Friday, August 1, 2014

Politics and energy: election issues

Soon we’ll see election positions being taken up, with energy being one key issue: some first shots have already been fired- e.g. Labour’s pledge to freeze power prices. And (see below) its new ‘green gas’ commitment.

Setting the wider scene, the Conservative Party’s manifesto in the recent Euro election outlined what it saw as its achievements in relation to the EU, including: stopping EU attempts to ban further offshore oil and gas drilling, stopping EU attempts to over-regulate the UK’s emerging shale gas industry, and ensuring that the proposed 2030 renewable energy target is non-binding on individual EU countries. What will be in their 2015 national election manifesto? An on-land wind freeze?

The Lib Dems oddly didn’t mention their support for nuclear in their Euro election bumph, Labour is also all for it, so is UKIP (and very hostile to renewables), leaving just the Green Party as the only pro-renewables/anti-nuclear option, the SNP in Scotland apart.

However, to be fair, investment in renewables has doubled under the present government, with renewables now supplying 15% of UK electricity, although whether they can claim to have aided or hindered that is another matter. In terms of overall expansion plans, a Parliamentary answer a minister indicted that by 2015 on shore wind was expected to deliver 5.6-6.6% of UK electricity, offshore wind 3.4%, solar 1.3 and nuclear 1.5-16.7% (Hansard 14/5/14 : Col 595W).

Will rival parties push for more in the election run up? And new support options? DECC had made proposals for an Offtaker of Last Resort (OLR) system, to support independent renewable generators by guaranteeing a route-to-market and therefore improving their ability to raise project finance. That seems to be designed to help small generators, but details are scarce. Could there be other new forms of support, or is it just the standard Contracts for a Difference system, shared with nuclear ? If so, then the new £205m p.a. CfD cap limit on renewables will slow things down..

More immediately, there’s the Scottish Independence referendum. What does that means for energy and in particular, renewables?  Carbon  suggested that about 15 GW of 2020 renewables will be in Scotland or in Scottish waters and only about 18 GW will be in England and Wales. So Independence would mean that around 40% of total renewables will ‘disappear’, but only 10% of UK electricity consumption. The UK rump would have to import this green power to meet its targets. Also it claimed that Scottish renewables would only need a subsidy of on average £44/MWh as against £93 for England and Wales. (CarbonCommentary, quoted in issue 62 of NuClear news:

Whatever happens in relation to Scotland, there will be room for new interventions.  Labours energy spokesperson Caroline Flint says if Labour won the general election, they would commission the Committee on Climate Change, with National Grid, to report by the end of 2015 with advice and recommendations on reforms needed ‘to maximise the potential for the development of green gas’. She claimed that the cost of minor gas grid upgrades for green gas injection, so as to continue to provide heating, would be much less than for the electrification of the heating systems in the UK (the current government plan is to do that mostly via electric powered heat pumps) which would require an electricity transmission and distribution system four times its current size. It’s an interesting idea. Landfill gas and sewage gas production is effectively free and its use offers some of the cheapest electric power we have, but these are relatively limited resources, and probably best left for electricity production. AD biogas production is a potentially much larger resource, using farm and food wastes and possibly energy crops, like short rotation coppiced willow. Though it’s more expensive than using landfill/sewage gas. There may also be land use and eco-limits to the use of some energy crops:

However it’s surely vastly preferable environmentally to use biogas than (fossil) shale gas. And if, tragically, the wind programme stalls, or is stalled, and nuclear is delayed (which seems very likely) or abandoned (which would be sensible), then this, along with energy saving, might be part of the way ahead for heat supply, rather than massive reliance on electrification. And biomass/waste-fired CHP linked to district heating, ought to appeal to Labour, with its urban emphasis. 

I will be looking at some of these technical options in my next post.  But on the politics side, there was a time when the Labour left was anti nuclear and pro-renewables and the right pro nuclear and anti-renewables . However, these days energy choices don't always map onto politics in any immediately obvious way, at least in the UK. Elsewhere it can be different, though party positions do vary- who would have thought a right of centre German government would be pioneering a nuclear phase out and a green future? This sort of speculation may be of little value,  especially since policies and contexts keep changing (see Ben Sovacool and Scot Valentine’s  2012 Routledge book ‘The National Politics of Nuclear Power’), but one cross-EU study did find some clear left-right political correlations on sustainable energy and nuclear power: 

For what it’s worth, very roughly, there is, as far as I can see, a spectrum in terms of positions on sustainable energy and climate change, but not often linked to governing party politics, from very progressive and radical to reactionary and conservative. So at one end, for example, there’s Denmark, Germany, Austria and Scotland and at the other extreme Russia, along with ex-Soviet countries like Hungary and Poland, and tragically now Australia, and maybe Canada.   I’d put the UK in the centre right in this range, drifting ever more to the right. Despite differing party policies, Spain and France seem to have ended up in the middle too. Where you might put China and USA in this framework who knows! China to the centre left, the US to the centre right?  It’s much easier to locate organisations within this framework, with for example the World Future Foundation, along with Greenpeace, WWF and maybe FoE, at one end and the Global Warming Policy Foundation and the UK’s Renewable Energy Foundation, plus many US anti-renewables groups, at the other!

Hard to place Renewable UK: it’s clearly progressive, but seems happy to accept nuclear power- or at least not oppose it publicly. Though it’s clear where its loyalties lie: in its self-styled ‘election manifesto’ it says onshore wind should be the cheapest new source by 2020, while offshore wind should be at £100/MWh, and by then ‘wind should be meeting a quarter of the UK’s electricity need’. It wants the Government to ‘set a clear path for investors by setting a 2030 decarbonisation target, with an accompanying extension of the Levy Control Framework, and an indication of how different technologies will play their part. The strongest signal of all would be a 2030 renewables target.’ There was also a need for continued support for technological innovation to get costs down e.g. for offshore wind. Interestingly it notes that 61% of Conservative voters, 72% of Labour and 79% of Lib Dems back wind, as do a majority of UKIP voters.  If so, then maybe renewables are in with chance:



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