Thursday, December 1, 2011

Exit from pv?

Although it is confident that Germany can obtain 100% of its electricity from renewables by 2050, the German Advisory Council on the Environment (SRU) has called for a major slow down on solar PV, which it claims is too expensive and could slow the overall programme down. This at a time when Feed In Tariffs (FiTs) for PV are being savaged across the EU- including in Germany.

Germany has been a leader in PV, which has boomed dramatically under the Feed In Tariff system it pioneered. That was copied elsewhere and led to similar booms- initially in Spain, but also in France and Italy. And even finally in the UK. But the boom came at a price- increasing the cost pass-through to electricityconsumers bills. In theory, as PV boomed and the market built, prices should fall, with tariffs being progressively cut via the built in degression mechanism, so the extra cost to consumers should fall. But that process doesn’t seem to have worked well enough or quickly enough. The boom and the module price fall was too fast, leaving the tariffs too high. Given the recession, and sensitivity to consumer prices, governments have panicked and stepped in with extra cuts, or emergency capacity caps.

In the case of Spain, this was arguably done too harshly, resulting in a crash in the PV market. That left lots of PV modules unsold, so their price fell, stimulating faster uptake elsewhere, notably in Germany, until it too slapped on tariff cuts- most recently up to 15%. The UK, a latecomer to the party, has just imposed cuts of up to 72%. So a classic boom and bust scenario played out- further accelerated by the import of cheap Chinese PV modules. The down side reaction was also stimulated by hostility to PV and to FiTs from right wing free-marketeers and their allies in some of the large power utilities. The media dutifully relayed stories about vast extra costs being loaded up on consumers, as if PV and FiTs were the main reason why energy costs were rising, justfying the drastic cuts by the mostly right of centre governments - including the UK. All of this has shaken confidence in PV and the FiTs. It is in this context that we might see why SRU had recommended backing off from PV. Are they right?

SRUs retreat

You might see a strategic withdrawl from PV as being a wise thing in the current political and economic climate, so as to be better able to defend other renewables. But throwing PV out of the mix is an odd idea. Economically it’s almost certain to get very much cheaper, so if the FiT price degression system can be amended to take that on board more effectively, there should be fewer problems. After all the worst is now over- the initial high prices are falling. And SRU’s technical case against PV is not that strong- yes it doesn’t work at night and so you need grid backup/balancing, but PV can make a lot of sense for day time occupancy buildings, for summer air-conditioning and for topping up night time storage heaters during the day. More generally, although load factors are low, we are going to have to get used to balancing variable supplies, as we have more renewables on the grid. SRU may be right that PV will make it harder, but it’s a huge resource well suited to access via roof tops, easy to install and run-with no moving parts to go wrong. It may have been unwise to try to use FiTs to get its initial very high price down rapidly, but that doesn’t means the technology is rubbish. Or that FiTs are no use.

FiTs to go too?

SRU backs FiTs for offshore wind and other renewables, though it’s interesting that they also talk favourably of tendering mechanisms (e.g. for offshore wind farm grid links), and point to the UK Non Fossil Fuel Obligation. That’s very odd. NFFO was very ineffective at building renewable capacity- low bids were put in and accepted, but projects often couldn’t be delivered in practice. Why on earth repeat that? Though of course that’s what the UK government now wants to do- with, instead of a German style fixed price FiT, auctions linked to the proposed ‘Contracts for a Difference’ market-based system.

In part the sub text here is all about supporting nuclear, which is likely to do well under the CfD system, but it’s also being presented as a way to avoid the boom and bust syndrome that is allegedly associated with fixed price FiTs. Thus Tim Yeo, chair of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, talks of ‘an automatic mechanism for feed-in tariff strike prices to respond to changes in cost and thus avoid the problems seen recently with the solar PV feed-in tariffs.’

The German government is trying to do something similar with its FiT system, to keep PV on track. SGU says this won’t work, or at least that it won’t be enough, and wants to back off PV dramatically to avoid the problem. That certainly risks playing into the hands of those who are opposed to FiTs, PV and indeed, you could argue, renewable generally. But what’s the alternative? A seriously revised FiT system would also probably slow PV down. In the UK PV is mainly to be supported, not by the CfD, which is seen as being for the larger options (offshore wind, nuclear and CCS), but by the UK’s small FiT, the Clean Energy Cashback system- if that survives. PV may therefore be boxed up.

Wind better?

Standing back from the fray, it does all seem a little odd. The UK FiT cost consumers a massive £1.40 extra on their annual electricity bills, and even though DECC says this could rise to £26 by 2020, that’s still tiny. Their cuts would they say take it down to £3. Does this make sense? Isn’t it worth investing in this new technology? Or are there better uses for £26 per head per annum? Some say it was wrong to try to accelerate PV via the FiT, but that has teased out capital from those who could afford the investment cost. True, they then have been well rewarded by the FiTs, paid for by all the other consumers, and that can be provocative in a recession. Compared to the UK, that’s been less of an issue in Germany, where the uptake of PV has been so much wider across the population.

Even so, the ‘opportunity cost’ issue is still important. Would it be better to spend this money on, say, wind - since it’s cheaper? That begs the question of whether the money would be available- an attraction of PV is that individual consumers can buy it for their homes. Micro turbines apart, that’s not an option for wind. That said, the German FiTs main success has actually been in supporting wind, now at 27GW, compared to 19GW for PV. The German wind boom has been helped by the fact that, as in Denmark, many projects are locally owned, so spreading the benefits. There are also some solar co-ps, but SRU says the focus should now be more on wind. Is that the way to go?

* ‘Pathways towards a 100 % renewable electricity system’, SRU

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Free market contradictions

The basic tenet of free market capitalism is that trade should be free, unencumbered with state controls and intervention. In reality there is nowhere that complete market freedom actually exists- even the most rapacious capitalists have come to terms with regulation, taxes and so on to reflect wider longer-term social and environmental concerns. But free market enthusiasts do usually draw the line at the state trying to overstep the mark by intervening to support selected technologies via subsidies. That’s almost as bad a state socialism!

You can hear complaints along these lines emerging from the likes of the increasingly oddly named Renewable Energy Foundation in its new Green Mirage report and also from climate contrarian Lord (Nigel) Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation. A bit more surprisingly (although see my previous Blog), a new University of Califonia Berkeley study seems to adopt a similar stance.

The basic argument is that free markets are undermined by subsides and government intervention, leading to less then optimal economic development. But they go further and attack some of the usual economic justifications for intervention - e.g. that countries who get into an area first have a competitive advantages over those who follow. Instead they say, ‘first mover’ advantages are overstated, and it can be better to wait until new technologies are developed by others before buying into them- if they succeed.

This is a form of risk aversion- it says leave the risks of innovation to others. Capitalise instead on less risky market activities e.g. building and controlling markets for exsting products and (especially) services. To some extent this is what the UK has done in recent years. You could see it as a ‘losers’ approach- abandoning involvement with the cutting edge of new developments. That’s sometimes what leftists say we have done- but they tend to link it with claim that the UK has also abandoned industrial production. However it’s more complicated than that. Business school theory argues, with some justification, that the most lucrative parts of the ‘value chain’ are at the front and the back- product innovation /R&D can be cheap but yield huge profits if it works, and there can be huge gains by adding value to products via clever marketing. By contrast production itself is a mugs game, with small profit margins: leave that to others. In the case of the UK we seem to have limited our engagement in R&D and focused most on services and marketing.

For free market enthusiasts that’s presumably fine. It may have come a bit unstuck with the collapse of financial sector confidence, but the remedy is more of the same- not Keynesian reboots of the economy via state programmes and subsidies, green new deals and the like. And so we have REF, GWPF et al sounding off about the horrors of subsidies and specifically saying that we should not privilege renewables, for example, over other low carbon options. Which these days seems to include nuclear, with, for the UK, the technology being bought in from France!

So REF take the ‘One Million Jobs’ report by the Campaign for Climate Change apart- claiming that there will be no significant jobs from subsidised investment in green energy, while GWPF argue that this is partly since it is , and will remain, more expensive than other energy options: ‘there is little evidence that there are large additional economies of scale or learning to be gained, except perhaps for solar thermal equipment. Indeed, US figures suggest that the average cost in real terms of both wind and solar power installations stabilised and/or has been increasing since the middle part of the decade 2000-09. It is unlikely that there is some large reduction in the costs of renewable energy which can be achieved without a major shift in technology’.

So how does this view square with reality?

Solar PV is one new emergent technology - and it’s being progressed rapidly by China, using huge loans from the Chinese Development Bank, which are helping Chinese solar companies push American solar firms out of the market. As Stephen Lacey reported for Grist (part of the Guardian Environment Network) last Sept. ‘In 2010 alone, the bank handed out $30 bn in low-cost loans to the top five manufacturers in the country. This has enabled China's solar producers to grow to GW scale in a very short period of time, turning the country into a leading exporter of solar and pushing down prices dramatically’.

Aggressive, but good to see prices falling - and surely fair under free trade rules. But with some spectacular US company failures (including Solyndra and Evergreen), the US solar industry has been pressing the government for protection against ‘dumping’. An alternative, more progressive, approach would be to compete on technological innovation. GTM Research has noted that ‘It will be difficult for the U.S. to compete with China at its own game - namely, high-volume manufacturing of a commoditized product -given the cost advantages available for Chinese manufacturing. However, the U.S. can and should continue to develop and commercialize innovative technologies that offer lower costs than traditional panels. These new technologies are generally proprietary, require a more skilled labor force, and are difficult to duplicate’.

That could be risky - and may need government support. But that can be justified economically- as well as more generally, in terms of protecting jobs and the planet!

However the University of California Berkeley report is unmoved by ‘common arguments for subsidizing renewable power – green jobs, energy security and driving down fossil energy prices’ . But it does admit that ‘the role of intellectual property spillovers is a strong argument for subsidizing basic science research’, although it still insists that it is ‘less persuasive as an enhancement to the value of installing current renewable energy technologies’.

Oh dear. With negative views like this becoming common in the reaction to Obama’s already watered down intervention polices, it looks like the US could end up trying to rely mainly on shale gas...
• REF report:
• GWPF report reports/hughes-green_jobs.pdf
• University of California Berkeley study

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Centralising power - markets rule

‘For the first four decades of its existence the U.S. nuclear power industry was run by regulated utilities, with most companies owning only one or two reactors. Beginning in the late 1990s electricity markets in many states were deregulated and almost half of the nation's 103 reactors were sold to independent power producers selling power in competitive wholesale markets. Deregulation has been accompanied by substantial market consolidation and today the three largest companies control more than one-third of all U.S. nuclear capacity. We find that deregulation and consolidation are associated with a 10% increase in operating efficiency, achieved primarily by reducing the frequency and duration of reactor outages. At average wholesale prices the value of this increased efficiency is approximately $2.5 bn annually and implies an annual decrease of almost 40 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions'.

You can read this bit of analysis, from researchers at the University of Berkeley, California, in variety of ways. Free market enthusiasts may see it as confirming the wonders of competition and the horrors of state regulation; liberals (in the US sense) may quail at the spectacle of 'reconsolidation' and the creation of powerful monopolies- able to control prices as they see fit (e.g. not passing on any savings to consumers). UK observers might note that 'liberalisation,' or what we call privatization, initially created a lot of small power supply/ distribution companies, who later got swallowed up into a few foreign owned giants, big enough to run nuclear plants. And, allegedly, to do that more efficiently, as in the USA. However, consumer prices haven't benefited much, indeed they (and profits) seem to march relentless upward, with minimal regulation and a continued enthusiasm for nuclear.

Faced with all this, nostalgic lefties may look back to the days when the whole UK power industry was nationalized and managed in an, allegedly, more coherent and planned way. Lastly, environmentalists may look at the last sentence in the quote above and ask, are these carbon savings real- wouldn't you have got more cash and carbon savings by investing in renewables/ energy efficiency.

So the Berkeley study seems to raise more questions than answers. For example, if degregulation makes the market safe for nuclear, is that a good thing? Has liberalisation led to investment in new more efficient plant and distribution? Does 'concentration' improve the level of service and security of supply? From what has happened in the US in recent years, the answers to all these questions seem to be 'no'. After deregulation, California famously suffered major power blackouts, as a result of the lack on investment in new plant and grid infrastructure- that in turn being partly due to the high cost of running the increasingly uneconomic nuclear plants. Price hikes followed to try to keep the show on the road.

If deregulation and privatisation continue as the major theme world wide, we can expect more problems like this- outages and endless price hikes. Of course attempts will be made to blame this on the enchroachment of renewables- leading to higher costs and grid instability, due to the variable outputs of wind farms and so on. It may well be true that prices will have to rise initially in order the set up a sustainable energy system, and that one option for balancing grids is to have dynamic demand management- i.e. rephasing some loads from peak times. But once the system is fully in place, running cost should be lower, even given the extra costs of grid balancing- indeed peak shaving/ time shifting should cut costs.

All of this would get much easier if we could reduce demand and also avoid nuclear- the latter just pushes prices up and gets in the way of a flexible, interactive grid system. Otherwise we may have to prepare ourselves for more chaos. Interesting then that the International Energy Agency has just published a report on 'Dealing with Temporary Shortfalls in Electricity Supplies', which includes 'problems in electricity market liberalisation' as one possible reason why we might have to resort to 'saving electricity in a hurry'. Others include 'heat or cold waves', no doubt worsened by climate change, and 'safety problems at power stations', as has now been demonstrated so starkly in Japan.

You won’t get any sense of these looming problems if you read the tirades against ‘wasted subsidies’ on renewables emerging from free market enthusiasts like the Renewable Energy Foundation and Lord (Nigel) Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation. They seem to be so concerned about the short term costs of subsidues, and what they see as their negative impacts, that they are willing to forgo what others see, given the inevitable rise in cost of fossil fuels, as the longer term benefits of developing future-proof renewable energy systems.

See: and

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Greening the UK

Can the UK become a power-house for the green industrial revolution? The potential is there- the offshore wind, wave and tidal resource could if fully harnessed supply six times our electricity needs. But the government is relying mainly on inward investment to try to get offshore wind turbine manufacturing going in the NE and Scotland. That's a bit dicey- the US company Clipper wind has just pulled out of the giant 10MW Britannia Turbine project that was to be based in Newcastle. But Siemens, Vestas, GE, Gamesa are still planning major offshore wind turbine manufacturing investments in the UK.

The government has set up a series of new Enterprise Zones, with reduced planning controls and lowered business rates to help. Building on that, Hull is developing a 'Humber Estuary Renewable Energy Super Cluster' fussing on offshore wind turbine manufacturing. But this is all just good old fashioned regional business support policy, backed by cash strapped local councils, desperate for jobs, with very little money coming from central government. The government is more lenient about supporting nuclear (while saying there will be no state funding!). That's what the radical new Electricity Market Reforms are all about, via its new proposed market-led variable price 'Contract for a Difference ' (CfD) Feed In Tariff (which is not really a FiT at all). In the end it’s the consumers who will pay.

Some see the greening of the UK coming from the bottom up. But smaller scale stuff just took a big hit- the government has imposed savage up to 72% cuts to the existing (Labour government initiated) 'Clean Energy Cashback' (CeC) Feed In Tariff , for PV solar projects over 50kW. When the CEC was first introduced, it had a project capacity limit of 5MW- higher than some had envisaged. DECC explained ‘We want to give ourselves a bit more flexibility... to include projects like schools, hospitals and community schemes’. But now the effective ceiling is 50kW for PV. So no more community scale projects. That really is a preliminary to switching over to the CfD, which seems designed mainly to help big projects and especially nuclear. More FiT cuts are likely- the last Budget called for £40m to be shaved off it. In energy terms the CeC FiT is marginal stuff (it’s only expected to deliver 2% of UK electricity by 2020), but locally may be worth fighting.

Overall though the governments approach is all about spending less- and getting us all to expect less from the state- and also do more for ourselves and others in the wonderful new Big Society. So the emphasis is increasingly on personal action, and low cost 'nudges’, rather than politically sensitive financial or other aggressive measures aimed at changing consumer (or company) behaviour. Or on investment in new clean technology.

The Cabinet Office has just published a study of 'Behaviour Changes and Energy Use' which reviews 'ways that do not require a new legislative initiative or spending programme'. My favourite example of that was a New Zealand government campaign which included the use of the slogan: 'If you sing in the shower, choose shorter songs'.

Some of this may be useful for reducing demand, but some might feel that what we are seeing is an attempt to reform peoples behaviour and expectations so as to fit in with the 'needs' of an unregulated profit-led market and whatever technologies it happens to favour. Shale Gas is the latest, which may even replace nuclear, which may be looking a bit problematic to investors, as of course do most renewables. Apart perhaps from genetically modified advanced biofuels for cars and aircraft, and maybe a bit of wind power to run overnight-charged electric cars. As well as a few micro-generators flogged direct to consumers.

To be fair that is one area where the government does seem to be stepping in with real money, via the grant-aided Renewable Heat Incentive. But one of the main domestic micro-gen options they seem to be keen on is heat pumps, which could be because they would use excess overnight electricity from the nuclear plants the government is also still keen on.

Some of this may be seen as green, but otherwise we seem to be a long way from a sustainable energy future or a new industrial revolution.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Energy after nuclear

With public opposition leading the way, nuclear power is on the defensive nearly everywhere around the world, even in France, where a poll in June showed three quarters of the French people interviewed wanted to withdraw from nuclear, against 22% who back an expansion programme. Globally opposition is running at around 62%, with massive majorities in Italy, Germany and Mexico being against - 94% in Italy’s recent referendum .

Local agitation and grass roots reactions, following Fukushima, has forced governments and parties to rethink- famously in Germany, Switzerland and Italy. Japan has now said it wants to exit from reliance on nuclear, in favour of renewables. And so also now, perhaps, may France, with presidential elections due in May and a policy review of options for future energy mix underway. Energy Minister Eric Besson said ‘We will study all possible scenarios. It will be done with total objectivity, in full transparency, without avoiding any scenario (...) including the scenarios of a nuclear exit.’ One scenario would be a total exit from nuclear by 2050, or even 2040. Reuters noted that shares in EDF, which runs 58 nuclear reactors in France, ‘fell nearly 1% after news that France would examine a full exit from nuclear’.

While the centre-right UMP party mostly supports the extension of nuclear, the opposition Socialist Party has called for a moratorium on new reactors and pledged a national debate on energy transition if elected in 2012. That leaves the UK as one of the few remaining safe havens for nuclear in the western EU, with strong support from the government and only around 52% of the pubic opposing new nuclear. We need to try harder.

Given that France gets 74% of its electricity from nuclear, the French example should help (if they can consider a phase out, anyone one can- the UK only gets 18% and falling), even if cynics may feel that the new French energy review will end up ‘proving’ that France needs nuclear, much as some fear that the German phase out will falter, since not enough investment in renewables will occur, so that nuclear will be ‘needed’ again.

In case a French phase out sound hopeless, do remember that the 74% figure is just the electricity generated at the plants. Some of this is used by the plants themselves and for new fuel fabrication and spent fuel reprocessing (maybe 10%), and some is exported. And then a lot is lost in transmission and distribution (maybe another 10%) on the way to users. Also remember that its only electricity, and that’s typically only about a third of total energy use (even in France which uses a lot for heating). Nuclear generated 410 TWh/y at plants in 2008, with 60 TWh/y being exported, while total primary energy uses was 1,860 TWh/y in 2007. So nuclear met just 22% of France's recent energy demand (if non exported), or 19% with current export arrangements. For comparison, renewables were supplying 12.9 % of primary energy in 2010: IMG/pdf/Rep-env-eng.pdf

So, if nuclear went, it would not be such a huge loss as may first be thought, and given that most of the plants were built around the same time, in the 1970 and early 80,’s , there will be a need for some sort of replacement of them all soon. Now is a good time to take a new path.

That certainly is what Germany is trying to do. It is phasing out all its nuclear plants by 2022. Cynics say that will mean it will use more coal. But actually it is still planning to meet its carbon targets, and expects to do that by a combination of much expanded renewables (35% by 2020 and then in stages up to 80% by 2050), energy efficiency savings, and a switch to natural gas as an interim option. However it can cut emission from some residual coal and gas burning via Carbon Capture and Storage. That will be useful since, for some while, there will be a need for some fossil-fuel backup for the variable renewables, even though the fossil backup plants will only have to run at full power occasionally- and can gradually convert to using biomass.

Of course there are limits to how much biomass and biogas they can get, so they will also need other approaches to balancing variable renewables. There are plenty- most obviously pumped hydro storage (they are building more). And also supergrid links across the EU and beyond, exporting excess wind and solar power and importing green energy from those that have excess, when wind/solar is low in Germany. Geothermal is also being pushed ahead.

In addition, there is also another newer idea- generating ‘green gas’ via electrolysis, using electricity from renewables when there is excess- and then storing it for use when there is lull in renewables. That produces hydrogen, which can then be converted into methane gas – using some CO2. Gas is easy and cheap to store and transmit to where it is needed for heat and power generation, and can also be used in vehicles. Biomass could be used as a carbon feed stock: in effect you would be upgrading it by adding hydrogen. And then, if you also have CCS, and assuming the biogas is produced from renewed biomass, the overall process is net carbon negative. The same would be true if you used CO2 from the air as feed stock, but ‘air capture’ of CO2 is currently very expensive.

Green gas sounds a wonderful idea, providing a truly carbon- free, and indeed potentially carbon negative, back up to intermittent wind power and variable solar power . But won’t all these energy conversions be very inefficient? Well it’s not too bad, since you can use some of the waste heat, though there are still some losses. See the paper from the Fraunhofer institute/ Kassel University at But you do get a flexible storage system. Just what you need if you are going for a massive expansion of renewables. And it’s a way to get valuable green gas without using so much biomass - and land. More at

Some clever green chemistry to see off nukes!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Community energy: small is big

Local community initiated and run renewable energy projects have been very common in Denmark for many years- about 80% of the wind generation capacity is locally owned. It seems to be one reason why local opposition to wind is much lower than in the UK, where there are very few locally owned projects. As the Danes say ‘ your own pigs don’t smell’.

It’s similar in Germany where many wind projects are locally owned. The local ownership idea has also spread to other technologies. As well as being a leader in wind, Denmark, makes a lot of use of district heating, and it is now developing some solar-fed heat networks, with some of them being run as community cooperatives.

So how far have we got in the UK? The Bay Wind co-op in Cumbria was the first breakthrough, and several more wind co-ops have followed including Westmill near Swindon:

Scotland has been the home to several more projects, the most recent being the community wind power scheme at Udny, Aberdeenshire, which started up last year to be followed by Torrance Farm Community Wind Energy project at Harthill. AAT in Wales has been trying to do the same thing. But it’s up uphill struggle, not least to raise finance. The Renewable Obligation is not much use for smaller schemes- it’s designed for large-scale commercial projects. On the continent the various Feed In Tariffs were by contrast much more use, and the UKs small new FiT may now help here. There had been hopes that some community owned solar farms could emerge, but the FiT for large PV projects has now been drastically cut back- by up to 70%.

However, the new scheme, backed by British Gas, is promising. To help community energy projects get off the ground, it has launched a special consumer tariff designed to help fund such projects. Its EnergyShare scheme is being run in partnership with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage. It will pay £10 into a fund for every year that the customer stays on the tariff. Individuals and communities register their projects on the EnergyShare and consumers who are on the tariff will vote for projects they want to support. British Gas has pump-primed the fund with £500,000. It has a target of reaching £15m, which means signing up 290,000 customers. Approved community projects will be able to bid for up to £100,000 each, and it could eventually fund about 150 projects, although many hundreds of groups have registered projects on the site.

More at

This lets you create a group and invite others to join or support you to help with your funding application. Or search for a group in your area to join:

If you’re looking for inspiration, check out these films about what others have achieved and how you can get started:

You’d almost believe that David Cameron’s Big Society ‘self help’ localism idea was real, reading this! That issue was explored in a recent Radio 4 programme which asked, did the ‘Big Society’ have any relationship to Schumachers 1970's ‘Small is Beautiful’ idea?

The conclusion was that there were some overlaps with Cameron’s policies, but also some major conflicts: not least that Schumacher was profoundly anti- nuclear, as a large scale dangerous centralised technology. There is also the fundamental issue that the underlying aim of the Con Dems is to cut state support and ‘Big Government’. So of course they like local ‘self reliance’. That doesn’t make self-help bad, but they see its practical impact as small.

Last years new National Policy Statement commented: ‘The Government has put in place financial rewards as it would like to see decentralised and community energy systems make a much greater contribution to our targets. Whilst the Government believes that these measures have a very important part to play in meeting our energy and climate change objectives, they will not enable us to meet these objectives on their own’.

The implication is that we also need big stuff- like nuclear power. In theory that’s not meant to be state subsidised, but it’s now becoming pretty clear that it will be- one way or another. For example nuclear operators insurance liability is to be limited to the first £1bn in any episode. The rest would be met by taxpayers. Fukushima looks likely to costs Japanese taxpayers many hundreds of billions.

It’s hardly surprising then that, when given a change to vote on the nuclear issue, most taxpayers oppose new nuclear overwhelming- 94% of those voting in the Italian referendum on nuclear voted against it. And interestingly, even in France, a MORI IPSOS opinion poll now shows 67% opposing nuclear power, with there being signs of a break up of the long running support amongst the technocratic elite. But it’s not the same everywhere. The UK figure was only 50% against. And with the UK government keen to support investment by EDF and E.ON, and Germany, Italy, Switzerland, along with Denmark, Austria, Ireland, Norway, Portugal, Spain, and Greece, and even perhaps now France, all being off limits, the UK now looks like the main site for EU nuclear expansion.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Call me Dave

I had a dream last month in which I had to sell the idea of a sustainable energy future to a bunch of sceptics who were high tech free market enthusiasts, beloved of capitalism. One seemed to be David Cameron. My answer went like this.

Centralised political, economic and technological system are complex and in theory are held together by market forces. Market info flows (and elections) ensure that what consumers (and voters) want drives the system. In reality, many of the agencies and corporations actually run internally via strategic planning - on lines which would make Stalin proud! And they try to make sure that we want what they want - again all very Soviet. Cybernetic information theory says we can do better than this- we can have instant electronic feedback on needs and preferences. Up to a point, the current system has adopted some of this, as long as it doesn’t challenge basic patterns of ownership and control, and the distribution of power and wealth.

Decentralists and ecologists (and, dare I say, green socialists) think we can do better still, by changing the structure as well. By making more components of the system self-managed, as happens in nature, although set within an overall framework of homeostasis- balancing and protecting overall system priorities (survival being a central one, along with reproduction). Philosophers have tried to describe society like this (e.g. Hobbes’ Leviathan - though with a king!) and anarcho-syndicalists and their ilk have tried to create societies run this way. Some worked briefly, but most have fallen foul of what is sometimes called human nature. I’d say it was just human failings. But no doubt reinforced by the pressures of the sea of capitalism outside.

I was much taken by the system that was developed in Yugoslavia after the Second World War. All enterprises with more than 15 employees were run by an elected workers council who dispensed profits to staff and some to the local community, at their own discretion, less 15% that went to the central state for national projects - including defence, transport links and regional grants to cope with the fact that the north was richer than the south. It sounded ideal and survived quite well, independent of the Soviet block, and with strict limits on inward investment from overseas, for many years- until the generally popular charismatic wartime partisan leader, Tito, died.

Then all hell broke out. The ancient religious and ethnic tensions, which you might hope had been washed away by a few decades of democratic self-management and wealth redistribution, resurfaced with a vengeance. The rest is history- a bloody mess. Scholars of history may be able to tell me more about why, but it was certainly saddening. However that’s no reason not to try again. The system we have now is in no way proof against blood letting- indeed it seems to thrive on it.

At this point I woke up. So now it’s over to you. Is this part of your dream too? Can we do better- in reality, not just in dreams? Or do we to have more business as usual, possibly just adjusted to be a bit more green?

The alterative technical agenda seem relatively clear - although there is a lot of detail to thrash out. But the political agenda is much less clear. Who will push for the right way ahead? On what basis of analysis? Representing which constituencies? In terms of approach, I was much taken by this quote from Fredrich Engels,: "The analysis of nature into its individual parts, the grouping of the different natural processes and objects in definite classes, the study of the internal anatomy of organic bodies in their manifold forms — these were the fundamental conditions of the gigantic strides in our knowledge of nature that have been made during the last four hundred years. But this method of work has also left us as legacy the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, apart from their connection with the vast whole; of observing them in repose, not in motion; as constants, not as essentially variables, in their death, not in their life. And when this way of looking at things was transferred by Bacon and Locke from natural science to philosophy, it begot the narrow, metaphysical mode of thought peculiar to the preceding centuries."

An early green holistic thinker! We need more like that.

I wrote the above before Adam Curtis’ TV blitz "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace" emerged. He seems to be another. We need to go beyond machine thinking and re-engage with challenging power- and that means looking beyond the current structures.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Germany shows the way

Earlier this year things looked a little bleak in Germany. Two German nuclear plants were due to come back on-line thanks to a controversial new law extending Germany’s nuclear phase out deadline. Brunsbüttel had shut down in 2007 after a grid-trip, and Krümmel after a transformer fault. Under the previous national phase out schedule there was little incentive to bring them back online (only to operate for a few years) but the new law meant Brunsbüttel could operate until 2018 Krümmel until 2030.

However, in March, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, the German government shut down all of Germany's oldest nuclear plants. That was perhaps surprising until you remember that an election was due. And the greens were looking very strong; there were massive demonstrations across the country after Fukushima with 250,000 people campaigning for a complete and rapid phase out.

In the event, the government still did badly in the election, loosing in key areas (the greens got 15% of the vote), and in April, Secretary of State for the Environment and Nuclear Safety, Jürgen Becker, told Reuters: “A decision has been taken to shut down eight plants before the end of this year and they definitely won’t be reactivated. And the remaining nine will be shut down by the end of the decade.”

This policy was then backed by the German Association of Energy and Water Industries, BDEW, which said that nuclear should be phased out by 2020 or at the latest by 2023. It called on the government to set everything in motion to speed up the transition toward a stable, ecologically responsible and affordable energy mix without nuclear energy. ‘The catastrophe at the Fukushima reactors marks a new era and the BDEW therefore calls for a swift and complete exit from using nuclear power.’

The association represents about 1,800 utilities, among them the operators of the country’s 17 nuclear reactors, which, when all were running, generated 26% of Gemany’s electricity. The two biggest operators, E.ON AG and RWE AG, opposed to the decision, but were outvoted.

Can they do it? German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen told der Spiegel that he was confident that it could be done given the rapid growth of renewables and the potential for energy saving, but ‘everyone will have to invest in the energy turnaround. The expansion of renewable energy, the power lines it requires and the storage facilities will cost money. That has to be clear. But after the investments are made, the returns will follow - I don't doubt that.’

He went on ‘ First we'll have to focus on retrofitting buildings. The €460 million ($653 million) currently budgeted for that program won't be enough. But every euro in government subsidies will trigger seven or eight euros in private investment, which also translates into tax revenues. Everyone can benefit in the long term, from citizens to the economy to the environment.’

In terms of renewables, there would be no need to cover Germany with wind farms as some critics had suggested ‘ We achieve the biggest capacities by replacing smaller wind turbines on land with more powerful ones and by generating wind energy in the North and Baltic Seas’.

He concluded ‘The events in Fukushima marked a turning point for all of us. Now we jointly support phasing out nuclear energy as quickly as possible and phasing in renewable energies’.

Germany already gets 17% of its power from renewables, and the potential for expansion is certainly there long term. In addition to backing a nuclear phase out, last years ‘Energiekonzept’ review, produced by the Federal Environment Ministry, BMU, looked to renewables supplying 35% of electricity by 2020, 50% by 2030, 65% by 2040, 80% by 2050. It also planned major increases in grid integration with the rest of the EU. It saw offshore wind as a major growth area- it wanted 25 GW in place by 2030. At present it has around 27GW in place but mostly on land, plus around 16GW of solar PV. In addition to a large hydro contribution, including pumped stage facilities, major new geothermal and biomass projects are on the way, with biogas seen as key new option, replacing imported Natural Gas. The review also called for primary energy consumption to be halved by 2050, and overall, the review aimed for a 40% by 2020 CO2 reduction target.

With nuclear to be removed by around 2020, the renewables expansion programme and energy saving initiatives will have to be accelerated. A draft of a new plan, reported on Dow Jones Newswires, said “After the catastrophe in Japan, we will accelerate the fundamental conversion of our energy supply already laid out in the [2010] energy concept" i.e the 'Energiekonzept' review. Among measures to boost renewable energy, the draft plan envisions a €5 billion programme to increase offshore wind power, financed by the Germany's KfW state development bank. The plan says legislation on renewable energy will be updated this year, while existing wind parks should be "repowered" by replacing old turbines with more efficient models. The draft plan also foresees the construction of new gas-fired power plants to balance out fluctuations in energy output from renewables. These should be built by companies currently providing less than 5% of Germany's electricity-generating capacity, the plan stipulates. That would exclude the country's major energy producers. The draft plan also demands an "offensive" to designate new areas for wind parks and plan the construction of "electricity highways" to bring renewable power from windy northern Germany to industrial areas in the south.

The Wall Street Journal said the report ‘marks a significant shift as Germany ceases to debate whether to phase out its reactors and focuses more on how quickly and at what cost’.

It won’t be easy. But, with the greens now playing an increasing role, the political will seems to be there to try.

There could still be some political problems though. The lead is being taken by Merkel’s CDU, still the dominant party. Might that be just temporary opportunism? Could we have the sort of ugly coalition between a conservative party and an allegedly progressive party that we have in the UK, with the later being sidelined? Fortunately the German Greens seem quite robust, whereas the German Liberals have almost been wiped out and Merkel does really seem to have changed position on nuclear: at the April Summit on the issue she said ‘I think we all want to move away from nuclear energy as quickly as possible and switch to renewables’. She might of course backslide after Fukushima is forgotten. But that won’t be easy – especially since support for nuclear, already very low in Germany, has now fallen from 10% to 5%, while support for renewables, already very high, continues to rise, with 86% now backing solar (as against 83% in January), and 80% wind energy (Jan: 72%).

A nuclear free Germany? Yes please!

*And also now, a nuclear free Italy: with opposition mounting, the government backtracked on its earlier attempt to push for a nuclear renaissance in Italy.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Nuclear Power- game over?

After Fukushima, the case against nuclear power, already strong, looks a lot stronger. But some still say – what’s the alternative. There are now half a dozen detailed energy scenarios confirming that renewable energy could supply up to 100% of UK, EU and even global power needs by 2050, or maybe earlier, at reasonable costs. For the latest one, see

Some however say, couldn’t we have both nuclear and renewables? Given the huge renewable potential, we don’t really need both, and in any case, nuclear power and renewables are, in many ways, incompatible: essentially inflexible, nuclear can’t back-up variable renewables without incurring economic and safety penalties. And if we had a large, fixed, nuclear capacity, then the output from wind farms, and from other variable renewables, will have to be curtailed and wasted regularly- e.g. when there is too much wind, or low overall energy demand over and above that supplied by nuclear. That alone suggests that it’s not something we should back. But there are also a host of other problems. Here is a small sample.

Undermining jobs

Some trade unions are backing nuclear in the expectation of new jobs. In 2008 John Hutton, the then Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform told the Unite union conference that a new nuclear programme could create up to 100,000 new skilled jobs. He did not mention that this was for a 32GW programme - twice what is now being discussed. Each twin reactor nuclear station was expected to create 9,000 construction and manufacturing jobs and 1,000 jobs to run the station.

NuClear News 26 noted that a scenario presented by the skills agency - Cogent - suggests that, if all goes according to plan, a 16GW programme with six twin unit stations (6 EPR reactors and 6 AP1000 reactors) would start to create jobs in 2012, but would be expected to employ a peak of only 14,000 workers around 2021 and then there will be around 5,000 permanent jobs once construction is completed around 2027 – a bit different from the 100,000 jobs originally promised.

NuClear News suggested that nuclear power was very poor at creating jobs – only around 75 jobs per Terawatt hour (TWh) at the most. It added that, all of the areas where reactors might be built as part of the 16GW programme could be promoting themselves as suitable for the offshore wind industry to expand creating up to 2,400 jobs per TWh. But if financial resources get diverted to nuclear, we will see less of these –and less jobs overall.

Dumbing us down

Birds living near the site of the Chernobyl nuclear accident have, on average, 5% smaller brains, according to international research led by a University of South Carolina scientist. 25 years after the Chernobyl disaster, low-dose radiation has proved to have significant effects on normal brain development, with smaller brain sizes believed to be linked to reduced cognitive ability.

Dr. Timothy Mousseau, a USC biology science professor said ‘These findings point to broad-scale neurological effects of chronic exposure to low-dose radiation. The fact that we see this pattern for a large portion of the bird community suggests a general phenomenon that may have significant long-term repercussions.’

Mousseau said these types of defects have been previously reported in humans and other organisms, but those were at higher contamination levels. The small brains were particularly evident in the youngest birds: ‘This suggests that many of the birds with smaller brains are not surviving to the next year, perhaps related to decreased cognitive abilities.’ i.e. they are not as capable at dealing with their environment as evidenced by their lower rates of survival.

More info:


Could this subtle change apply to humans as well? And outside the Chernobyl zone? Some low-level emissions, although carefully monitored, are allowed at nuclear sites, and of course there are also occasional accidental excess releases and spills, as at Fukushima. It’s claimed by critics of current safety levels, that this contamination leads to exposures that are very different in kind and impact from that due to normal background radiation e.g. the ingestion of internal emitters, which, although weak, continue to irradiate organs/tissue from inside.

Spreading it around

The UK government has published a consultation about its plans to deal with 112 tonnes of plutonium (including 24 tonnes derived from fuel from other countries) currently stored at Sellafield and Dounreay, generated mostly from UK fuel reprocessing. Its preferred solution is to incorporate the material into Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel, rather than to continue to store it, or encapsulate it into storage containers for a final waste repository, along with other nuclear wastes, at a site as yet unknown. The MOX would be sold to reactor users around the world, making it the cheapest ‘disposal’ option.

The existing MOX plant at Sellafield was castigated in diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks as a ‘white elephant’. They went on : ‘The Mox Plant is considered one of HMG’s most embarrassing failures in British industrial history, costing taxpayers £90 m p.a. The plant’s complex fuel recycling procedure, coupled with management and equipment problems, have plagued it for years.’ The MOX plant has only produced 15 tonnes in its 9 years of operation, compared with an original target of 560 tonnes over an expected 10 year operational life. Cue for a repeat!

MOX can be, and is, used in some plants around the world, including at Fukushima, but at present (though that may change) there are no plans for it to be used in existing UK plants or the proposed 8 new UK plants (if it was, it would need a subsidy). So any MOX we produced would be for export. Its shipment by sea presents a wonderful target for terrorists keen to get Pu for crude bombs.

But DECC sees it differently: content/cms/news/pn11_011/pn11_011.aspx

Dumping it somewhere

At the time of the quake/ tsunami in Japan, there were 3,400 tons of spent fuel in seven storage pools at Fukushima, some of it still very active, plus 877 tons of active fuel in the cores of the reactors. That totals 4,277 tons of nuclear fuel at Fukushima- the storage pool above reactor 4 alone contained 135 tons of spent fuel. For comparison, the Chernobyl reactors had about 180 tons when the accident occurred in 1986 and about 6% of that was released into atmosphere. We don’t know yet what percentage was released in the air and sea at Fukushima- it’s still ongoing

Since we are to give up on reprocessing, the UKs plan for nuclear waste, such as it is, assumes that used nuclear fuel from the proposed new plants will stay in similar spent fuel stores at the 8 reactor sites for perhaps 60, maybe 100 years, while waiting for a high level waste repository to be built- at a site as yet to be determined. It’s said that this will be available by 2040. However that site has been earmarked for the existing ‘legacy’ waste, and won’t be available for spent fuel from the proposed new plants until 2130- long after the new plants have been closed down, with ‘interim storage’ continuing somewhere for 100 years or so. But it could be more, for example if a suitable site, and community willing to accept a long-term waste, can’t be found.

Could we dump it elsewhere? The European Commission recently produced a Nuclear Waste Directive, with geological disposal being seen as the way ahead. Two or more Member States can agree to share a final repository in one of them, but the EU is not allowed to export nuclear waste to countries outside the EU for final disposal. It seems that there had been offers from Russia to take it.

However it seems unlikely that anyone in the EU will want our waste- France is not much further ahead with selecting a site for final repository than we are. Sweden and Finland are a bit further ahead, but would they really take it? Why should they?

So we’re probably stuck with it- and for some time. In fact, for a very long time. Long after the worlds limited uranium (and thorium) resources are depleted, and any benefits there might be from nuclear power have been forgotten.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Fighting FiT

Solar photovoltaics (PV) face some problems- with tariff levels being cut back and/or capacity caps imposed for to Feed In Tariffs (FiTs) in Spain, Germany, France and planned in the UK.

The basic problem is that the FiTs had stimulated to market strongly, which was what they were meant to do, so that demand for PV had boomed. But under the FiT system, that led to what some saw as excessive costs being loaded up on consumers, who pay for it via their bills. Spain had already imposed a cap and then Tariff cuts which in effect crashed the Spanish solar boom.

The French government talked about a ‘speculative bubble’ and imposed a three-month halt to new PV installations over 3 kW, while legislators worked on new tariffs for larger PV installations, which were expected to include rules providing caps on development and lowering feed-in tariffs for solar PV projects. The government also played the China card. ‘Most panels installed in France were made in China with a highly questionable carbon footprint,’ Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet said, whereas the policy must “create jobs in France, not subsidise Chinese industry.’ Even so if current developments are completed, France could still reach its 2020 target of 5.4 GW of solar capacity by the end of 2011.

Meanwhile, after much bitter wrangling, the German solar industry agreed solar PV tariff reductions with the federal Government. PV had boomed with over 14GW being installed. In mid- 2010 industry lobby organization VIK, had claimed that the continued high growth of the German PV-market could result in most ratepayers having to pay an extra 3.5 eurocents/kWh in 2011 compared with the present 2.047 eurocents/kWh, and more later.

Figures like this were disputed, but the German solar industry association (BSW-Solar) eventually agreed to a compromise under which feed-in-tariffs will be reduced according to the amount of solar electricity installed annually, with a sliding scale of reductions based on capacity predictions. For example, if the calculated solar PV market capacity for 2011 year was over 3.5 GW, tariffs would be reduced by 3%; if the projected capacity was 7.5 GW, tariffs would be reduced by 15%. As previously planned, funding will also be cut by a further 9% at the turn of the year 2012. Renewable Energy Focus commented ‘This new step is seen as an earlier than planned reduction, following warnings against the artificial stimulation of the solar market.’

There will be a review of the EEG (the German Renewable Energy Sources Act) in 2012, which will presumably play a decisive role in the future of PV in Germany.

The savage cuts in the Feed In Tariff for PV in Spain were imposed by Royal Decree, and were said to be retroactive i.e retrospective for existing projects, although the government later denied this. Btu there were major protests by people whose jobs were threatened, with protestors from all over Spain wielding PV panels. One said ‘the Government is bowing to the pressures of major energy companies and is misleading citizens into believing that the tariff deficit is a problem created by renewables’.

The Spanish Association of Renewable Energy Producers said ‘it appears Parliament has given itself over to the electric utilities to do away with the solar PV sector in this country’. Congress approved the Decree by 175 to 12, but with many abstentions. There are likely to be a lot of legal disputes as thousands of PV array owners are hit.

The UK is to review its small ‘Clean Energy Cashback’ Feed In Tariff, with the budget saying support for PV was to be cut back in 2013, leading to a £40m saving in 2014/15 (10%), ‘unless higher than expected deployment requires an early review’. And if need be, access to the FiT might be limited for large solar farms on greenfield sites before the review. That review was originally planned for 2012. but has now been brought forward, since DECC said, there is ‘growing evidence that large scale solar farms could soak up money intended to help homes, communities and small businesses generate their own electricity’. So far around 40 MW of PV has been installed under the scheme out of about 77MW in all- tiny by comparison with Germany and Spain, but much more than before. However the new ‘fast track’ review of PV projects larger than 50kW looks like slowing things to a crawl.

DECC’s concern about solar farms is not shared by all. For example, Adrian Lea, manager of planning and regeneration at Cornwall council, insisted solar farms were a positive development: ‘It begs the question of what the purpose of a feed-in tariff is for. To me, the purpose [of the tariff] is to develop a solar PV industry, to bring forward renewable energy infrastructure within the UK, and to meet renewable energy targets. In terms of solar panels, I don't think you're going to do that on domestic roofs because the rate of installation, while highly commendable, is pants, quite frankly.’ But, if nothing else, it’s a good excuse for a review -and for cuts.

So what next? Given the global recession, extra costs to consumers were obviously politically difficult, even if in fact they were much smaller than other energy price hikes. But it does mean that the growth of PV, and the reduction in price that the FiT system would then yield, will be slowed. It’s a failure or nerve, at the very least. The FiTs are designed to gradually reduce prices, as they help build markets. But you have to stay the course.

The UK government is trying to limit the problem of short-term consumer costs in its proposed new Electricity Market Reforms by adopting a variant of the FiT which has a strong market element and possibly also contract auction/tenders to keep prices down. That’s not really a FiT at all- it’s more like the old Non Fossil Fuel Obligation, which saw many successful tenders but few actual projects, since companies often bid at unrealistically low prices. Hence the campaign for a real FiT – with fixed, although annually degressed, tariffs. And without nuclear included. The worry is that with nuclear included, there will be less for renewables. See: and

The message is that if we want a proper FiT, we will have to fight for it- and also to protect the existing one.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A new ideology?

‘Renewable energy alone cannot decouple consumption from climate change; just because energy sources are called ‘renewable’ does not mean there is an infinite amount available that can be accessed sustainably. Demand for energy is a political issue. Our energy priority should be to satisfy human survival needs, not to keep a worldwide division of labour, which is based on profit, in place.’ Kolya Abramsky, editor of a 'Sparking a World- wide Energy Revolution' (AK Press)

Well, that’s one powerful viewpoint, though hardly a new one -it’s basically the traditional Marxist analysis updated . Abramsky looks to grass roots action and collective and co-operative organisations as the way ahead, and that certainly would be welcome- there will be many battles ahead if we want to get a sustainable energy system adopted and done properly.

However, a little oddly, he also says that IRENA, the new Internationa renewable energy agency based in Abu Dhabi, could be a possible source of support for desperately needed technology transfer to help people in undeveloped countries create viable sustainable communities. We’ll maybe. But evidently it’s hard to shake off reliance on central agencies! Maybe we are all secret Stalinists really

What else is on offer in terms of new ideological frameworks- following up on my previous Blog ? While once it was Marx, Trotsky and Gramsci, social science/politics undergrads these days seem to be brought up on Harvard Professor John Rawls’ classic ‘Theory of Justice’, which cleverly does away with the need for ideology altogether by describing a rational, logical moral and ethical framework for action and policy making. There is much stress on ‘fairness’ and little recognition of the massive imbalances in power and wealth that shape the word as it is, and make it hard to move toward any reasonable degree of equity, fairness or justice. No harm in trying of course, as liberals through the ages have argued- even if currently the main target of the modern student generation seem to be the Liberals, who have it seems failed to be fair and just! By dumping the Lib Dem promises on grants- but also on nuclear power.

The political right meanwhile has an almost clear field of play- so much so that they can even afford to toy with neo-socialist ideas about market intervention and liberal ideas about wider ownership and community. Much of this may be token, when the reality is cut backs, job losses and pain for most, continued affluence for a minority, but it’s a Great Society illusion that seems to be what many people want to sign up to. Certainly in the energy field it’s leading to more (verbal) support for Feed-In Tarrifs and the like, and maybe some actual changes, as long as they don’t interfere too much with the mainstream economics of energy or plans for nuclear expansion.

Which leaves us, if we want really significant change, with the greens. It’s fairly easy to write a green manifesto- much as once with the Liberals, you can add in everything that sounds good, with little fear of having to live with it as an actual policy in power. It’s very value driven stuff- not just based on equality, fraternity, justice, but also on deep-green eco-centric views, along with radical views about lifestyle, community and culture. With a dash of new age spiritual thinking added in. That may make it hard for reds and greens to get on. But otherwise, that combination still seems to be the best bet for the future. We need decentralism to balance Stalinist tendencies, and grass roots workerism to balance overly fey abstraction. A proper coalition?

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The end of ideology

Time was when energy policy, and much else, was driven by political beliefs. But we have apparently moved into a period when political ideology is dead- replaced by a pragmatic centre left miss-mash. That apparently means that old entrenched ideas can be dumped and fresh new ones embraced- leading to a brave new world, ostensibly driven by ‘evidence’ and rationality. Occasionally there is some mention of ‘values’ as a guide to policy, but in the main the touchstone of reality is a general appeal to ‘modernisation’, with technology as the driver.

So in the energy field, under the new political settlement, high tech nuclear is celebrated- and any opposition seen as antiquated and reactionary, a throwback to when ideology ruled. Renewables too are generally welcomed now as ‘modern’, although often with less conviction. When problems emerge, there tends to a default process- back to nuclear. At best nuclear is offered as a stop-gap while problems with renewables are sorted. But also sometimes as the best long term option- maybe led by fusion.

Not everyone agrees with this new position. Some prefer a more solid foundation for policies than pragmatism and also fear that the rationality being used to buttress modernism is faulty. Indeed it is sometimes even argued that rational ‘technical’ analysis has its limits- we also need a moral and ethical input.

In the past, it is true, there have been strong rational arguments against nuclear power, based on objective technical and economic analysis. That still exists, and if anything, is stronger than ever- costs rise, safety and security issue proliferate, alternatives look increasingly better. But some of this is relative- e.g. it may be reasonable to pay more if it ensures energy reliability. However the case against nuclear is wider than that and may not be so easily subject to rationalist analysis - it’s about intangible and possibly absolute things like whether it is right to burden many future generations with active wastes to deal with.

In the past we expected politicians to reflect issues like this in the policies they chose. So, for all its faults, the old Labour party opposed nuclear not just on technical or economic grounds, but because it was not seen as right and didn’t fit with their values- which included concern for development- and employment -in other energy sectors. That was in essence an ideological viewpoint. You can argue that it was partly based on a political commitment to certain groups of workers - notable coal miners. And you may see that as partisan. But then that’s how politics works. If you don’t like one set of views you lobby for change or if that doesn’t work, try to elect another set of politicians with different views.

What we seem to have now is a set (maybe even three sets) with no views, just a vacuous commitment to an ill-defined belief in progress. Of course some cynics will say that much of this is actually just a smokescreen for reactionary policies- much as ever, ensuring that, for example, the rich get richer and the poor stay powerless. That may well be true. But it just adds strength for the case for return to more honestly ideologically based politics.

Nuclear power is only one issue, but it symbolises many others, as it did throughout the last half of the last century. Indeed it was striking how the often disparate movements and groups during that period- new leftists, greens, hippies, pacifists, feminists and more- shared a similar view: nuclear was at or near the centre of what they opposed, a grey, soulless, centralised, authoritarian, patriarchal, consumerist culture. That view has not gone away. 100,000 Germans took the streets last year (and twice!) in opposition to nuclear- even though its current political champion there is a woman, and we are now all happy (digital) consumers!

For some of us who have been through this before, it’s tiresome having to resist nuclear once again. It’s much more positive to fight for something- like renewables. But it seems it has to be done- pragmatically, nuclear and renewables may be able to co-exist when both relatively small. But that’s not the way things would go, if the nuclear lobby gets its way. Nuclear and renewables are technically incompatible on a large scale, and long term the expansion of nuclear seem to have major resource problems, while meanwhile undermining the rapid development of renewables. So there are rationalist arguments against, which might also be seen as underpinning moral and ethical arguments- e.g. it’s wrong to undermine the development of renewables, the only long-term energy source we have. But we are unlikely to get either argument heard without a new ideology to provide the framework.

Meanwhile though we are stuck with what we have. In its approach to energy, the UK coalition does seem to be trying to soften the ‘market dominance’ approach that has be adopted since Thatcher, and even move more towards strategic planning. It’s also tinkering with subsidies- though mainly to find a way to support nuclear. But companies (and shareholders) won’t accept inroads into profits, and the government won’t tap rich taxpayers and has to avoid loading up consumers with extra costs. So the room for manouevre is limited. All it can do is say ‘we are all in it together’, and hope no one notices that we aren’t.