Wednesday, 22 July 2020

How Scottish independence will boost green energy

If, as now seems likely, Scotland becomes independent in the next 5 years, green energy should get a major boost. A Scottish Government will have the unconstrained ability to offer contracts to supply low cost renewable energy which could be sold not only to England but also to a European continent eager for renewable energy. Meanwhile Scottish electricity consumer prices could be reduced by avoiding the extra costs of building nuclear power stations in England and Wales.

Opinion polls are showing more consistent support for independence these days, and the UK Government consistently talks to an English audience rather than a Scottish one as it negotiates the fallout from Brexit. The story from London that surely the Scottish people prefer being run from Westminster than being run from Brussels indicates just how little they understand Scottish nationalism. Many nationalists would say that they would prefer to be run over by a bus than run by Westminster!

It is uncertain as to what level of integration with the EU would transpire, but there would certainly be a lot of interest in building more interconnectors to trade with the European continent, perhaps via Norway. The Germans in particular may well be interested in boosting their renewable energy by buying in wind power from Scotland. Although there are still substantial potentials from onshore wind, and also lots of potential for solar power, even this is dwarfed by the massive amounts that could come from Scottish offshore waters, especially using the developing floating wind technologies. If, on top of sufficient renewables to power Scotland's own energy consumption, say  40GWe of offshore wind was installed, Scotland could earn a billion pounds a year if the Government charged £5 per MWh export levy. This would be a very useful sum, although only around a tenth of the income that used to come from oil and gas revenues in good years.

It seems most likely that Scotland would continue to be part of the British Electricity Transmission and Trading Arrangement (BETTA) - tearing up lots of expensive transmission arrangments does not seem to make much sense to either England or Scotland. OFGEM would be responsible for electricity trading throughout Britain while control over dishing out electricity generation contracts in Scotland would revert to the Scottish Government (SG). At the moment under the terms of Electricity Legislation regulations covering electricity generation are the preserve of the Westminster Government.

The SG would have the ability to issue its own long term contracts for electricity supply (and also set up trading in demand side management). Importantly Scottish electricity consumers would not have to pay surcharges to fund new nuclear power. Hinkley C will not be online anyway by the time of independence, and certainly nothing else in the way of new nuclear. Westminster could still threaten to stop the payments of renewable energy obligation certificates for Scottish windfarms (it did in 2014), but by 2024 all of the windfarms will have paid off the bulk if not all of their bank loans anyway.

Meanwhile the Scottish Government could issue many contracts for large amounts of renewable energy contracts for wholesale power prices that are no higher than what would be paid anyway. Currently the power to issue such contracts - called contracts for difference (CfDs) are held by the Westminster Government. But in the case of Scottish independence this power would be held by the SG.

In the extreme event that Westminster demands that Scottish people pay for English new nuclear power stations as a condition for continued participation in BETTA (the ending of which would disrupt English electricity markets), then, at least in the medium term, Scotland could have its own independent electricity supply system.

Scotland could balance the offshore wind variability with various methods, including bigger use of batteries to even out daily renewable fluctuations, but it could easily be 100 per cent renewable using ammonia or some other substance as a means to store renewable energy in the longer term. The renewable energy would be stored at times when electricity prices, and therefore the costs of the renewable energy. Then the stored energy would be generated using what are very cheap gas turbines or gas engines when there was not enough renewable energy, battery or interconnector based etc supplies to meet demand. An ammonia based long term storage system is not just fantasy. It is coming soon. A facility to convert renewable energy into ammonia as a means of storing hydrogen is actually going to be deployed in Saudi Arabia. See also coverage by 100percentrenewableuk.

Indeed, for those of us that support 100 per cent renewable energy, we could almost wish the Westminster Government to throw its rattle out of its pram and scrap BETTA. That could make Scotland a world leader, perhaps the world leader, in clean energy technology.

Friday, 3 July 2020

Why we should enthusiastically back solar farms in the countryside

As far as the prospect of solar farms in the countryside are concerned, I simply say 'the more the merrier'. Surely if we are facing a climate crisis then we should do our best to welcome cheap, clean, energy sources. And large scale solar farms that are now being proposed in quite large capacities are coming in very cheap to the extent that they are being developed on a 'subsidy free' basis.

Solar farms already constitute a very important contribution to renewable energy in the UK.   A little over half of UK based solar electricity is generated from them, the rest coming from domestic solar installations or on commercial properties. I do often hear the refrain 'they should put the panels on roofs, not on farmland' - too often as far as I am concerned. 

Well I'm certainly in favour of clearing away the contractual and regulatory obstacles that get in the way of putting solar panels on as many roofs as we can. However it is simply wrong to imply, if that is what people mean, that if planning consent for a solar farm is refused, then somehow the panels will magically reappear on some suitable roof somewhere else. They won't. We shall simply have that much less solar power generation. Neither are the solar farms easily transferable to some other piece of land that maybe preferred - land availability that is sufficiently proximate to the right electricity connections is in short supply.

Some say solar pv should not be on farmland. I disagree. Yes, there's a balance to be struck between localised food production and clean energy production - but in this case there's not really much of an argument that I can see, and not much of a balance. A small proportion of farmland in the UK will generate a massive amount of solar electricity.

Around 66 per cent of the UK is farmland, yet it would take coverage of  barely 1 per cent of the UK's land to generate the equivalent of the UK's entire current electricity production. That's not much of a sacrifice really - the benefits of the clean energy surely outweigh the loss of a very small proportion of farmland. Are we really, seriously arguing, that in the teeth of what we call the climate crisis, that this is beyond the limit of what we can sacrifice. Surely not!

I am afraid also that I completely fail to understand the aesthetic arguments that are sometimes posed against solar farms. I must say I have no sympathy with the landscape objections to wind power either, and think that the noise issues are invariably overstated, but surely the local impacts of solar farms are even less? You cannot see them from a long distance, and indeed, when you can see them from a medium distance you can hardly often distinguish them from strawerry net cloches and polytunnels. I haven't heard many people complaining about the sight of them!

 I don't see any biodiversity arguments against solar farms on farmland. Indeed, if they are placed on so-called 'prime' agricultural land they are almost certainly giving the land a break from the large quantities of chemicals that sterlise the land! I have heard arguments that solar farms will actually improve the biodiversity compared to intensive agriculture. What I am certain about is that they cannot be worse in ecological terms! The main difference will be that the land will be used to generate lots of clean energy rather than soak up chemicals!

If there are ever any ecological doubts about solar farms, it won't (in my view) be about the ones that are farmlands; rather this will be about the impact on areas of special wildlife interest. 

Indeed recently there was a planning controversy about the Cleve Hill solar park, which was given ministerial approval in May. The Kent Wildlife Trust were very concerned about the proximity of the solar park to protected wildlife areas. However, there were some changes made and the Trust commented: 'we have secured larger buffers to the ditches, more mitigation land and better management, so even if it gets permission it will not be as bad as the initial application, and some species may even be better off'. Now that's hardly a ringing endorsement, as they say, but it doesn't suggest to me that it is the end of the world either. 

On balance I am clearly minded to support this project. It is a project that is going to use come cutting edge technology, and it will also install some batteries that will help the balancing capabilities of the electricity grid. At 350 MW capacity this will add a substantial amount of solar generation. The UK's solar generation is currently up to around 4 per cent of UK electricity demand(from about 13.5 GW), as measured  on an annual basis.

And also I'm glad to see there should be steady flow of larger solar farms coming up in the future. Australian owned company Macquarie is planning an initial 1 GW.  It really should be a cause of great celebration that companies are planning solar pv farms without even any contracts being offered by the Government. We should be cheering, not wringing our hands over this.

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Ten years to save the planet - Jonathon Porritt's new book

Dave Toke has interviewed Jonathon Porritt about his new book 'Hope in Hell - a decade to confront the climate emergency'.

Porritt talks about 100 per cent renewable energy, opposition to nuclear power, electric cars, clean meat and the need to tackle population growth. To see the interview, go to:

Jonatthon Porritt is the most influential green political thinker in the UK and has occupied various leading positions in the green movement including Chair of the Green Partry in its earlier years, Director of Friends of the Earth in the period of its most rapid growth, Director of Forum for the Future and Chair of the Sustainable Development Commission.

He has written 10 books, starting with the seminal 'Seeing Green' in 1984, and in 'Hope in Hell' he mixes reviolutionary objectives and zeal with some reformist methods.

Monday, 29 June 2020

The populists are the deep state now! - and they are becoming unstuck

It is reported in the Financial Times by Jim Pickard that Dominic Cummings, a favourite of the Trumpian populists, has blocked implementation of Conservative manifesto promises to spend £9.2 billion on 'energy efficiency of homes, schools and hosptials'. He is reported to have said that energy efficiency is boring, and he wants to spend the money on new houses.

Apparently the Treasury and BEIS want to spend on energy efficiency to fulfill the manifesto commitment, but, it would seem, Cummings' view of the will of the people is not to be denied. Of course the Steve Bannons of the world claim that it is the career civil servants, closet liberals and socialists, who are the deep state.

But how can this be if it is the democratic wish of the nation as expressed through a manifesto which the self styled populists are trying to thwart? The Brexiteers have been keen on announcing that they are defending the will of the EU Referendum Result, but it seems now that it is just that the populists know best even when their views are different from what people voted for in a General Election. This attitude used to be called elitism!

Yet this instance of the blocking of energy efficiency is not an isolated case. There is now a creeping awareness that the so-called populist right, with their anti-statist and allegedly pro-personal freedom agenda, have backed the wrong horse when it comes to combatting coronavirus. They have made this a partisan issue, with their reluctance to support lockdown measures - or even to (in many cases) to embrace low cost measures such as facemask wearing, proper testing and proper contact tracing schemes.

But the majority of the population has not been going along with them. They have wanted strong measures to combat the virus, even if it means economic costs. The usual tropes of banging nationalist drums and blaming foreigners have certainly been tried (in the case of Trump and others), but people realise that shaking your fist at foreigners does not deter a virus. The populists are no longer so popular.  We can see this perhaps in the French local election results in which the far right slipped backwards. Hopefully we will see it a lot more in the US elections in November, although that is still sometime off.

But one thing that we need to do is to expose this theory about the deep state subvertng the popular will. The only deep state that is doing this is run by the right wing populists themselves. In the USA they have largely prevented an effective US response to the coronavirus, and in the UK they have damaged it. Who knows, but it may be that this virus crisis is the beginning of the end for the Trumpian populists.

Saturday, 27 June 2020

EDF sanctioned by French Regulators for not coming clean to investors over Hinkley C

The chickens are coming home to roost for EDF for their questionable decision to go ahead with building Hinkley C -  a decision they took despite the lack of certainty over whether they would get enough backing from the British Government. Originally EDF was publicised as being offered  UK Treasury loan guarantees that had been widely touted as a vital basis for building Hinkley C. But now the French Financial Markets Regulator has sanctioned EDF for not flagging up how conditional such loan guarantees were. These loan guarantees have never materialised.

Essentially, EDF is now continuing to build Hinkley C using money borrowed on its own balance sheets - borrowings which are much more costly than UK Government backed guarantees and which reduce its own (EDF) profitability. The Finance Officer of EDF actually resigned at the time EDF decided to go ahead with building Hinkley C.

There is a commentary on the French Financial Market Regulator's decision at Bloomberg:

The British Treasury wanted to see that EDF could demonstrate the completion of its Flamanville EPR reactor (the same design as Hinkley C) by the end of 2020. But this has long since failed to be likely to happen. No Treasury loans should have equalled no construction of Hinkley C. But instead the construction has gone ahead. Did the EDF management expect the French Govenrment to bail out EDF? About a sixth of EDF's shares are owned privately, the rest being held by the French Government. The French Government has been pumping money into EDF, raising the spectacle that, in effect, French taxpayers are paying for a nuclear power station in Britain!
I discused the crisis facing EDF in an earlier blog post:

Of course all this is happening at the same time when we are being asked to believe that the next EPR (at Sizewell C) is going to be delivered at low cost to the consumer if the risk of building the plant is transferred from EDF to the British taxpayer and consumer! This is the so-called RAB mechanism, something that could well just turn out to be an almost unlimited cash facility for EDF to park their financial black hole in the centre of British finances (as well as those of the French).

Will we ever learn?

Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Is ageism to blame for Sweden's covid debacle?

On June 17th, as new covid cases declined in the UK, Sweden's increased and Sweden posted more new C virus cases than the UK. This is despite the fact that the UK has 6.5 times as many people. This is especialy surprising given that overall, Sweden is on average much less densely populated and thus less naturally prone to easy covid transmission than the UK (and as is widely known, neighbouring Denmark Norway and Finland have had much lower death rates). 

But maybe it is less surprising if you factor in the very ageist profile of Swedish political representation and the rampant ageism that is said to happen in Sweden. Despite the fact that the over 65s are a quarter of the Swedish population only 2 per cent of MPs in the Parliament, the Rikstag, are over 65 and old age discrimination is intense.

Indeed whilst in the UK it seems to be the political right that opposes (and. no doubt, weakens) the UK's restrictive policy response, in Sweden, things are such that the nationalist Sweden Democrats are attacking the Social Democrat led Government in Sweden for its 'relaxed' attitude to the coronavirus crisis.

Of course there's many in the UK eager to promote the Swedish solution as a preferred strategy, but alas it often seems to go along with tropes about how the disease is mostly the problem of old men who don't have long to live anyway. Apart from the fact that many young people are worried about getting seriously ill, these ageist stereotypes, which seem to have taken over Swedish politics, are misguided. In fact the people dying of coronavirus likely have many years still to live, as discussed by the recent radio programme 'More or Less'.

But perhaps even worse than this the biggest losers of this trope are older women who are nearly as vulnerable to the old men to the coronavirus. Let's put it this way, if you are a 70-80 year old woman you might be 20-30% less vulnerable than a man of the same age, but you are still hundreds of times more likely to die than someone in their 20s. Old women are becoming invisible in this crisis. And the poorer you are, the worse are your chances.

Sweden has achieved much in terms of gender equality in the Riksdag in that practically half of the MPs are now female - but the success in sidelining the old males has obscured the fact that old women (who are usually poorer and less powerful than older men anyway) have very little representation. Gender equality is a vitally important aim, but it should go hand in hand with reducing ageism, not increasing it. More women MPs should mean an effort to get more older women MPs as well.

There's a big problem here. What it means in practice is that old people are now, in view of the covid crisis, are being ever more oppressed  through what should be called severe institutionalist ageism in Sweden. There's some pretty torrid tales that have come out of Sweden of the old being denied oxygen to fight off coronavirus. It would be disastrous politically if this state of affairs led to a far right party taking power in Sweden. But that now looks like becoming a serious possibility, and rampant agesim will be a significant cause of this.

Saturday, 13 June 2020

Blue hydrogen - a Trojan horse from oil and gas

The announcement by the German Government that their hydrogen strategy will include support for so-called blue hydrogen as a transitional measure must be regarded as a huge setback for a sustainable energy transition. Essentally what is being proposed is the propping up of oil and gas rather than the alternative – an energy efficient decentralised system based on renewable energy.
The danger is that the British Government will now follow suit.
Blue hydrogen is hydrogen produced from natural gas with the carbon captured and stored – with the caveat of course that the process, for cost reasons, is unlikley to abate more than 85% of the carbon content of the natural gas.
Essentially what the natural gas industry will succeed in doing with ‘blue’ hydrogen is to preserve their multinational gas extraction business by the trick of branding their product differently in different countries. Gas from the same fields will be either branded (further downstream) as ‘blue’ or nothing at all (in other words, normal carbon producting stuff).
Of course it will only be in a few places that the gas will be marketed as ‘blue’. I’m sure lots of fancy consultants will be employed to convince us that really blue gas comes from particular places, but the reality is that in a complex world of international gas trading such distinctions will be window dressing.
Instead of the spending extra investment to kick start the blue hydrogen distribution business we should be spending it on building up energy supplies from renewable energy.
The sort of scheme we should be supporting, indeed being made mandatory is like one being piloted in Wales. This involves local houses being power systems in themselves that generate, store and use the energy efficiently. The Swansea City scheme involves new energy efficient housing being built complete with solar pv panels, batteries and also heat pumps. This will lead to a system that (because of the efficiency of heat pumps) lead to carbon emissions that are 4xs (yes, four times) less than using ‘blue’ hyrdogen. Not only that but the system will also manage fluctuating renewable energy supplies in a way that avoids extra investment in peak power plants and also reduces investment in transmission and distribution wires.
It may be difficult to retrofit some existing houses with heat pumps, although fitting them to district heating systems powered by large scale heat pumps may often be possible. In such cases electric storage heaters can be deployed. These can also be managed so that their electricity use can be timed to fit in with the vailability of renewable energy, again so reducing investment in power plant and distribution wires.
Of course hydrogen has important uses – (although not in space heating where it is inefficient compared to renewable electriciytm, especially with heat pumps). Important uses for green hydrogen include making steel, fertiliser, shipping fuel, cement and storing renewable electricity – but here we should be making investments in green hydrogen – hydrogen supplied from renewable energy via electrolysis – not wasting the money on propping up the oil and gas companies. We face a crucial crossroads here. Do we want to channel lots of money into propping up the existing gas industry or instead use it to build up markets for decentralised sustainable energy?

For more information on how hydrogen might fit into a 100percent renewable energy economy, go to the website