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 given 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 which can be encouraged by the issue of Government backed long term power purchase agreements (called 'contracts for difference', CfDs). This decentalised market led way 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: