Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Political struggles for sustainable futures

The next few months will see some momentous political challenges on both sides of the Atlantic, with potentially major implications for energy and climate policies.  

In the USA: The imminent party Conventions will decide on the presidential candidates. Here’s a roundup of the various candidates’ energy platforms, including use of what seems to be Jacobson’s state-by-state 100% by 2050 renewables scenarios for its rendition of Bernie Sanderson’s position:

That doesn’t make it according to the Hass blog, at least in California. But it’s not clear if Sanders does actually subscribe to this set of scenarios- which avoid biomass use. That, unsurprisingly, would make it harder to meet the 100% target if demand can’t be cut. Sanders has certainly backed renewables very strongly and wants nuclear phased out- with no more plant licensing renewals. Unlike all the other candidates:  He is clearly the most radical candidate by far, a self professed democratic socialist, sharing many positions with the European left and most greens.

However, sadly, baring last minute upsets, it seems unlikely that Sanders will get the Democratic nomination at the Convention, despite massive grass roots support: the delegate system is arguably biased to the allegedly ‘safer’ status quo i.e. the supposedly more likely to win national figure, Hillary Clinton, who is backed by wealthy donors. So it may be Clinton v Trump in November. A terrifying choice, with Trump saying, on climate change ‘I am not a believer. I believe there’s weather. I believe there’s change, and I believe it goes up and it goes down, and it goes up again.’  

Trump's opposition to wind energy  is also well known (in Scotland too!) and he has been dismissive of solar as ‘unproven’ and as too expensive- he has talked of 32 year pay-back times:   Looks like an all round disaster, if he makes it through, quite apart from his other policies.  Like the Mexican wall, neatly satirised in this April 1st spoof, which quotes him allegedly saying ‘we make the left-wing tree-huggers happy by introducing a price on carbon, and we make my right-wing supporters happy by closing the funding gap for my wall’:

In the EU:  The UK referendum on whether to leave the EU opens up many issues. The case for staying is strong, but it’s hard to predict what will happen.  Many do not like what they see as a wasteful, unaccountable, remote EU bureaucracy. There certainly are problems. Should we try to sort them, or just walk away? To maybe not so splendid isolation?

In terms of energy policy, the EU has pushed renewables quite hard and forced the UK to do so too. Certainly the UK has always been conservative in terms of renewable support systems, pushing for the adoption of competitive market approaches as opposed to Feed-In Tariffs. But Germany has now adopted a similar approach, as has the EU as a whole. So that’s unlikely to change whatever happens. However, although the UK has a huge renewable resource, more than most other EU countries, it has dragged its feet on developing them (the RO was much less effective that the FiTs), with its percentage contribution being amongst the lowest in the EU. So if the UK removes itself, the residual EU should be able to do better. Leaving the UK to stew in its own juice. But if the UK stays in the EU, not much new is likely to happen. It’s getting a bit better slowly, with offshore wind and PV booming, but if it stays in, the UK will still remain a drag on the EU. So some Europeans might welcome a UK exit.  So would some UK reactionaries! Brexit would mean that the UK could ignore EU energy and climate directives and that might provide a precedent for some climate/ anti green contrarians to call for us to exit from our own commitments too:

Whichever way it goes, a big new development is the European Energy Union, the EUs initiative seeking to complete the single energy market programme and integrate EU energy systems more effectively. This opens up many issues: for example is building a big competitive market really the best way forward? Won’t it squeeze out smaller players?  Or will it tame the big players, by exposing them to wider competition? Is there any alternative to integration given the need to link of renewables across the EU with supergrid networks?

The UK may be an island (or bits of islands), but, as renewables expand, it will need more grid links to the continent for balancing and trade: it may have a net surplus. Consultant group Pyory has looked at the costs and benefits of links and says they are ‘overwhelmingly positive’ and that may hold for the UK up to 9-11GW, as already envisaged long term, although it adds that beyond that it is less clear. While an EU-wide system would have overall socio-economic benefits for the EU, the benefits from more cross channel links might be marginal and even fall for the UK. It’s the Brexit issue distilled!

Some of the institutional issues are explored in a timely book by Prof. Rafael Leal-Arcas from Queen Mary College London.   It suggests that the creation of a European Energy Union might be an effective and viable solution to the energy security problems that the EU is facing, by making it easier to trade energy inside the EU. It notes that ‘the EU currently has to rely on energy-rich countries for its energy needs, many of whom are politically and economically unstable. This places the EU in a vulnerable position’.

The book explores the institutional and legal framework for the creation of a European Energy Union, looking at some of the key issues, which it sees as the need to support security, solidarity and trust, the completion of a competitive internal market, moderation of demand and the decarbonization of the EU energy mix i.e., greater use of renewable energy. Much of that would of course be academic as far as the UK goes if it leaves to EU, though the UK might be able to join in some of the commercial trading, but it could not shape the market system design or its rules. It’s just one example of what the UK would miss out on if it leaves.  

However, for the average household, all this may be too remote. It may be that, in terms of energy issues, Brexit will be seen as just avoiding unwelcome lifestyle impositions.  It was amusing that the EU decided to delay its draft ruling on inefficient domestic appliances, including toasters (a classic UK kitchen item), until after the referendum. 

Meanwhile, the EU seems to be sticking with its target of a 40% emission cut by 2030. Following the Paris COP21 accords, it has apparently abandoned its fall back target of 30% (if other countries did not make sufficient commitment), but it’s is evidently not willing to go much further. Some had called for 45%:  Maybe the threat of Brexit shaped that, although in the past the UK has been amongst those pushing for higher climate targets, in part no doubt with nuclear expansion in mind. The EU as whole is meant to be agnostic on nuclear: that’s up to each country, with several key countries strongly opposed (notably Germany and Austria), but there is a strong pro-nuclear trend within the higher echelons of the EC. Hard to say what Brexit would mean on that issue, but the EU would loose a strongly pro-nuclear country- the Scottish bit apart. If the UK leaves the EU, that may of course precipitate calls for another  Scottish independence vote, and if that led Scotland to break away, then, with its huge renewables resource, already supplying 50% of Scotland’s electricity, the energy situation for the residual UK would look very different.