. Now The Crown Estates are poised to start as new round of licensing.

A further problem is a political one in that the Government has on its books a large capacity of almost undeliverable nuclear power projects on its hands which makes it look like (on paper) that the Government is meeting is non-fossil fuel construction targets, but in fact is not. Even if Hinkley C is built for example, it will soak up very large sums of money for a very long period of time that could be much more usefully deployed to support developing renewable energy technologies that do ha ve a chance of seeing their costs reduced.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The Leave Campaign's monster lie about £350 million a week wasn't their biggest

The Leave campaign's claim that after Brexit the UK could simply divert the money we pay to the EU into the NHS was certainly a whopper, but in terms of the implications for the UK it wasn't even the biggest. Not close. 

The biggest lie was the implication that the UK could, whilst leaving, have a sensible discussion with the EU about trade and come to a trade agreement that suited us just fine.

As the Leave Campaign said: 'we will have a new UK-EU trading relationship. There is a European free trade zone from Iceland to the Russian border and we will be part of it. The heart of what we all want is the continuation of tariff-free trade with minimal bureaucracy.'

This would happen because, in effect, the EU had no other option, as they continued.....

'The government will explore how the other EU countries and the Commission want to proceed. We will be helped enormously by the fact that the EU Commission, Berlin, and Paris now have an official roadmap for another Intergovernmental Conference and another Treaty centralising many more powers including over taxes with the EU. They think they need this to save the euro. It provides a clear opportunity for a new deal based on us letting them plough ahead while we take back control.' 

But despite the fact that this just isn’t happening the Brexiter leaders simply shrug their shoulders and say the consequences of us leaving the EU without any deal just won’t be so bad.

Instead, it seems, the UK will reduce  its environmental and social standards to undercut the EU and we’ll have a jolly old trade war with them. Quite apart from the inanity of imagining that reducing our social and environmental standards could be regarded as anything but a national disaster this outcome would render the Leave campaign’s whole premise – that a smooth passage to a free trade agreement was in the offing – to be a monstrous lie. Indeed it is an even bigger one than the £350 million a week claim’.

The fatal flaw in the Leave Narrative is that the UK was leaving the EU for essentially identity reasons – to preserve self determination (‘take back control’) whilst expecting that the EU would behave according to economic rationality. You know, of wanting to smooth the flow of manufactured cars etc to and from the UK etc.

But of course the EU has reacted in much the same way as us, that is politically, to defend their identity. Defending Irish (border-free) interests is now at the top of their agenda. The apparent current expectation by Brexiters, that the (nationalist) Irish polity, united as it is behind the goal of not letting the border return, will simply roll over after their leader tells them that the UK Government cannot deliver this, is ridiculous. The Irish went through three long civil wars in the 20th century over the border – a few patronising put downs by English politicians are not going to make the Irish give way!  Anything but! And, of course, Ireland has a veto over what is now looking like a wistful EU free trade agreement with the UK, even if the other 26 states weren’t prepared to back the Irish position, which they do of course.

Politics is full of unintended consequences, and an unintended consequence of the apparent refusal of the DUP to do what the Irish Govt wants (to guarantee that a hard(er) border will not return) is most likely to result in the UK remaining effectively in the EU.

Once Mrs May's effective acceptance of Northern Ireland being given a special status to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union is ruled out, there is  only one plausible way that a trade war and a semi-cold war between the UK and the EU will be avoided. That is for the UK to adopt not only the EU Customs Union but also the Single Market. That would give the same conditions for Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, would remove the need for border changes, and would avoid the (DUP-hated) border in the Irish Sea that would result from the Special Status proposal for Northern Ireland agreed (for a brief couple of hours) between May and the EU negotiators.

Now if the UK remained in both the Single Market and the Customs Union, then we would actually be much closer to full membership of the EU than Norway! Norway is not a member of the customs union and can make trade agreements with other countries. But the UK would, as Labour’s Barry Gardner described it, become a ‘vassal state’ of the EU. We would have our trade and regulatory policy decided by the EU but have no direct say in making these policies.

This would be an absurd situation, a strange parody of the Leave slogan ‘take back control’. Full membership of the EU would surely be much preferable to being a vassal state!

See the Vote Leave statement from which the above quotes are taken.

See also Barry Gardner's dismissal of the 'remain in customs union and single market'  scenario (ironic now that Labour seems to be pointing in that direction)

See the EU's attitude to threats from the UK that we might start a trade war: