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  • Energy Security, National Security #2

    Posted on November 24th, 2015 Jo No comments

    The UK Government’s Security Review (SDSR), published 23rd November 2015, regrettably shows traces of propaganda not supported by current data.

    For example, the report states in Section 3.40 that : “…measures to protect and diversify sources of [energy] supply will become increasingly important, including the new Southern Corridor pipeline, US liquid natural gas (LNG) exports, further supplies of Australian LNG, and increased supply from Norway and North Africa.”

    I have already addressed my recommendation that the writers of this report should be more careful to distinguish between Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) which is a methane-rich product that can substitute for Natural Gas; and Natural Gas Liquids (NGLs) which is a methane-poor product that cannot substitute for Natural Gas.

    However, assuming that the writers of the report are talking about cryogenically stored and transported Natural Gas-sourced energy gases, there is a problem in assuming that the United States will be exporting any large amounts of LNG to Europe any time soon. In fact, there are several problems.

    Just because the business and political press have been touting the exciting prospect of US LNG exports, doesn’t mean that the data backs up this meme.

    First of all, although American Natural Gas production (gross withdrawals from oil and gas wells) continues to grow at a rate that appears unaffected by low Natural Gas prices, the production of shale gas appears to have plateau’d, which might well be related to Natural Gas prices.

    Secondly, although exports of Natural Gas as a whole and exports of Natural Gas by pipeline remain healthy, LNG exports have fallen since the heady days of 2010-2011.

    Next, although the oil and gas industry proposed lots of LNG export terminals, only a handful are being constructed, and there are already predictions that they will run under-capacity, or won’t get completed.

    And further, as regards potential future LNG customers, although China is rejecting LNG imports for a variety of reasons, mostly to do with falling economic growth rates, none of that LNG currently comes from the United States. And China is planning to develop its own onshore Natural Gas and will take LNG from the Australia/Indonesia region.

    The bulk of US LNG exports go to Taiwan and Japan, and Japan is unlikely to restart many nuclear power plants, so Japan will continue to need this gas.

    On top of all this, the United States is a very minor LNG exporter, so major change should be considered unlikely in the near term.

    And it any LNG is heading for Europe, it will probably end up in France, perhaps because they need a better backup plan for their turbulent nuclear power plants.

    All of which adds up to a puzzled look on my face. How can the British Government reasonably expect the commencement of significant quantities of American LNG exports to arrive in the UK ? The only reason they believe this is because there has been American propaganda, promulgated through media of all kinds, for the last five or so years, to convince the world that the USA can achieve greater energy independence through the “explosion” in shale gas production.

    It’s a story told by many successive US Governments – that the US can achieve greater energy independence, but the reality is very, very different.

    The UK Government should not believe any narrative of this nature, in my view, nor include it in national security analyses.

    …to be continued…

  • Energy Security, National Security #1

    Posted on November 24th, 2015 Jo No comments

    Our assiduous government in the United Kingdom has conducted a national security review, as they should, but it appears the collective intelligence on energy of the Prime Minister’s office, the Cabinet Office and the Foreign Commonwealth Office is on a scale of poor to dangerously out of date.

    No, LNG doesn’t stand for “liquid natural gas”. LNG stands for Liquefied Natural Gas. I think this report has confused LNG with NGLs.

    Natural Gas Liquids, or NGLs, are condensable constituents of gas-prone hydrocarbon wells. In other words, the well in question produces a lot of gas, but at the temperatures and pressures in the well underground, hydrocarbons that would normally be liquid on the surface are in the gas phase, underground. But when they are pumped/drilled out, they are condensed to liquids. So, what are these chemicals ? Well, here are the approximate Boiling Points of various typical fossil hydrocarbons, approximate because some of these molecules have different shapes and arrangements which influences their physical properties :-

    Boiling Points of Short-Chain Hydrocarbons
    Methane : approximately -161.5 degrees Celsius
    Ethane : approximately -89.0 degrees Celsius
    Propane : approximattely -42.0 degrees Celsius
    Butane : approximately -1.0 degrees Celsius
    Pentane : approximately 36.1 degrees Celsius
    Heptane : approximately 98.42 degrees Celsius

    You would expect NGLs, liquids condensed out of Natural Gas, to be mostly butane and heavier molecules, but depending on the techniques used – which are often cryogenic – some propane and ethane can turn up in NGLs, especially if they are kept cold. The remaining methane together with small amounts of ethane and propane and a trace of higher hydrocarbons is considered “dry” Natural Gas.

    By contrast, LNG is produced by a process that chills Natural Gas without separating the methane, until it is liquid, and takes up a much smaller volume, making it practical for transportation. OK, you can see why mistakes are possible. Both processes operate at sub-zero temperatures and result in liquid hydrocarbons. But it is really important to keep these concepts separate – especially as methane-free liquid forms of short-chain hydrocarbons are often used for non-energy purposes.

    Amongst other criticisms I have of this report, it is important to note that the UK’s production of crude oil and Natural Gas is not “gradually” declining. It is declining at quite a pace, and so imports are “certain” to grow, not merely “likely”. I note that Natural Gas production decline is not mentioned, only oil.

    …to be continued…

  • Andrea Leadsom : Energy Quadrilemma #3

    Posted on November 11th, 2015 Jo No comments

    When answering questions at last week’s Energy Live News conference, Andrea Leadsom, Minister of State for Energy at the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), openly declared her belief that nuclear power is “very, very cheap electricity; with a marginal cost of generation”, completely ignoring the two white elephants in the room : the UK’s continued public finance obligation to dispose of radioactive and toxic waste from the last 60 years of the nuclear power programme; and the immensely subsidised framework for developing new nuclear power that the UK Government has had to underwrite.

    But there is also a third elephant walking into the room : the increasing unreliability of ageing nuclear power plants, not only in Britain, but also in France, and all across Europe, and anywhere, in fact, where the nuclear building boom took place 30 or so years ago. And one unplanned downed nuclear power plant requires an awful lot of backup to keep power grids from collapsing. And in a very short space of time.

    So the question has to be asked – even if I am the only person in the room asking the question (and I’m not) – why does the UK Government continue to insist that a new nuclear power programme is vital ?

    Government officials claim that new nuclear power plants will be more secure – which is a claim that deserves in-depth scrutiny; and that the cost of decommissioning and the disposal of radioactive and toxic waste has to be provided for in the financing of the project. Except it is highly likely to be undervalued. Because the UK Government is planning to build one (or more) Geological Disposal Facilities (GDFs), perhaps under a National Park near you. Furnished from the public purse. And when they have finally done so, they will buy back the obligation to dispose of nuclear waste from the private nuclear power plant companies. One can easily predict that the public will have to pay more to dispose of the waste than those contracts of waste disposal obligation transfer will be worth.

    The companies that want to build new nuclear power plants know that the UK Government will buy back their duty to decommission and their duty to safely dispose of nuclear waste. So they have a free hand to undercost these obligations in their own accounts. If you don’t have an idea of what I’m talking about, Google “European Commission nuclear waste transfer contracts”, and you will find this from 9th October 2015.

    Just another nuclear subsidy, you might think. We have to pay a bit up-front to get lovely, juicy, reliable, always on “baseload” nuclear electricity, you might think. Well think this : the UK could get an equivalent, reliable supply of power from a carefully balanced combination of wind power, solar power and low carbon gas-fired power, at a third of the cost. Or less. Without subsidies or sweeteners, or long lead times to new project power.

    Andrea Leadsom was also off the money when she responded to questions about the economic value of new nuclear power (and Carbon Capture and Storage), “[In nuclear] there are new opportunities in low carbon energy – and sequestering – huge opportunities for growth and jobs. We’re doing a lot on building solutions – [for example] new nuclear colleges…” She ignored the fact that nuclear power and other large construction schemes such as Carbon Capture and Storage facilities will inevitably be “front-heavy” or frontloaded – all the capital and labour will be needed at the start of the projects, but employment will tail off rapidly after main construction ceases. How pitiful a promise is that ? Not a permanent strengthening of the UK economy, but a temporary glitch. By contrast, investment in renewable electricity and various forms of Renewable Gas could really bolster the economy – for decades or longer – enabling a phased transition to a fully low carbon economy – without massive engineering projects – the very thing we cannot currently afford.

    More questions came from the floor. “[Question from Bloomberg] : Is the Government planning to phase out coal by 2023 ? [Answer] : As the Prime Minister has said, we don’t want to rely on unabated coal. [But] all fossil fuels will remain part of the mix, particularly Natural Gas – the cleanest and greenest fossil fuel.” What the Minister did not admit was that Natural Gas had saved the day only the day before, when several coal-fired power plants were unavailable, and one appeared to break down (by analysis of the data), and National Grid put out a call for extra generation. Natural Gas was responsible for generating upwards of 40% of power during the peak on that calm Wednesday evening (according to some figures I’ve seen). It’s time the UK Government admitted that we are dependent on Natural Gas and the flexibility it provides – it offers both energy security and de-carbonisation.

    “[Question from E1] : [Is the Government] considering an equivalent of Silicon Valley in the UK ? What is our core competency ? [Answer] : Our creative and engineering [competencies] are second to none… The National Nuclear Laboratory… Thorium reactors…”.

    It was at this point that I had my second urge to leave the hall. Thorium ? Have you any idea how much time it will take to make and perfect higher generation nuclear reactor designs ? We just don’t have that time. We have about ten years to firm up energy security – not just of electricity, but heating and transport too. We don’t have time for fancy nuclear gizmo research to come to fruition – if it ever does.

    Andrea Leadsom continued, “…new blade factory at Hull…”

    I’m always amazed when a Minister cannot bring themselves to actually say the words WIND TURBINE.

    “…We’ve got the shale…”

    No, actually, you don’t have any shale gas yet.

    “… onshore oil and gas college. The UK will lead the world on small scale… small [profile] pumps… Different initiatives in different areas. In DECC we keep a close eye on these technologies. When you want a mix, you don’t want to pick winners…”

    But you already have picked winners : shale, coal-to-biomass conversion and nuclear.

    “…see which become most useful to our consumers.”

    “[Question from David Porter] In the power industry, decisions appear to be micro-managed by Government. […] like decisions to do with de-carbonisation. Wouldn’t it be better to have a European Union carbon price and leave things alone after that and let industry decide what to put in place ? [Answer] : We are committed to reform of the ETS [European Trading Scheme]. It hasn’t worked so far. […] make a level playing field… You’re obviously right : the ETS is a large part of that. Ofgem and National Grid are making decisions – not DECC – to power up and down plant. We’re not micro-managing daily electricity supply.”

    So, it’s National Grid’s fault there have been few new Natural Gas-fired power plants and no new nuclear power plants to call on in the last five years ?

    “You won’t see DECC saying ‘outsource it’. [Key direction] always stays with Government. [Question from Chartered Builders] : [Will there be] a coherent plan on energy efficiency ? [Answer] : Well, certainly, energy efficiency [is important to] the DECC and governemnt… DCLG [Department of Communities and Local Government]… hospitals and schools… Will there be a national efficiency framework ? [We] always keep [that option] under consideration.”

    So there you have it. DECC are not in control of which electricity generation plant gets built, are only willing to push nuclear power and shale gas, and not pay the relatively much smaller costs of a national building insulation programme, and will blame National Grid if they don’t choose the correct low carbon mix of electricity generation – which won’t be available because DECC can’t bring themselves to properly support renewable energy.

    Is the Government actually in charge of the direction of energy ? Well, they don’t appear to have a functioning energy policy, and they’ve “devolved” a lot of decision-making and responsibilities.

    The new Infrastructure Commission will find it easier to build roads and airport runways than new power generation plant.

    Now they’re committed to avoid spending any money on energy, I don’t have much hope that DECC can achieve much in terms of influencing decarbonisation, because persuasion is the tool they have left in the box, and they aren’t convincing me.

  • DECCimation

    Posted on November 11th, 2015 Jo No comments

    Into the valley of career death rode the junior 200… As Adam Vaughan reported on 10th November 2015, the UK Government Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is to shed 200 of its 1,600 staff as a result of the Spending Review, ordered by George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Second Lord of the Treasury. I wonder just where the jobs will be disappearing from.

    Obviously, the work on nuclear power plant decommissioning and the disposal of radioactive nuclear waste and radioactive nuclear fuel needs to continue, and it needs to be government-led, as the experiment in privatisation of these functions went spectactularly over-budget, so it had to be brought back into public hands. But would all this work be best handled by a government agency, rather than DECC ? We already have the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority – should all work on decommissioning and waste disposal be delegated to them ? Shouldn’t DECC be concentrating on energy technologies of the future, instead of trying to fix problems from our nuclear past ? Should not the “policy reset” that many are hinting at address the advancement of renewable energies ? That, surely, should be DECC’s core activity.

    There are many items of work that DECC could undertake, that don’t cost a penny in subsidy, that would advance the deployment of renewable energy technologies. Developing a model of energy transition that people believe in would be a good first move. Instead of depending heavily on new nuclear power, with its huge price tag, complex support arrangements, heavy public subsidy and long and ill-determined lead times for construction, DECC modelling could show the present reality, and the gradual dropping off of coal-fired power generation and nuclear power plants – revealing an integrated balance of variable renewable energy and flexible Natural Gas for both heating and backup/stopgap/topup electricity generation. New DECC modelling could show what a progressive transition from Natural Gas to Renewable Gas would look like, and how it would meet the climate change carbon emissions reductions budgets. DECC models of the future of UK energy could include the appearance of integrated gas systems – recycling carbon dioxide emissions into new gas fuels. When the wind is blowing and the sun is shining and not all renewable power is consumed, the UK could then be making gas to store for when the sun sets and the sky is becalmed.

    It may take a few years before DECC finally realises that there is no future for coal and nuclear power. Massive projects will fail, or go slow. Financing will be uncertain and backers will run away screaming. Coal-fired power plants are already being left aside in National Grid planning for electricity markets. It will not be long before coal goes the way of the dinosaurs. What we will be left with, if we are clever, is a massive improved network of solar and wind power assets, and Natural Gas-fired power generation to back them up – even if these need to be renationalised because they are required to run flexibly – so shareholders cannot be sure of their dividends. The loan guarantees that DECC tried to throw at new nuclear power will be diverted to Natural Gas power plant investment, possibly; but even then, building and operating a gas-fired power plant could not make an economic case.

    It is time to recognise that “baseload” always-on power generation is dead, just as the departing chief of National Grid, Steve Holliday, has indicated. Hopefully, he’s not departing National Grid because he doesn’t believe in the future of coal or nuclear. The plain facts, as the data shows, existing coal and nuclear power plants are unreliable and insecure. Investment into new coal and nuclear plants is at best, uncertain, and for many, dubious. It is possible that gas assets will need to be renationalised. We must resort to a gas-and-power future, for transport as well as heating and power generation. And within 20 years, we must transition to low carbon gas. If only DECC could admit this.

  • Andrea Leadsom : Energy Quadrilemma #2

    Posted on November 10th, 2015 Jo No comments

    Last week’s Energy Live News conference on 5th November 2015 was an opportunity to hear Andrea Leadsom, Minister of State for Energy at the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) speak without notes, and she did a fine job of it. She must really believe what she said, or have been well-conditioned to rehearse what I considered to be a mix of practical reality and nonsense. The nonsense ? Well, for one thing, it appears that the UK Government still adheres to the crazy notion that nuclear power can rescue the country from blackouts.

    After commenting on the previous day’s events in connection with the power grid, Andrea Leadom went on to discuss electricity transmission and demand side reduction measures. “Our policy mix is diversity.”, she said, “There is also the issue of transmission networks.” She didn’t say the word “electricity” before the word “transmission”, but that’s what she meant. She is clearly infected with the “energy is electricity” virus – a disease that makes most civil servants and government officials believe that the only energy worth talking about is electricity. Whereas, primary electricity providing energy for the UK amounts to less than 9% of the total. Compare this to the contribution of petroleum oil to the UK economy – at over 36% of primary input energy, and Natural Gas at 33%, and coal at just over 15.5%.

    Andrea Leadsom admitted that – as regards electricity transmission networks went – “it was built for two generations ago, when you had a few [centralised] generators. Today, this has massively changed and [the grid] needs to continue to change, to enable local[ised] electricity generation. The other bit that’s vital is to look at our demand side. We’re not going to solve the energy problem by generating more power. Measures that the Government put in place very early to meet needs – demand reduction as well as energy efficiency…” I don’t know which government she was talking about, because the current Conservative Government have promised to support large industrial users of electricity with generous special assistance and the current organogram of DECC doesn’t even mention efficiency. The previous Coalition Government axed very successful home insulation schemes, and adopted the badly-formulated Green Deal, probably the worst policy for energy efficiency. Perhaps the Minister is referring to the efficiency of energy in use, rather than the reduction of energy use by efficiency ? There, I’d have to say that the government has done little to impact energy efficiency, as most of the initiatives that have been taken have been industry-led – commercial companies taking on projects like converting all their lighting. It is true however, that some public sector organisations have pursued energy efficiency, as, for example, the Government departments themselves have to show they are acting on energy use.

    Andrea Leadsom continued, “The potential for domestic battery systems, and smart [meters], where it will be changes for you [the consumer]. We want technologies to be able to stand on their own two feet as soon as possible. Development policy needs to make sure that renewable energies succeed but at the lowest cost to consumers.” And here’s where the quadrilemma comes into focus : you need to spend capital, in other words, invest, in order to deploy new technologies. You can’t expect anything new to take off without support – whether that support comes from government subsidies or private or sovereign wealth funds or large independent investor funds. People talk about choice : if people want green energy, then green energy will be supplied. Most end users of energy say they want renewable energy, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that the choice has been makde, and that renewable energy technologies will roll out without any market intervention. The problem is that if you keep thinking that the “consumer” in the new energies market is the end user of power, heat and fuel, you’re missing the investment point. The “consumers” of new energies in the economy are the energy distributors. And they won’t buy new technologies with their own capital if they can avoid it. The reason is they need to keep their bargain with their shareholders and provide the highest returns in the form of dividends as possible. Capital investment is set at a low priority. And with any capital invested, there is the downside that, for a while at least, that capital is locked up in development of new energy plant, so almost inevitably, energy prices for consumers will rise to compensate the shareholders. You don’t get something for nothing. The enabler of last resort in energy has been assumed to be the government – who have offered a range of subsidies for renewable energy technologies. This has essentially been a bailout of the energy companies, but it seems clear that, apart from the new nuclear power programme, subsidies are now to be terminated. What, one might be tempted to ask, will precipitate new renewable energy investment, now that the subsidy programme for green power is being abandoned (and the potential for a green gas programme has been contracted) ?

    Andrea Leadsom answered critics next, “There hasn’t been a U-turn on onshore wind [power development]. There was a level of concern regarding onshore development – we want[ed] to let local communities decide.”, although they didn’t like it when people in communities protested shale gas development, “We can’t simply say that onshore wind is the lowest cost – or put the cost onto consumers.” Leadsom clearly hasn’t understood the lack of capital investment from the privatised energy industry. Any correction to unpick that lack of investment will inevitably raise energy prices for British consumers – and Brits already pay the highest amount for electricity in Europe. She continued, “The trilemma poses huge issues, but offers huge opportunities.”

    Then it was time for questions from the floor : “[Question] : Do you get the impression that some feel let down – [by your government] cutting green energy support ? [Answer] : We’ve been completely clear about de-carbonisation at the lowest cost. In May 2015 there was the decision about the Levy Control Framework,” [the instrument that caps the total amount added to consumer bills arising from the impact of government policy in any one year – expected to be held to ransom by new nuclear power subsidies over the next decade or so], “Those policy costs must paid by consumers, and they were expected to significantly exceed the limits by 2020,” [due to new nuclear power development, rather than new renewable energy projects], “We had to act. We remain committed to de-carbonisation – but it must be at the lowest cost.”

    “[Question] : Your government was part of putting in place sweeteners to the energy industry for the purpose of incentivising investment for the last four years. The evidence is this [has worked] to stimulate investment, and they are now being withdrawn from renewable energy. Do you understand the frustration ? [Answer] : You can’t simply take the view that because industry says ‘we’re almost there’ that you need to unfairly burden the consumer. Deployment has exceeded projections…” and this is where Andrea Leadsom demonstrated that she had failed to understand. The projections of renewable energy development required to meet decarbonisation targets were partly based on projections of new nuclear power development. Assumption were made about the growth of new nuclear, within the context of the Levy Control Framework, and so the projections for renewable energies were made to be dependent on that, and consequently, the ambitions for renewable energy deployment were arbitrarily low. There was no “Path B” calculated, which would have taken into account the failure, or problems with the new nuclear power programme and given another level of projection for renewable energy.

    Andrea Leadsom continued answering, “We’ve had lots of constructive discussion with industry,” but one wonders which parts of the renewable energy industry she means, and whether that only includes the very large players – as she certainly hasn’t consulted voters or consumers, “looking at other ways rather than throwing money at it [renewable energy]. [Question] : At the start your government colleagues said ‘there will be no subsidies for nuclear’. Now, clearly, there are [loan guarantee payments, Contracts for Difference and so on]. [Answer] : No, there’s been no U-turn on that. Hinkley Point C is a private investment, being funded by partners,” [ignoring the financial ill-health of EdF and Areva], “There will be no cost to the British billpayer until it generates”, [which is not quite accurate, because if the project fails, the government will reimburse the financiers], “You don’t want project risk.” And it is here that I nearly left the room. The design of Hinkley Point C is inherently risky, from safety and construction points of view. And the permission for the project to go ahead should never have been given, as the design is unproven. For the project to never even get built, or if it does get built, never be able to generator power, is the ultimate in project risk ! We need to increase British energy security, not risk it with big new nuclear power plant projects !

    Questionners in the room continued, “[Question] : Does Her Majesty’s Treasury now control DECC ? [Answer] : No. It’s fantastic to have a Conservative-led DECC…[for policy direction] I would say demand-led subsidies without cost to the consumer.” Well ? Wouldn’t a “demand-led subsidy without cost to the consumer” amount to a return to the original Renewables Obligation ? Where electricity suppliers had to guarantee that a certain proportion of their supply was green power, and provide the certificates to prove it ? And there was no subsidy support to get this done ?

    “[Questionner hammering the point] : Are you [in DECC] saying this is what we want, and George [Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Treasury] says no ? [Answer] : All departments have to take cuts in public spending in order to get the economy back on track. We’re working constructively with the Treasury. [As far as past policies go it was a case of] if you throw money at it it will solve it – [but this is] not necessarily [so].” One of the reasons that subsidies for energy companies is a failed policy is because the situation has become one where the energy companies compete not to spend capital by blackmailing the government for subsidies. Nothing changes without subsidy, because the government has not stood firm and ordered mandated regulatory compliance with decarbonisation. In addition, it would need an agreement throughout the European Union to get change on this front – because energy companies would refuse to invest in the UK if the UK stop handing out subsidy candy for renewables.

    “[Question from LSE] : Our students are considering careers in renewable energy. [Your government is] handing out £26 billion of fossil fuel subsidies. How will government develop at transition to renewables ? [Answer] : I disagree with you that the renewable energy section of the energy industry is cutting back. There is a massive pipeline of projects including offshore projects [in wind power”, [but smaller scale community and onshore projects have been rejected, which amounts to big energy companies winning all the rights to develop renewables], “What I would really like to see is [the development of] people moving between sectors. [The oil and gas industry has majored in] Aberdeen, [where there is also a] burgeoning offshore wind sector [so people could retrain].”

    Then, Andrea Leadsom took a question about the costs of nuclear power, “[Question] : Hinkley Point C – when it finally operates – will be getting £92.50 per MWh [indexed with inflation]. Is this too much ? [Answer] : No. [Nuclear power is] absolutely reliable”, [not it isn’t – I’d recommend a look at performance of the current fleet of nuclear power plants in the UK], “It’s vital to the economy to have reliable sources of baseload power. It’s cheaper than offshore wind. Nuclear is absolutely key to it. France and our old fleets are now producing very, very cheap electricity…” Andrea Leadsom was clearly in a state of spiritual trance, because these are highly contestable factoids. The French government has just had to bail out their nuclear electricity industry, and their policy has turned away from nuclear for future power needs. Andrea Leadsom obviously doesn’t include the costs of decommissioning nuclear power plants and the disposal of the last 60 years of radioactive nuclear waste and radioactive waste nuclear fuel when she talks about the costs of nuclear power. This is a public subsidy that will need to be continued, because nobody else will handle this as there is no profit to be made from it. Well, some companies have tried to make a profit from nuclear waste and waste nuclear fuel in the UK, but it has always ended badly. We cannot just leave radioactive waste on the beach to burn away. We need to actively manage it. And that costs money that isn’t even an investment.

  • Andrea Leadsom : Energy Quadrilemma #1

    Posted on November 10th, 2015 Jo No comments

    The energy “trilemma” is the dilemma of three dimensions : how to decarbonise the energy system, whilst continuing to provide affordable energy to consumers, at a high security of supply. The unspoken fourth dimension is that of investment : just who is going to invest in British energy, particularly if green energy booster subsidies and regulatory measures are binned ? The UK Government have in the past few years believed that they need to support new investment in new technologies, but it looks likely that this drive is about to lose all its incentives.

    Today, Amber Rudd, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, faces an inquiry into Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) accounts and budgetary spending, and some say this could be a prelude for the closure or severe contraction of the whole department. If all Climate Change measures were put into abeyance, or passed over to the new Infrastructure Commission, the only remaining function of DECC could be nuclear power plant and nuclear waste decommissioning. It might have to change its name, even.

    At last week’s Energy Live News conference, Andrea Leadsom, Minister of State for Energy at the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), headed up the morning, with a bit of a lead in from ELN Editor Sumit Bose. He said that continuing challenges arose from the optimisation of balancing reserves and demand side management in electricity generation. He said that policy had perhaps swung away from the projection of 100% electrification of British energy, as this would require at least 15% more committed capital expenditure – although there would be savings to be had in operational expenditure. He also said that there is an ongoing budgetary conflict going on in government departments about the public money available to spend on investment in infrastructure (including that for energy). Obviously, the announcement of the Infrastructure Commission is going to help in a number of areas – including reaching for full electrification of the railways – a vital project. Then he introduced the Minister.

    Andrea Leadsom said, “This government is determined to resolve the energy trilemma, decarbonising at the lowest cost to the consumer whilst keeping the lights on. In the past we did tend to have crazes on different technologies….”. At this point I wondered if she included nuclear power in that set of crazes, but her later remarks confirmed she is still entrenched in that fad.

    Leadsom said, “There’s been a big move to renewable energy technologies, and quite rightly too. We need a wide diversity of electricity sources. We need to try and improve the new nuclear programme…”, at which point I thought to myself, “Good luck with that !”. She said, “Renewable energy has trebled. We need [to fund] that transition from unabated coal, [turn on to] gas and renewables. [But] as we saw yesterday – there is an intermittency of renewables.”

    Andrea Leadsom was referring to the previous day, when National Grid has issued their first call for surplus top-up power generation since 2012. Owing to a confluence of weather systems over the UK, the atmosphere was becalmed, and wind power output was close to zero. However, this had already been predicted to happen. The lack of wind power was not the problem.

    The problem lay in two other areas. Of the completely inflexible nuclear power plants, three generators were out of action for scheduled maintenance (Hunterston B, Reactor 3; Heysham 1, Reactor 1 and Hartlepool Reactor 1). And so when two coal-fired power plants which normally would have been operational were out of action, and one failed apparently between 12:45pm and 12:51pm (Eggborough, Fiddlers and Rugeley according to various sources) dropping approximately 640 megawatts (MW) out of the system (according to BM Reports data), National Grid had to resort to elements of their balancing “toolkit” that they would not normally use.

    The operators generating for the National Grid were able to ramp up Combined Cycle Gas Turbine (CCGT), and various large electricity users with special arrangements with National Grid were stopped using power. By around 18:00 6pm the emergency was over, with peak demand for the evening levelling off at around 48 gigawatts (GW).

    Although National Grid handled the problem well, there was a serious risk of blackouts, but again, not because of wind power.

    If during the period of supply stress, one of the nuclear power plants had suddered an outage, that would have created the “nightmare scenario”, according to Peter Atherton, from Jefferies, quoted in The Guardian newspaper. The reason for this is that the nuclear power plants are large generators, or “baseload” generators. They have suffered from problems of unreliability over the recent years, and whenever they shutdown, either in a planned or an unplanned manner, they cause the power grid a massive headache. The amount of power lost is large, and there’s sometimes no guarantee of when the nuclear generation can be restored. In addition, it takes several hours to ramp up replacement gas-fired power plants to compensate for the power lost from nuclear.

    Yes, Andrea Leadsom, more renewable energy is essential to meet decarbonisation goals. Yes, Andrea Leadsom, renewable energy technologies have an inherent intermittency or variability in their output. No, Andrea Leadsom, National Grid’s problems with power generation during the winter months is not caused by wind power on the system – wind power is providing some of the cheapest resources of electricity. No, Andrea Leadsom, insecurity in Britain’s power supply is being caused by ageing nuclear and coal power plants, and the only way to fix that is to create incentives to develop a plethora of differently-scaled generation facilities, including many more decentralised renewable energy utilities, flexible top-up backup gas-fired power plants, including Combined Heat and Power town-scale plants, and Renewable Gas production and storage facilities.

  • The Great Policy Reset

    Posted on November 6th, 2015 Jo No comments

    Everything in the UK world of energy hit a kind of slow-moving nightmare when the Department of Energy and Climate Change stopped replying to emails a few months ago, claiming they were officially ordered to focus on the “Spending Review” – as known as “The Cuts” – as ordered by George Osborne, Chancellor of Her Majesty’s Treasury.

    We now know that this purdah will be terminated on 25th November 2015, when various public announcements will be made, and whatever surprises are in store, one thing is now for certain : all grapevines have been repeating this one word regarding British energy policy : “reset”.

    Some are calling it a “soft reset”. Some are predicting the demise of the entire Electricity Market Reform, and all its instruments – which would include the Capacity Auction and the Contracts for Difference – which would almost inevitably throw the new nuclear power ambition into a deep dark forgettery hole.

    A report back from a whispering colleague regarding the Energy Utilities Forum at the House of Lords on 4th November 2015 included these items of interest :-

    “…the cost of battery power has dropped to 10% of its value of a few years ago. National Grid has a tender out for micro-second response back up products – everyone assumes this is aimed at batteries but they are agnostic … There will be what is called a “soft reset” in the energy markets announced by the government in the next few weeks – no one knows what this means but obviously yet more tinkering with regulations … On the basis that diesel fuel to Afghanistan is the most expensive in the world (true), it has to be flown in, it has been seriously proposed to fly in Small Modular Nuclear reactors to generate power. What planet are these people living on I wonder ? … A lot more inter connectors are being planned to UK from Germany, Belgium Holland and Norway I think taking it up to 12 GWe … ”

    Alistair Phillips-Davies, the CEO of SSE (Scottish and Southern Energy), took part in a panel discussion at Energy Live News on 5th November 2015, in which he said that he was expecing a “reset” on the Electricity Market Reform (EMR), and that the UK Government were apparently focussing on consumers and robust carbon pricing. One view expressed was that the EMR could be moved away from market mechanisms. In other discussions, it was mentioned that the EMR Capacity Market Auction had focussed too much on energy supply, and that the second round would see a wider range of participants – including those offering demand side solutions.

    Energy efficiency, and electricity demand profile flattening, were still vital to get progress on, as the power grid is going to be more efficient if it can operate within a narrower band of demand – say 30 to 40 GW daily, rather than the currently daily swing of 20 to 50 GW. There was talk of offering changing flexible, personal tariffs to smooth out the 5pm 17:00 power demand peak, as price signalling is likely to be the only way to make this happen, and comments were made about how many computer geeks would be needed to analyse all the power consumption data.

    The question was asked whether the smart meter rollout could have the same demand smoothing effect as the Economy 7 tariff had in the past.

    The view was expressed that the capacity market had not provided enough by way of long-term price signals – particularly for investment in low carbon energy. One question raised during the day was whether it wouldn’t be better just to set a Europe-wide price on carbon and then let markets and the energy industry decide what to put in place ?

    So, in what ways could the British Government “reset” the Electricity Market Reform instruments in order to get improved results – better for pocket, planet and energy provision ? This is what I think :-

    1. Keep the Capacity Mechanism for gas

    The Capacity Mechanism was originally designed to keep efficient gas-fired power plants (combined cycle gas turbine, or CCGT) from closing, and to make sure that new ones were built. In the current power generation portfolio, more renewable energy, and the drive to push coal-fired power plants to their limits before they need to be closed, has meant that gas-fired generation has been sidelined, kept for infrequent use. This has damaged the economics of CCGT, both to build and to operate. This phenomenon has been seen all across Europe, and the Capacity Market was supposed to fix this. However, the auction was opened to all current power generators as well as investors in new plant, so inevitably some of the cash that was meant for gas has been snaffled up by coal and nuclear.

    2. Deflate strike prices after maximum lead time to generation

    No Contracts for Difference should be agreed without specifying a maximum lead time to initial generation. There is no good reason why nuclear power plants, for example, that are anticipated to take longer than 5 years to build and start generating should be promised fixed power prices – indexed to inflation. If they take longer than that to build, the power prices should be degressed for every year they are late, which should provide an incentive to complete the projects on time. These projects with their long lead times and uncertain completion dates are hogging all the potential funds for investment, and this is leading to inflexibility in planning.

    3. Offer Negative Contracts for Difference

    To try to re-establish a proper buildings insulation programme of works, projects should be offered an incentive in the form of contracts-for-energy-savings – in other words, aggregated heat savings from any insulation project should be offered an investment reward related to the size of the savings. This will not be rewarding energy production, but energy use reduction. Any tempering of gas demand will improve the UK’s balance of payments and lead to a healthier economy.

    4. Abandon all ambition for carbon pricing

    Trends in energy prices are likely to hold surprises for some decades to come. To attempt to set a price on carbon, as an aid to incentivising low carbon energy investment is likely to fail to set an appropriate investment differential in this environment of general energy pricing volatility. That is : the carbon price would be a market signal lost in a sea of other effects. Added to which, carbon costs are likely to be passed on to energy consumers before they would affect the investment decisions of energy companies.

  • Averil Macdonald : Shale Scold

    Posted on November 6th, 2015 Jo No comments

    “So, Professor Macdonald”, I hazarded, as the good woman, sporting an alarmingly bright red frock, was fiddling with her bags on her way out of the Energy Live 2015 conference event on 5th November 2015 in the arty Barbican, “I understand that some remarks that you made about women and shale gas have been misrepresented.”

    Averil Macdonald politely stopped what she was doing and engaged with me about this issue, which had thrust her abruptly into the limelight, accused of being sexist. She said that she had been misquoted, and her real meaning twisted by the absence of five words from what she’d actually said. I asked her where I could check what she had actually said, and she pointed me at a Guardian newspaper piece, which I think is this one.

    I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, as I had sat in her earlier stage presentation urging women and girls into STEM careers, amongst other things, and she’d been quite upbeat about energy transition. She said it was going to be a long road to an ultra-low carbon system, and require lots of investment. Although she spoiled this by adding that the investment would need to be in extraction – for fossil fuels, obviously – as well as infrastructure. Her assumption that continued fossil fuel mining is essential, particularly in light of the need to reduce carbon dioxide and methane emissions, was, I felt, quite alarming.

    Anyway, back to the evening one-to-one chat. I asked her a little more about how she viewed shale gas exploration, because I said I couldn’t see a good reason for it – especially as industrially manufactured low carbon gas held out more potential. Her argument was a little more detailed than she had made from the platform earlier. She said that “this country” can’t afford new energy investment. I didn’t stop her right there, but I should have. I should have countered with asking about the eye-watering sums of foreign sovereign wealth, taxpayers’ money, billpayers’ money and tax breaks being thrown at supporting new and existing fossil fuel production in the North Sea, and loan guarantees and other subsidies for new nuclear power, besides the huge public budgets for cleaning up decades of nuclear power plant waste and spent nuclear fuel. And then I should have challenged her about privatisation in the energy industry, which has led to companies being hamstrung by their need to provide higher returns to shareholders at the expense of capital investment, a situation that has only been turned around by government promises of public money and guaranteed high power prices to justify boardroom spending on new and renovated assets. The money to invest is there, I should have countered. It’s in the system. It’s just being frittered away on dividends, Contracts for Difference, capacity auctions, and insane projects like new nuclear power. And anyway, if banks are confident of technologies, they can always create debt to finance projects.

    Anyway, back to Averil’s take on things. She said that indigenous UK energy resources should be exploited in order to finance the low carbon transition. Again, I should have interjected and prevented her from continuing. When does Her Majesty’s Treasury actually hypothecate revenue, I should have asked her. How would tax take from shale gas production ever be converted into money for renewable energy or building insulation ? She should look at the example of fuel duty, or several other allegedly “green” taxes and see for herself where the pennies have accumulated into budgetary expenditure pounds. Not in Feed-in Tariffs, that’s for sure. I tried to question the potential volumes of shale gas production, and how it would only contribute small revenue streams for the Treasury. I tried to ask her about other indigenous British energy resources, such as the wind and sunshine, and how they are free, compared to the costs of digging up shale gas, but she breezed on.

    She said that there was a lot of capital being attracted to the exploitation of shale gas in the UK. She implied that private capital was heavily invested. I should have asked her in-depth questions about this. Intelligent oil and gas companies have steered well clear of the UK Shale Gas project. Large companies like Shell and Total are promising their shareholders that dividends will remain healthy, despite the downturn in the oil commodity price which impacts their profits. Shell won’t be involved in British shale gas, even though Total will, apparently, but evidence suggests that any failure in exploration will mean that Total pulls right out again. So far, UK shale gas experience has been empty holes, and companies withdrawing. What kind of companies apart from those in the existing energy sector would have enough confidence of their knowledge about shale gas and hydraulic fracturing, sufficient to invest on the kind of scale required ? I said that the real investment money for energy in future wasn’t going to come from the government, or from speculators, but from large investment funds. She said that capital was already committed to shale gas. I should have asked more, because I can’t imagine that the very cautious major investors would risk their reputations and credit ratings on shale gas.

    I said that I doubted there would be much in terms of shale gas production for the first 20 years. I also said that there are some very good reasons to oppose the development of a shale gas industry in the UK. I said the only reason that the general voting democratic public permit the ongoing extraction of oil and gas in the North Sea is because the ocean disperses most spills. If this drilling were to come onshore, people would see the environmental pollution that fossil fuel production always entails. Averil Macdonald insisted that the UK has one of the best industrial regulatory regimes, and that shale gas production can be done safely and securely. I said that I had been looking at some of the research on gas and oil well integrity, and spills, and about long term monitoring. I should have challenged her by asking her whether she realised that without decades of close monitoring and potentially emergency intervention, shale gas wells could constitute a major environmental risk for a very long time to come.

    I should have reminded her of the basic problems with UK shale gas development proposals : that in comparison to the United States, where the federal government sold off massive blocks of open public land for shale development, the UK is densely populated, and that vital environmental resources are packed close together. I should have reminded her that the best estimates are that the potential shale gas resource in the whole of Europe is only ten times or less what it is in northern America. I should have said that the statistical rates of compromised oil and gas wells mean that surface pollution from shale production is inevitable. I should have reminded her that although what’s happening in Gasland USA could be considered “scare stories”, as she clearly thinks, these are real events, and real lives being affected. Whatever she might think about the poor standards in the oil and gas industry in the USA, they too have a regulatory regime for the energy sector, and yet environmental and social abuses are rife. Perhaps it is simply the nature of shale gas and shale oil development that causes problems, regardless of legislation and industry monitoring ? I should have reminded her that the geology of UK shale sediments are different to those in northern America; that it took well over 40 years to develop shale extraction there, and that there are real problems resulting from new underground extraction technologies, including seismic events, water, soil and air pollution and land collapse.

    I should have stated the obvious about women in particular, who she accused of taking a position against shale gas without knowing the facts, without understanding the science. First of all, shale gas exploitation is not science : it’s an engineering technology, and technologies fail, and women know this. And secondly, oil and gas production is dirty, and women know this, too. Women get sick and tired of men treading all over the clean kitchen floor in their muddy boots, leaving toxic damp towels on the bed, and not wiping up spills. Women know that onshore oil and gas production will be another bunch of big, strong boys, muscling into your house, promising to do a good job and then behaving like dodgy builders, regardless of the regulations in the construction industry. We don’t want these profiteers tearing up our beautiful countryside to dig leaky, unhealthy holes, and bomb the underside of the Earth just to make a few homes warmer.

    Oh, Averil Macdonald knows how to peddle political tales – she posed the usual narrative that it’s fine buying Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from Qatar, but all the Qataris do with the money is buy Ferraris. I said I’d heard that story before, and I said I found it irrelevant. I should have challenged her about the serious prospects of LNG expansion in Australia and south east Asia. After the Middle East gas is finished, there are more places to get gas from, for at least another 30 years, without blowing up the subsoil for shale gas.

    Professor Macdonald, chair of UK Onshore Oil and Gas, tried to sell me the idea that communities who would be prepared to accept the wonderfully small profile shale gas wells would receive generous funds. I suppose she was suggesting that these bribes could then pay for solar and wind power development. But I didn’t get to ask this, as our conversation was terminated by our being shushed by an irritated young privileged white male who wanted to hear the Ed Davey Unplugged interview without interruption, who began impolitely with an angry “excuse me”. Being women, naturally, Professor Averil Macdonald and I both immediately apologised as our gender are culturally trained to do, and continued arguing for only a minute more sotto voce before giving up in the face of amplified male competition. Ed Davey was most entertaining, after all. It almost made up for being scolded about my resistance to and scorn for shale gas development.

  • Ed Davey : Lounge Lizard

    Posted on November 6th, 2015 Jo No comments

    Nothing can really top an Energy Live News day of energy debates rounded off by a beer and the spectacle of a respectable ex-Energy Minister lounging in playboy fashion on a bar stool nursing a glass of red wine (or two) and being nigh on scathing about UK energy policy – or the total lack thereof.

    As I recall it, but I didn’t take notes or a voice recording, Ed Davey, now an energy consultant as “Energy Destinations”, had the temerity to call out the current UK Government as “liars” about the Levy Control Framework being overspent, and quoted others as saying that the current Tory energy strategy is “stupid” and “barmy”.

    He said, as I remember it, that the Tories have never offered viable alternatives to things that are failing, and that he personally wouldn’t bet his house on the claims of large volumes of shale gas production. I believe he said that the Tories pushing through shale gas development was bound to create strong resistance – although he didn’t stoop so low as to suggest that the main resistance to shale gas was coming from… Tory ruralshire voters.

    Conservative voters in every town and village seem to be the key deniers of climate change science, and appear to me to be generally against any form of energy investment – wind, solar and shale, and any new cables and pipes. Deranged or rabid that may seem, at first glance. And possibly the second glance, too. But there you are. A Party can’t choose the sanity of its voters. Although if I were in the Tory Government, I’d be highly embarrassed by some of these people. There are plenty of “ouch” moments to deal with – such as the entire cancellation of a perfectly viable wind power project offshore in southern England, just because of the contributors to the Letters Page in the Bournemouth Echo newspaper and the local yachtsmen. The whole fate of human civilisation could rest in the hands of uneducated yokels dismissing renewable energy because they listened to James Delingpole’s gut instinct about the reliability of global warming science. But I digress.

    It is the height of Conservative Government cowardice and illogic to permit local groups to fight political battles against new energy investment, instead of making the strategic case for new energy, particularly renewables. Also, it is ridiculous to use subsidy or “golden egg” community bribes to roll out infrastructure development. Sorry. They’re not “bribes”. Not even if money is being handed out by the shedload to communities volunteering to host industrially landscape-disfiguring and toxic shale gas developments or nuclear waste disposal facilities that need monitoring for decades or even centuries to guarantee their environmental security.

    Ed Davey wanted to remind his audience that he had been the longest serving Energy Minister since 1997 (did I get that right ?) – which is about right, as many others have been pushed out of office on one pretext or another – faux scandal after faux scandal. Nobody would want that job.

    Ed Davey said that trade with other countries was the way to build global security and address things such as human rights issues, so he has no problem in energy trade and investment with China – and that he has his own project there.

    After the “Ed Davey, Unplugged” interview with Energy Live News, I hung about earwigging to Ed talk to his encircling fandom. I think the first question he got was about thorium nuclear power, small modular reactors or nuclear fusion or something, because he was talking about how advanced designs could not be said to be feasible, even though people claim they are feasible.

    He made the very good point that a lot of things in energy are uncertain, and that in the energy sector, if anybody claims that something is absolutely certain, they’re lying. I tried to get across the general conclusion of my research into low carbon gas – that there are much better, and more certain, prospects of industrially manufactured low carbon gas than anything that shale gas could ever deliver. He admitted that the range of projections for shale gas production are very wide. I said that many players were working on green gas projects, including the National Grid. He said that National Grid had a vested interest. I agreed.

    Because everybody has a vested interest in their own pet favourite energy. There are a number of people in the Conservative Party, for example, who stand to gain significantly from investment in shale gas development. If confidence can be raised in the technology, then investment can be gathered, and distributed, even if there is no commodity of any size to draw on. Shale gas development sounds to me like the plot of The Producers – the aim is to raise a lot of investment capital for a flop, and scarper with the proceeds. A little like the loan guarantee offered for the Hinkley Point C financiers. Another fine British energy subsidy. But again, I digress.

    Ed Davey said that a leftwing Labour Party bothered him, and that they had been bandying about a wild high figure for green gas production potential. I said it all depends on energy efficiency measures, and also, that the original research had been done by National Grid and other researchers. Half of residential gas demand being supplied by green gas is not unimaginable or unfeasible if you consider this as an industrial proposition, and not just farm-based tank digestion for biogas and biomethane.

    Ed Davey said that he wanted to see shale gas developed, as he didn’t really trust Vladimir Putin. He was keen to point out that the UK Government should work with uncertainty, and build a framework for energy policy that can cope with uncertainty. I tried to make the point that it would take at least 20 years before shale gas production could produce significant volumes, if it could at all. We don’t have time for this highly uncertain strategy. I also tried to say that nobody knows if the EPR nuclear reactor design destined to be built at Hinkley Point C actually works. That’s quite an uncertainty to base core energy policy on, if you ask me.

    Since the potential resources of shale gas in the whole of Europe are ten times smaller, or less, than in North America, why would shale gas be expected to be productive in the UK ? The deal that BP has just done with China to develop shale gas in its desertified hinterland is probably a useful project compared to the idiocy of trying to develop shale gas in Britain. The BP-China deal, by the way, was signed in under cover of the news of the Chinese investment in the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant, but I think the BP-China-shale-gas story is far more important. I think Hinkley Point C is a project that stands a chance of falling flat on its face – either because the EPR doesn’t work – something the Chinese should soon be able to tell us because they’re building a pair in Taishan – or because it cannot get built in a useful timeframe.

    Ed Davey’s position, as a Liberal, of course, is that he wants to let all the possible energy technologies come on, and see which succeed. He gave no recognition of the support needed to bring on some new or currently niche technologies. Or the subsidies still being received by the fossil fuel and nuclear power industry.

    Ed’s view is that David Cameron will not want to break up or disband the Department of Energy and Climate Change, but that when George Osborne becomes Leader of the Conservative Party, and becomes Prime Minister in the next General Election, he will definitely want to get rid of DECC. Ed Davey didn’t mention that over half of DECC’s budget is committed to nuclear decommissioning, and that this will still need to get paid for, even if DECC dies a departmental death.

    Although Ed Davey admitted that the strike price for power arising from the Contract for Difference agreed for the Hinkley Point C was high, he said that this was to pay for the eventual decommissioning of the plant and the disposal of the fuel waste. However, he didn’t seem to realise that this is likely to be under-costed, as the final disposal of nuclear waste and nuclear fuel will still paid for by the British taxpayer, as it will be sold back from the private energy companies when the Geological Disposal Facility will be built. So, in addition to the 60 years or more of radioactive waste and radioactive spent nuclear fuel that the British people have yet to pay to dispose of, we will be lumped with paying the spiralling costs of disposing of all the waste from the new nuclear projects as well. No lessons learned there, then.

  • Clueless in Whitehall

    Posted on November 5th, 2015 Jo No comments

    On 3rd November 2015, I had the disconcerting experience of wandering up and down Whitehall in London looking vainly for a venue : the Parliamentary Renewable and Sustainable Energy Group (PRASEG) and Energy Networks Association (ENA) event entitled “Gas – Delivering for Customers and Supporting the Low Carbon Economy“.

    The central street of government officialdom has become almost unrecognisable in parts, owing to a fad for boarding up offices under renovation in boxed section – London’s joinery community must be waxing rich. I wondered inconclusively if this trend was spurred by attention to security questions ahead of the round-Cenotaph open-air wreath-laying coming up on 11th November.

    I very politely asked several security guards in high visibility jerkins and a policeman outside Downing Street with an outrageously full hipster beard where I could find Number 61, and nobody seemed to know where it was.

    I even went into the front door of Number 74 Parliament Street to check I wasn’t looking in the wrong place. The reception guard said that I wasn’t the first person who’d come asking.

    I dropped in at the Cabinet Office, and asked if perhaps the invitation meant Whitehall Place instead of Whitehall. I even phoned the mobile phone number and desk number of the event organiser – who didn’t pick up. Obviously. Because he was hard at work at the venue itself already.

    Eventually, I encountered a face I recognised striding along Whitehall, or at least I thought I recognised : Nick Molho, now working with the Aldersgate Group, and I asked him if he was also going to the PRASEG/ENA meeting. He was not.

    And then I found Dr Alan Whitehead MP also wandering down the street, similarly lost. He too had stopped Nick Molho to ask about Number 61. Clueless in Whitehall.

    Comrades in lostness, together we walked into the scaffolded, but not boxed-in, Banqueting House, and helpfully, a woman on the welcome team knew that Number 61 was next door. Of course, Number 61 is the home of RUSI, the Royal United Services Institute. And of course, we’d both been there before. Maybe I ought to carry around a proper smartphone for situations such as these.

    Once successfully in the round room with the tasteful purple velvet curtain backdrop, I found a contact from the UK Government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), who was also sporting very large amounts of sprouty chin hair. The beard’s coming on well, I commented. Yes, I grew it all myself, he answered proudly. So, I asked, could I ask you anything about the Spending Review ? Well, he said, you could ask me, but I can’t guarantee if I can answer you, and if I do answer you, I might not be able to give the full answer. OK then, I conceded, I won’t ask.

    The 25th November, he said, is when the announcements will be made.

    My view is though that this particular person will get to keep his job. If he were about to leave the government, he would have shaved his beard off by now. Presentableness for interviews, you see. A clean chin denotes a clean mind, or at least, a refreshed one, looking more youthful, and ready for something new. A kind of face “reset”.

    There were a number of very interesting presentations at the PRASEG/ENA do, but the ones that really stood out for me were a presentation on Renewable Gas from National Grid and the one from CNG Services about compressed Natural Gas being used to fuel Heavy Goods Vehicles.

    I spoke to the speaker from National Grid after their presentation. I told them I had called my book on low carbon gas system options “Renewable Gas”, as I had been impressed by the National Grid publication of the same name that I read back in 2009.

    I said it was a shame that the UK Capacity Mechanism had not worked as it should have done to support new investment in high performance combined cycle gas turbine power generation plant (CCGTs), which are an ideal way of increasing flexibility in balancing the UK power supply to demand, especially as more intermittent/variable renewable power becomes available.

    CCGTs have faced issues of economic viability because they are not always in use, and this would only be exacerbated by increasing levels of wind and solar power feeding the grid.

    I said it seemed obvious to me that it would be more economically efficient if CCGTs were extended to become fully integrated gas production and recycling systems. I said this meant capturing carbon dioxide and re-processing it into new methane-rich gas fuel, methanating with Renewable Hydrogen produced from biomass and steam, or renewable electricity when available, and storing the methane-rich fuel for use when renewable electricity was not available.

    I congratulated the speaker on having the word “Methanation” on one of their slides.

    They intimated that in a very short timeframe they expected their first BioSNG (biomass-derived substitute Natural Gas) project to be announced – gasifying black bag waste in Swindon, and making methane-rich gas for grid injection.

    I said I would be interested in visiting the site, and was invited to email in a request to be included on the notification list.

    The presentation from CNG Services showed us the new Scania gas truck – fuelled entirely by compressed natural gas – and the location of the filling station – on the high pressure gas transmission line. What will be happening is that John Lewis – will be anaerobically digesting all their food waste, and converting the biogas to biomethane, and injecting it into the gas grid, receiving Green Gas Certificates. They will then run a fleet of Scania gas trucks, and fill up at CNG Services, and will be able to claim that their entire transport fleet will be running on Renewable Gas.

    To me, it was notable that there was not much discussion of shale gas throughout much of the event, despite this being one of the key planks of the Conservative Government energy narrative of late, regardless of how vain and meaningless it is. The PRASEG/ENA event showed that they may be clueless in Whitehall, but there are some parliamentarians and their friends in the gas industry who recognise the huge opportunities for manufactured low carbon gas.

  • What To Do Next

    Posted on October 4th, 2015 Jo No comments

    Status-checking questions. I’m sure we all have them. I certainly do. Several times a week, or even day, I ask myself two little questions of portent : “What am I doing ?” and “Why am I here ?”. I ask myself these questions usually because my mind’s wandered off again, just out of reach, and I need to call myself to attention, and focus. I ask these little questions of myself when I do that thing we all do – I’ve set off with great purpose into another room, and then completely forgotten why I went there, or what I came to find or get. I also use these forms of enquiry when I’m at The Crossroads of Purpose – to determine what exactly it is I’m deciding to aim for. What are my goals this day, week, month, age ? Can I espy my aims, somewhere on the horizon ? Can I paddle labouriously towards them – against the tide – dodge/defeat the sharks ? Can I muster the will to carry this out – “longhauling it” ?

    I’ve spent a long time writing a book, which I’m sure to bore everybody about for the next aeon. My intention in writing the book was to stimulate debate about what I consider to be the best direction for balanced energy systems – a combination of renewable electricity and Renewable Gas. I wanted to foster debate amongst the academics and engineers who may be my peers, certainly, hopefully providing a little seed for further research. Hopefully also having a small influence on energy policy, perhaps, or at least, getting myself and my ideas asked to various policy meetings for a little airing. But, if I could in some way, I also wanted to offer a bit of fizz to the internal conversations of companies in the energy sector. You see, it may be obvious, or it may not be, but action on climate change, which principally involves the reduction in the mining, drilling and burning of fossil fuels, principally also involves the co-operation of the fossil fuel extraction companies. Their products are nearly history, and so it must be that inside the headquarters of every transnational energy giant, corporate heads are churning through their options with a very large what-if spoon.

    Click to continue reading

  • The Ministry of Nuclear Defence ?

    Posted on September 15th, 2015 Jo No comments

    Regular as clockwork, almost, somebody wonders if Britain’s insane drive to build new nuclear power plants is linked to Britain’s “deterrent” nuclear weapons :-

    “Query over UK’s civil and military nuclear links : By Paul Brown : Experts are asking whether the UK government’s determination to build more nuclear power stations is linked to its wish to maintain its nuclear deterrent : 13 September, 2015 : Electricity from proposed new nuclear stations in the UK will be more expensive than from any other nuclear reactors in the world, yet the government is pressing ahead with its plan to build 11 new installations, despite mounting criticism. […] The strange mismatch between Europe’s two largest economies, Germany and the UK, is puzzling experts, especially since the International Energy Agency and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency say in the 2015 Projected Costs of Generating Electricity report that Britain’s plans will make its nuclear electricity the most expensive in the world. […] The Conservative government, elected in May, lacks a coherent energy policy after cutting subsidies for on-shore wind and solar, but sticks to its line that nuclear power is essential for turning Britain into a low-carbon economy. […] Britain has much better renewable resources, yet has decided to opt for nuclear power, even though it is more expensive than on-shore wind or solar. Phil Johnstone and Andy Stirling, University of Sussex research experts in the nuclear policy area, have put forward the suggestion that the UK needs to continue to build and run civilian nuclear power stations to maintain enough nuclear expertise in the country to run its nuclear submarines independently, and so keep its status as a nuclear weapons state. This possible link between civil and military nuclear power has never been debated in public, although the British government has repeatedly drawn attention to the lack of young people entering the nuclear industry, and has spent millions of pounds on training programmes to attract them. Its declared position is that nuclear power is needed to combat climate change, and that there is no link between civil and military needs […]”

    Several campaign groups have in fact regularly publicly aired the possibility of this very link between the UK’s military nuclear capability and its civil power programme. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) suggests that the UK needs to keep its civilian nuclear power programme in order to provide tritium for the Trident warheads (e. g.; This would be an important consideration if the UK “divorced” itself from the “special relationship” with the United States at some point in the near future, owing to differences over waging unnecessary and disproportionately vindictive warfare. In the past the UK has imported tritium from the USA, but would be unlikely to do so if military ties were cut, especially if there were questions about the UK’s continued full membership of NATO. In addition, even if the UK-US relationship were to continue, nuclear power plants capable of producing tritium on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean could all be decommissioned within something like 20 years, so without new nuclear power plant builds, the tritium necessary for Trident warhead propellant would simply not be available.

    After over a decade of disagreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has signed an agreement with Kazakhstan for a nuclear material repository :-

    At the current time this is only intended to be for LEU – low-enriched uranium – and would be used as a “third party” in the supply of “sensitive” states with the nuclear fuel needed for their civilian nuclear power programmes. Countries such as Iran…

    However, if the repository in Kazakhstan became a global repository for nuclear waste and waste nuclear fuel as well as uranium fuel, then the UK might well wish to avail itself of this facility, as it is finding it expensive to manage the re-processing, storing and disposing of uranium, plutonium, mixed nuclear fuels, both spent and reprocessed, and vast barrel-loads of nuclear power programme irradiated waste :-

    Even if DECC’s nuclear decommissioning and depository budget can be pared down, there remains the issue of the management of the nuclear warhead fissile material. Already the Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Ministry of Defence are agreeing responsibility dividing lines :-

    Without a significant new civilian nuclear power programme in the UK, nuclear physicists and nuclear engineers might need to be imported – leading to various national security questions. However, the most important problem would be in the maintenance and decommissioning of the Trident “independent” nuclear deterrent. It could become very costly indeed. The best option is to scrap it. We don’t need it anyway.

  • The Trouble with Electrificandum #2

    Posted on August 4th, 2015 Jo No comments

    During my meeting with boffins last week, when I raised the thorny problem of how many new power generation plants the UK would need to build if all home heating and personal transport were shifted to electricity – and then how they would be left idle for most of the year – my conversational correspondent said it really wasn’t a problem – gas-fired power plants are cheap to build, and they wouldn’t be consuming gas when they’re resting. I found this position untenable – as it could well mean gross inefficiencies in the use of energy, besides locking capital up in unused and unsuable plant. The person asked whether I was after optimising cost or efficiency in energy systems, and my reply was “both”.

    After putting together a basic power consumption profile, I realised I needed to build a basic heat model as well, in order to test various simple options of how to meet demand. This proved even harder than the electricity model, as I couldn’t find representative heat demand data of any quality – or at least, I haven’t found any yet. I had to invent a seasonal/weekly half-hourly heat demand profile in order to be able to compare gas demand data to electricity demand data. I must admit, it was extremely basic. I then calculated half-hourly non-industrial heating demand and half-hourly industrial gas demand for 2014. The industrial gas demand would partly be used for generating electricity, as can be seen in the rise and fall in demand maxima when charted alongside power consumption – however this chart is poor, as it slips into the negative, showing that I don’t have any data for half-hourly gross gas demand in the UK, and I’m just using a daily figure divided equally into 48 segments, which is clearly not good enough.

    I need to improve this model and then test various options for supplying heat demand.

    Some examples of efficiency issues :-

    1. Converting primary energy to energy as supplied to consumers
    Much centralised power generation in future will be gas-fired, and this is something like 60% efficient – 40% of the energy in the gas is lost as heat.

    2. Delivering supplied energy to consumers
    I don’t know good figures, but is likely that transmission losses for electricity are much higher than for gas.

    3. Gas-fired central heating compared to heat pump heating
    Heat pumps that take their input energy from supplied electricity may be on average far more efficient than gas-fired central heating, but heat pumps that rely on gas as the input energy might be a better option.

    4. Centralised gas-fired power generation compared to localised Combined Heat and Power (CHP)
    By far the most important source of potential future energy efficiency is the relocation of centralised power generation to the local area where the heat may be used for District Heating (DH). Heat demand is currently roughly an order of magnitude larger than power demand. There are many options for developing the use of CHP/DH, in combination with other heating options, such as heat pumps, thermal stores and manufactured Renewable Gas (as an energy store). It remains to be seen if it would be more efficient to run CHP plant to cater for most of the large heat demand and supply the byproduct electricity to manufacture gas, or heat pumps for the rest of the heat; or run the CHP plant only for small local electrical power needs (where there are not many heat pumps), and use the byproduct heat for storage in thermal stores (the DH pipeline network, for example).

    The reason why efficiency is absolutely crucial is that within 30 years’ time there could well be problems with guaranteeing reliable and ample supplies of Natural Gas. If gas options for energy are generally more efficient than power options – and especially if gas will be the source of much electricity – we will need to have gas-heavy technology choices, and develop indigenous supplies of manufactured and biological Renewable Gas.

  • The Trouble with Electrificandum #1

    Posted on August 2nd, 2015 Jo 1 comment

    Recently, I was in a meeting with some proper boffins, and I was dismayed when one of them articulated their belief in what I call “electrificandum” – the imperative to convert all UK heating and transport to electrical energy. They said that electrical heating of homes had the potential to be highly efficient – they meant, of course, through the adoption of heat pumps. “How could you think that ?” I mused to myself, “Don’t you realised the awkward implications for power generation ?” Leaving aside the question of how the British people could be persuaded to ditch their liquid fuel cars for BEVs (battery electric vehicles) for the moment, I set about searching for a simple model of the UK electricity system. And spent nearly a week finding useful data. It really shouldn’t be this hard, but data on power is an absolute minefield loaded with caveats and lacking clarification. I have averaged, assumed, checked, modelled and massaged what I could find without paying for specialist data services, and worked them into an Excel spreadsheet. And my results astonish even me. The implications for the total generation capacity required for the peak in demand in the late afternoon and evening in 2050 put to bed the notion that nuclear power can help in any way – nuclear power being fairly steady in output. It also negates the assumption that electrical heating can be efficient : although electrical heating from heat pumps can be efficient from the consumer side, from the generator side it’s going to require huge adaptations and lead to gross wastage – partly because of the total gigawatts of power needed during the peak, and partly because of the speed at which it will need to become available. Even for a UK partway-electrified by 2030, the implications for the power sector are huge. The UK will need to adopt a mixed gas-and-power approach to the low carbon energy future. And because Natural Gas supplies could well become tight in the 2030s, and the development of shale gas will not prevent this, the UK needs to develop resources of Renewable Gas.

  • Nobel Chutzpah Prize 2015

    Posted on July 14th, 2015 Jo 2 comments

    The problem with climate change “deniers” and low carbon energy “sceptics” is that they cannot read.

    Here’s Jo Nova, claiming that the United Nations and the World Bank are demanding $89 trillion “to fix climate”.

    She writes, “The ambit claims know no bounds. Who else would ask for $89,000,000,000,000? If the evil “more developed” nations pay for their carbon sins, the bill for those 1.3 billion people works out at $70,000 per person by 2030 (babies included).”

    A simple little diagram from the actual report and a little text, shows she is entirely wrong :-

    From Section 2.1 “Infrastructure investment and global growth” :-

    “The global economy will require substantial investments in infrastructure as the population and the middle class grow. An estimated US$89 trillion of infrastructure investment will be required through 2030, based on data from the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and analysis for the Commission (see Figure 1). This is chiefly investment in energy and cities. This estimate for the required investment is before accounting for actions to combat climate change.”

    That’s before accounting for actions to combat climate change, Ms Nova. Before. I know it’s probably clanging against your internal cognitive fences, but the fact is, the world needs to spend a heap of capital in the next 20 to 30 years reviving, replacing and renewing energy systems infrastructure. That spending has to happen regardless of whether it’s low carbon spending.

    And let’s read the note on Figure 1 more carefully :-


    So, Jo Nova, the world will actually be better off if it decides to make all new energy expenditure low carbon.

    Jo Nova, when will you be updating your web post ?

  • A Partial Meeting of Engineering Minds

    Posted on July 14th, 2015 Jo No comments

    So I met somebody last week, at their invitation, to talk a little bit about my research into Renewable Gas.

    I can’t say who it was, as I didn’t get their permission to do so. I can probably (caveat emptor) safely say that they are a fairly significant player in the energy engineering sector.

    I think they were trying to assess whether my work was a bankable asset yet, but I think they quickly realised that I am nowhere near a full proposal for a Renewable Gas system.

    Although there were some technologies and options over which we had a meeting of minds, I was quite disappointed by their opinions in connection with a number of energy projects in the United Kingdom.

    Click to Read More !

  • DECC Dungeons and Dragnets

    Posted on July 14th, 2015 Jo No comments

    Out of the blue, I got an invitation to a meeting in Whitehall.

    I was to join industrial developers and academic researchers at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in a meeting of the “Green Hydrogen Standard Working Group”.

    The date was 12th June 2015. The weather was sunny and hot and merited a fine Italian lemonade, fizzing with carbon dioxide. The venue was an air-conditioned grey bunker, but it wasn’t an unfriendly dungeon, particularly as I already knew about half the people in the room.

    The subject of the get-together was Green Hydrogen, and the work of the group is to formulate a policy for a Green Hydrogen standard, navigating a number of issues, including the intersection with other policy, and drawing in a very wide range of chemical engineers in the private sector.

    My reputation for not putting up with any piffle clearly preceded me, as somebody at the meeting said he expected I would be quite critical. I said that I would not be saying anything, but that I would be listening carefully. Having said I wouldn’t speak, I must admit I laughed at all the right places in the discussion, and wrote copious notes, and participated frequently in the way of non-verbal communication, so as usual, I was very present. At the end I was asked for my opinion about the group’s work and I was politely congratulational on progress.

    So, good. I behaved myself. And I got invited back for the next meeting. But what was it all about ?

    Most of what it is necessary to communicate is that at the current time, most hydrogen production is either accidental output from the chemical industry, or made from fossil fuels – the main two being coal and Natural Gas.

    Hydrogen is used extensively in the petroleum refinery industry, but there are bold plans to bring hydrogen to transport mobility through a variety of applications, for example, hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles.

    Clearly, the Green Hydrogen standard has to be such that it lowers the bar on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – and it could turn out that the consensus converges on any technologies that have a net CO2 emissions profile lower than steam methane reforming (SMR), or the steam reforming of methane (SRM), of Natural Gas.

    [ It’s at this very moment that I need to point out the “acronym conflict” in the use of “SMR” – which is confusingly being also used for “Small Modular Reactors” of the nuclear fission kind. In the context of what I am writing here, though, it is used in the context of turning methane into syngas – a product high in hydrogen content. ]

    Some numbers about Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) used in the manufacture of hydrogen were presented in the meeting, including the impact this would have on CO2 emissions, and these were very intriguing.

    I had some good and useful conversations with people before and after the meeting, and left thinking that this process is going to be very useful to engage with – a kind of dragnet pulling key players into low carbon gas production.

    Here follow my notes from the meeting. They are, of course, not to be taken verbatim. I have permission to recount aspects of the discussion, in gist, as it was an industrial liaison group, not an internal DECC meeting. However, I should not say who said what, or which companies or organisations they are working with or for.

    Click to Read More !

  • Nuclear Power Is Not An Energy Policy

    Posted on June 23rd, 2015 Jo No comments

    The British Government do not have an energy policy. They may think they have one, and they may regularly tell us that they have one, but in reality, they don’t. There are a number of elements of regulatory work and market intervention that they are engaged with, but none of these by itself is significant enough to count as a policy for energy. Moreover, all of these elements taken together do not add up to energy security, energy efficiency, decarbonisation and affordable energy.

    What it takes to have an energy policy is a clear understanding of what is a realistic strategy for reinvestment in energy after the dry years of privatisation, and a focus on energy efficiency, and getting sufficient low carbon energy built to meet the Carbon Budget on time. Current British Government ambitions on energy are not realistic, will not attract sufficient investment, will not promote increased energy efficiency and will not achieve the right scale and speed of decarbonisation.

    I’m going to break down my critique into a series of small chunks. The first one is a quick look at the numbers and outcomes arising from the British Government’s obsessive promotion of nuclear power, a fantasy science fiction that is out of reach, not least because the industry is dog-tired and motheaten.

    Click to Read More !

  • Greg Barker : Mr Sunshine

    Posted on June 15th, 2015 Jo No comments

    I went to a fascinating meeting on Monday 8th June 2015, hosted by PricewaterhouseCooper (PwC) in London, and organised by the Solar Trade Association, and starring Mr Sunshine himself, Greg Barker, who was on top form, and exceptionally good value, as always.

    We had very interesting presentations from a number of key actors in solar photovoltaic energy, including the newly rebranded Solar Power Europe. James Watson, Solar Power Europe‘s CEO, expressed a view to the effect that it could seem like a waste of time, effort and money for Europe to be spending half its Energy Union budget on reforming the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, when so much could be achieved instead through a recasting of the Renewable Energy Directive. Amendments are due in a new Renewable Energy package in 2017, as confirmed by Commissioner Arias Cañete in March 2015. These amendments would usefully tackle the risk of the European Capacity Mechanism being used to support coal-fired power in Germany – as the parallel policy has been in the UK.

    The Energy Union is taking forward the open and free market principles of “harmonisation” of the electricity and gas trade in the geographical envelope of the Eurozone, which includes countries that have not taken the Euro currency, such as the UK, and countries that are in the European Economic Area but are not full members of the European Union, principally Norway. A key part of the Energy Union is a physical enactment of guarantees for market access – focusing on standards in gas and power products, and the interconnectors that make cross-border trade possible. It is in the interests of all the private energy companies, public energy companies, invididual producers and network operators in the region to take part in this project, as the outcomes will include not only free, open and fair trade, they will also increase energy security in the region, particularly as the level of renewable energy production increases. Renewable electricity is intermittent and variable at all time slices, and strongly seasonal and weather-related, and so international trade within the European region is essential.

    Most commentators on the Energy Union narrow in on the electricity grids, but union also includes the gas grids. The legal framework for gas market harmonisation includes work on gas quality standards and also what kinds of gas can be transmitted through the pipelines, issues covered in the 2009 Energy Package, which permitted unconstrained access for alternative gases as long as they meet the gas protocols. This would permit gas grid injection of biomethane, and potentially other biogases or Renewable Gas varieties.

    One of the main contributors to new power production in the Eurozone is renewable electricity, with growth that has continued throughout the recession in the economy. Although barriers to increased renewable power in the electricity grids have been by and large vaulted, through a combination of regulatory progress and subsidies, as the landscape has changed, so has the need for re-assessment of policy. For example, in the UK, the solar Feed-in Tariff has been strongly criticised as costing too much (although it is a minnow in terms of the total socialised energy budget), and has had to be “degressed” – or stepped down in stages. In Germany, all electricity consumers have been taxed in order to pay for the renewable energy budget – and there has even been a tax on “self-consumption” for solar power producers – and this has been strongly contested. Plans to manufacture low carbon gas from excess solar and wind power would be badly affected by this. It does seem strange that producer-consumers of virtually cost-less and zero carbon power should be taxed, especially when centralised producers are forced to sell power for virtually nothing when there is oversupply – for example on a sunny day.

    What is more likely to hold back European solar expansion, according to Solar Power Europe, is the Minimum Import Price, or MIP. Solar Power Europe will are lobbying for an end to both the MIP and German solar tax. The MIP, according to their analysis, is making solar power in Europe too costly, compared to other regions. Roughly 60% to 70% of the MIP subsidy is going to support Chinese manufacturers, yet China’s solar power industry is becoming very successful in its own right, and doesn’t need this support. Solar Power Europe are concerned that there is gaming of the market going on to decrease the costs of solar panels in Europe – for example, panels made in China are being routed through countries where exports don’t come under the MIP rules. In effect, Solar Power Europe wants policy to change to stop subsidising China and iron out counter-productive internal policies.

    Solar Power Europe have published their “Global Market Outlook : 2015 – 2019” this week, and clearly, there are sunny times ahead, especially since Greg Barker has a key role in delivering solar power in London.

    Greg Barker came to the podium to give his summary of solar power in the UK. He reminded the solar power industry, that although they were becoming a serious sector, that they would continue to remain dependent on subsidies. He said that the major reduction in unit costs was probably over; and barring some improvements in underlying technology, such as revolutions in semiconductor devices, I think I’d probably agree with him. Greg Barker said that to promote the market, there was still a need to sweep away unintended obstacles – he said he didn’t understand why solar power was still cheaper in Germany. He said that the development in solar power was incredible – he said that when he had first taken office in the previous Coalition Government, when he had talked about his ambition for solar power, officials had “fallen off their chairs, laughing”, at his parrotting as Minister, but that now there was a risk of over-development under the Levy Control Framework – the policy that caps subsidy spending on energy. Greg Barker said that he regretted that the EMR bids from solar power (bidding into the Contracts for Difference auction instituted as part of the Electricity Market Reform) may now not get built. He said that the solar industry would be “gutted that Eric Pickles has gone”, and that with the new majority Conservative Government rooftop solar would get support from the Department for Communities and Local Government from their new Minister Greg Clark. Greg Barker said that Camilla Cavendish, appointed in David Cameron’s Policy Unit, is a real ally of renewable energy. Greg Barker warned the room that there would be no additions to the levy budget for solar power, and told the solar industry not to go asking for increases as the regulatory environment would be harsh. He said the solar power developers should aim to drive down their costs and dive into a far more centralised market. He said that he expected that there would be “insurgent companies” making significant progress on solar power – something that the Big Six electricity providers would be unable to do. He warned the solar industry to he “hardheaded and realistic” and urged them to work with the Government.

    Greg Barker told us about his new appointment to the London Sustainable Development Commission. He said that when Boris Johnson had called him about this, he hadn’t heard of it. Greg Barker said that the population of London is growing by 100,000 a year, and that London has growing technology companies – so much so that clean tech in London is better than California. He said that he accepted the appointment to the London SDC on the basis that he would get carte blanche to reform it, to “shift the dial”. He said that “much as I love city farms, and bees“, that he wanted to create more focus. He said that he wanted to get the London SDC working to three criteria on solar power, firstly scalability. He wants to see solar power initiatives that are scalable – which I took to mean not just large unrepeatable projects, or small bespoke projects. Greg Barker said that solar power policy should have genuine additionality – not just producing more reports. The third criteria he wants to apply is that of replicability – as until now, the record of solar power in London was not very good. He said we should remember the aesthetics of solar power, and that big blue panels sitting proud of a red clay roof was not particularly appealing. He mentioned Amber Rudd, who has been given the post of Secretary of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and how she has been talking about the aesthetics of nuclear power. He said this issue was not ephemeral and that it was important to have good design for the London “semi” – semi-detached house. He said that local policy changes could help – such as eliminating the Congestion Charge for solar power companies having to drive and park in London for installations. Greg Barker said that Ed Davey, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the previous Government, was too narrow in his views on organisations that should be enabled to do solar projects. Greg Barker said that we needed not only co-operatives, but also charities, and local authority level alliances, to be enabled to do solar projects. He said that policy needed to be revisited as regards the mid-sector rooftop solar band. He said that if the solar industry and builders get together and propose a change in regulation, Greg Clark would listen. Greg Barker said that Government should be regulating for outcome and not process in order to make progress. Greg Barker said that he wanted solar power to be a key policy issue in the upcoming mayoral election (for the Mayor of London). He said that when he had sat down with Boris Johnson the issues that had surfaced were a need for policy to deal with the circular economy, and how to develop London’s clean tech cluster, and the need for a solar group.

    Greg Barker finished with some good advice. He told the solar power industry to be “persuasive rather than loud”. He said that the solar industry need to understand that a good deal of subsidy has to be focused on the offshore wind power priority, and that this cannot be changed. He said that the solar power industry could “pick up the slack from onshore wind”. He reminded the solar industry to focus on aesthetics and to sell this along with the idea of energy efficiency and return on investment. He said that the Green Deal has shown that we are still a long way from a market in energy efficiency. He asked if the Feed-in Tariff would survive, as solar power continues in its march towards grid parity.

    Later on in the day, over snacks and a couple of beers, I was shown worrying-looking maps of the state of the National Grid by somebody looking at the “constraints” being imposed by Western Power Distribution (WPD), for example, in the South West of England. A summary that could be drawn from the maps was that there are difficulties with adding new power generators into large parts of the grid network. For the proposed Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant and the new Seabank 3 gas-fired power plant, an entirely new piece of grid will be needed – which will increase the lead time to these projects being able to contribute power to the network. If modifications for major projects are going to take up all the attention of National Grid, they won’t be able to advance the upgrades to the grid needed for small, decentralised projects – perhaps for years – and this is worrying as it imposes limitations on the amount of new renewable electricity that can be added in the near future. Some will see this as excellent news, as it will cap the rollout of windfarms and solar parks. However, this will create a drag on low carbon transition. It seems that large amounts of new renewables will only be possible in localised grids – so emphasis on developing solar power in London is useful.

  • Turning Summer Solar into Winter Gas

    Posted on June 9th, 2015 Jo No comments

    The three pillars of future energy systems will be : efficiency, renewable electricity and energy storage. Efficiency in energy systems will be strongly dependent on balancing supply and demand, not only moment by moment, but also intra-day and intra-week – coping with peaks and troughs. With increasing amounts of renewable electricity generation, balancing becomes ever more important, even down to the hour-by-hour scale. In addition, besides fine grain issues, there will be climate and weather variations in demand for energy, and also seasonal variation. At the present time, there is a significant disparity between summer and winter gas demand for many developed, industrialised countries. This divergence between seasons is not so pronounced in power demand, unless there is strong demand for electrical heating in winter. That power demand does not have as wide a seasonal swing as that for Natural Gas is a good thing – as it means that nations do not need to build electricity generation plant that remains idle for most of the year. With the anticipated exit from coal-fired power generation, countries are likely to want to turn to gas-fired power plants, which will increase gas demand year-round, but will not reduce the inter-seasonal demand disparity.

    Energy system efficiency being dependent on balancing services where there are high levels of renewable power generation in the grid networks means that there will be a growing need for inter-seasonal energy storage. There is likely to be an excess of renewable electricity generation in summer, as is already being seen in Germany. Solid state energy storage, such as large scale batteries – whether chemical, thermal or potential energy – are likely to remain suitable for short cycle load balancing, but may not be able to stretch to time periods longer than a few weeks. Other options for energy storage are in development, but Germany and other countries have already decided to go for low carbon gas to store summer solar and other renewable power excess. Germany’s dena agency plans gas grid injection of a low volume of “Power to Gas” Renewable Hydrogen and a higher volume of synthetic methane. It is important to note that the scale of production possible for low carbon industrially manufactured gas is an order of magnitude greater than for biogas (made from biomass by microbiological processing).

    Work to strengthen energy security will help with choosing manufactured gas for energy balancing between seasons. The UK and other countries are improving and increasing Natural Gas storage facilities, and work to manufacture methane-rich gas can make use of this provision. A shift towards low carbon manufactured gas over the next few decades will help meet tightening carbon budgets, as the use of Natural Gas will become subject to constraint, because Carbon Capture and Storage will not be developed rapidly.

    The total amount of gas demand is likely to remain high. Despite the fact that over the next few decades, increasing building insulation rates will strongly reduce strong winter demand for gas, gas is going to be increasingly used in mobility solutions – for example compressed gas inter-city heavy good vehicles, shipping and trains. This will make gas demand more uniform throughout the year, so inter-seasonal gas storage will not be so vital. However, there will still be cold, wind-less, dark winter days when gas will be important, even if it’s only for power generation.

    To make Renewable Gas viable in the short-term, it is vital to have as much solar power and wind power as possible, to put into “Power to Gas” systems. As time goes by, new methods to make Renewable Hydrogen will emerge, complementing the electrolysis used for today’s Renewable Hydrogen production. Interestingly enough, these advances could come from within the petrorefinery sector, where there is growing demand for hydrogen for clean refinery processing. It makes no sense to compete with other gas users by making all this new hydrogen from Natural Gas – sooner or later Shell and BP will turn to making Renewable Hydrogen in large volumes.

    Low carbon manufactured gas – both Renewable Hydrogen and synthetic methane – can help the oil and gas companies survive, if they follow a strategy to first of all transition out of crude petroleum oil to Natural Gas, and then transition to Renewable Gas. The use of Natural Gas will decline, and the use of low carbon gas will increase, reducing the risk of economic discontinuity from the collapse of “big oil and gas”.

  • Solar Power in the UK

    Posted on June 8th, 2015 Jo No comments

    Today, I attended a very enlightening event organised by the British Solar Trade Association, titled “Does the new government mean business for solar ?”. The answer to this question was “perhaps”, but with several caveats.

    The Electricity Market Reform of the Energy Act enacted in the last parliament included a facility for “Contracts for Difference” (CfD), an auction for government subsidies. Solar photovoltaic projects bid successfully, but the generation capacity was low, and today I learned that some of these projects could be at risk of non-completion.

    The CfD auction is for large solar schemes. Smaller schemes, such as those for residential housing, still have the Feed in Tariff to support them – however the meeting considered the impact on growth in this area owing to step change degression in this subsidy support.

    If the failure of the CfD and FiT to stimulate wider uptake of solar power wasn’t concerning enough, the meeting looked at issues with grid connection for new renewable energy projects. This was shown to be the result of a “perfect storm” of low ambition in government, underestimates of growth, long lead times for connection processes, uncertainties in guarantees for connection, and the long turnaround time for pushing through technological changes.

    Several people that I spoke to in the breaks highlighted physical problems in the grid network that mean that the power grid is “full” through large parts of the South West of England, the Midlands and southern Wales. One person ventured that the problem could easily be getting worse in Scotland, where enormous wind power projects have begun to saturate the grid connections to England. And the view held by some was that this problem has a four year lead time to fix.

    If the Conservative Government wants to grow solar power, besides managing the massively complex web of actors in the solar power industry, it’s going to need to show more oversight of this vital physical barrier – the electricity grid is in sore need of major improvement and expansion, and without this, solar will be going nowhere.

    tag: @thesolartrade @ECIU_UK #NewGovernmentSolar

  • Peak Sweet and Peak Easy : Twenty Years to Transition

    Posted on June 4th, 2015 Jo No comments

    It may not be immediately obvious that significant change is underway in the energy sector. Heavily-capitalised and strongly-invested petroleum oil and gas companies stride the lands and seas, seeking what still fruitful part of the Earth’s lithosphere they may devour. Billions of overweight road and air vehicles incessantly burr and rattle, draining the carbon lifeblood from geological time. Yet, still, change is a-coming in.

    You wouldn’t know it from the public discourse on energy futures that the debate has shifted anywhere away from the 1980s or the 1990s. Major oil and gas companies still tout the benefits of pricing negative emissions, as if ordinary people still believe what economists and financiers claim. Shell and BP still sell the merits of Carbon Capture and Storage, not that there’s much of this, nor will there be, principally because the technologies proposed are sub-sectoral, will cost a lot to deploy, and won’t capture all the carbon dioxide, anyway. The Laws of Thermodynamics mitigate against the effectiveness of Carbon Capture and Storage – in some cases it could take more energy to bury carbon than dig it up in the first place, and that’s not going to be a winner. But, even though the hydrocarbon hegemony hasn’t brought its arguments up-to-the-minute, change is still taking place.

    There are maybe twenty good years to effect a transition out of fossil fuels into manufactured low carbon fuels. The reasons why this needs to happen are : climate change, air quality, Peak Sweet and Peak Easy. Climate change, caused by global warming, caused principally by the burning of fossil fuels and the release of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere. Air quality is an issue of liveability, as the world’s population clusters ever more into urban environments, cities cannot support coal-burning for power, nor diesel-burning for transport. Peak Sweet is the geological fact : the major pools of hydrocarbons light in sulphur compounds are being depleted so rapidly, that it might come about that the only economic resources left to exploit are sour – with both high levels of sulphur and carbon dioxide. Peak Easy is also a geological fact : remaining hydrocarbon resources that are economic to mine, drill and pump are depleting, and so fossil fuel production is going to get increasingly complex and risky. The oil spills and accidental gas venting of the past could be dwarfed by spills and accidental venting of the future.

    Of this list, Peak Sweet and Peak Easy are the reasons why the oil and gas industry will change, even though the position of Civil Society still rests in the territory of climate change and air quality. How to get these positions to marry, to build a unifying narrative ?

    Let me propose Shell and BP a public relations pitch for free, no consultancy fees : big up your plans for the low carbon transition – tell the people that you are going to stop digging up climate-destroying carbon for a living, and you are going to focus on manufacturing low carbon gases and oils. I mean, Shell and BP are going to need to do this anyway if they want to stay in business – Peak Sweet and Peak Easy could finish off their rates of return – so why don’t they communicate the positive benefits of the low carbon transition and win friends and investors everywhere ?

    What would I write if I wrote them a letter ? “Dear Shell and BP, stop alienating people with tired and failed narratives about carbon pricing and Carbon Capture and Storage. You know these strategies will fail to address the core problems of climate change and air quality. But you also know that these strategies will fail to address Peak Sweet and Peak Easy. It’s time to come clean and publish your strategies for decarbonising your energy products. No, it’s not your natural inclination to go massive on wind power or solar power, so why not go with Renewable Gas – Renewable Methane and Renewable Hydrogen ? This is within your core chemistry capabilities, and ramping up Renewable Gas will prevent you losing market share to third parties like Siemens, GE, Alstom and Schlumberger as they develop Renewable Gas options. You want to remain in business, don’t you ? All of your shareholders count on you. And they won’t accept living with the risk of a massive carbon bubble forever. You have maybe twenty years to prove you can really change, stop digging up ancient climate-disturbing carbon, and transition to low carbon energy products. If you use all your public relations skill, you could sell this transition as a truly valuable change (which it is), and keep friends and influence. The next generation could still respect you if you go public with your need to decarbonise. Shell and BP, save yourselves ! Yours sincerely, etc”

    The thing is, Shell and BP can transition to low carbon energy gases and fuels. They can, and they will – they just need to crack on with it faster if they want to survive climate change, disinvestment, divestment and Peak Oil. The world will reinvest in energy : Shell and BP need to get on board the low carbon train or be left to shrink and sink.

  • Shell and BP : from “Delay and Deny” to “Delay and Distract”

    Posted on June 3rd, 2015 Jo No comments

    Shell, BP and some of their confederates in the European oil and gas industry have inched, or perhaps “centimetred”, forward in their narrative on climate change. Previously, the major oil and gas companies were regularly outed as deniers of climate change science; either because of their own public statements, or because of secretive support of organisations active in denying climate change science. It does seem, finally, that Shell in particular has decided to drop this counter-productive “playing of both sides”. Not that there are any “sides” to climate change science. The science on climate change is unequivocal : changes are taking place across the world, and recent global warming is unprecedented, and has almost definitely been attributed to the burning of fossil fuels and land use change.

    So Shell and BP have finally realised that they need to shed the mantle of subtle or not-so-subtle denial, although they cling to the shreds of dispute when they utter doubts about the actual numbers or impacts of global warming (for example : However, we have to grant them a little leeway on that, because although petrogeologists need to understand the science of global warming in order to know where to prospect for oil and gas, their corporate superiors in the organisation may not be scientists at all, and have no understanding of the global carbon cycle and why it’s so disruptive to dig up all that oil and gas hydrocarbon and burn it into the sky. So we should cut the CEOs of Shell and BP a little slack on where they plump for in the spectrum of climate change narrative – from “utter outright doom” to “trifling perturbation”. The central point is that they have stopped denying climate change. In fact, they’re being open that climate change is happening. It’s a miracle ! They have seen the light !

    But not that much light, though. Shell and BP’s former position of “scepticism” of the gravity and actuality of global warming and climate change was deployed to great effect in delaying any major change in their business strategies. Obviously, it would have been unseemly to attempt to transmogrify into renewable energy businesses, which is why anybody in the executive branches who showed signs of becoming pro-green has been shunted. There are a number of fairly decent scalps on the fortress pikes, much to their shame. Shell and BP have a continuing duty to their shareholders – to make a profit from selling dirt – and this has shelved any intention to transition to lower carbon energy producers. Granted, both Shell and BP have attempted to reform their internal businesses by applying an actual or virtual price on carbon dioxide emissions, and in some aspects have cleaned up and tidied up their mining and chemical processing. The worsening chemistry of the cheaper fossil fuel resources they have started to use has had implications on their own internal emissions control, but you have to give them credit for trying to do better than they used to do. However, despite their internal adjustments, their external-facing position of denial of the seriousness of climate change has supported them in delaying major change.

    With these recent public admissions of accepting climate change as a fact (although CEOs without appropriate science degrees irritatingly disagree with some of the numbers on global warming), it seems possible that Shell and BP have moved from an outright “delay and deny” position, which is to be applauded.

    However, they might have moved from “delay and deny” to “delay and distract”. Since the commencement of the global climate talks, from about the 1980s, Shell and BP have said the equivalent of “if the world is serious about acting on global warming (if global warming exists, and global warming is caused by fossil fuels), then the world should agree policy for a framework, and then we will work within that framework.” This is in effect nothing more than the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has put forward, so nobody has noticed that Shell and BP are avoiding taking any action themselves here, by making action somebody else’s responsibility.

    Shell and BP have known that it would take some considerable time to get unanimity between governments on the reality and severity of climate change. Shell and BP knew that it would take even longer to set up a market in carbon, or a system of carbon dioxide emissions taxation. Shell and BP knew right from the outset that if they kept pushing the ball back to the United Nations, nothing would transpire. The proof of the success of this strategy was the Copenhagen conference in 2009. The next proof of the durability of this delaying tactic will be the outcomes of the Paris 2015 conference. The most that can come out of Paris is another set of slightly improved targets from governments, but no mechanism for translating these into real change.

    Shell and BP and the other oil and gas companies have pushed the argument towards a price on carbon, and a market in carbon, and expensive Carbon Capture and Storage technologies. Not that a price on carbon is likely to be anywhere near high enough to pay for Carbon Capture and Storage. But anyway, the point is that these are all distractions. What really needs to happen is that Shell and BP and the rest need to change their products from high carbon to low carbon. They’ve delayed long enough. Now is the time for the United Nations to demand that the fossil fuel companies change their products.

    This demand is not just about protecting the survival of the human race, or indeed, the whole biome. Everybody is basically on the same page on this : the Earth should remain liveable-inable. This demand for change is about the survival of Shell and BP as energy companies. They have already started to talk about moving their businesses away from oil to gas. There are high profile companies developing gas-powered cars, trains, ships and possibly even planes. But this will only be a first step. Natural Gas needs to be a bridge to a fully zero carbon world. The oil and gas companies need to transition from oil to gas, and then they need to transition to low carbon gas.

    Renewable Gas is not merely “vapourware” – the techniques and technologies for making low carbon gas are available, and have been for decades, or in some cases, centuries. Shell and BP know they can manufacture gas instead of digging it up. They know they can do the chemistry because they already have to do much of the same chemistry in processing fossil hydrocarbons now to meet environmental and performance criteria. BP has known since the 1970s or before that it can recycle carbon in energy systems. Shell is currently producing hydrogen from biomass, and they could do more. A price on carbon is not going to make this transition to low carbon gas. While Shell and BP are delaying the low carbon transition by placing focus on the price of carbon, they could lose a lot of shareholders who shy away from the “carbon bubble” risk of hydrocarbon investment. Shell and BP need to decide for themselves that they want to survive as energy companies, and go public with their plans to transition to low carbon gas, instead of continuing to distract attention away from themselves.

  • Why Shell is Wrong

    Posted on June 2nd, 2015 Jo No comments

    So, some people do not understand why I am opposed to the proposal for a price on carbon put forward by Royal Dutch Shell and their oil and gas company confederates.

    Those who have been following developments in climate change policy and the energy sector know that the oil and gas companies have been proposing a price on carbon for decades; and yet little has been achieved in cutting carbon dioxide emissions, even though carbon markets and taxes have been instituted in several regions.

    Supporters of pricing carbon dioxide emissions urge the “give it time” approach, believing that continuing down the road of tweaking the price of energy in the global economy will cause a significant change in the types of resources being extracted.

    My view is that economic policy and the strengthening of carbon markets and cross-border carbon taxes cannot provide a framework for timely and major shifts in the carbon intensity of energy resources, and here’s a brief analysis of why.

    1.   A price on carbon shifts the locus of action on to the energy consumer and investor

    A price on carbon could be expected to alter the profitability of certain fossil fuel mining, drilling and processing operations. For example, the carbon dioxide emissions of a “tank of gas” from a well-to-wheel or mine-to-wheel perspective, could be made to show up in the price on the fuel station forecourt pump. Leaving aside the question of how the carbon tax or unit price would be applied and redistributed for the moment, a price on carbon dioxide emissions could result in fuel A being more expensive than fuel B at the point of sale. Fuel A could expect to fall in popularity, and its sales could falter, and this could filter its effect back up the chain of production, and have implications on the capital expenditure on the production of Fuel A, and the confidence of the investors in investing in Fuel A, and so the oil and gas company would pull out of Fuel A.

    However, the business decisions of the oil and gas company are assumed to be dependent on the consumer and the investor. By bowing to the might god of unit price, Shell and its confederates are essentially arguing that they will act only when the energy consumers and energy investors act. There are problems with this declaration of “we only do what we are told by the market” position. What if the unit price of Fuel A is only marginally affected by the price on carbon ? What if Fuel A is regarded as a superior product because of its premium price or other marketing factors ? This situation actually exists – the sales of petroleum oil-based gasoline and diesel are very healthy, despite the fact that running a car on Natural Gas, biogas or electricity could be far cheaper. Apart from the fact that so many motor cars in the global fleet have liquid fuel-oriented engines, what else is keeping people purchasing oil-based fuels when they are frequently more costly than the alternative options ?

    And what about investment ? Fuel A might become more costly to produce with a price on carbon, but it will also be more expensive when it is sold, and this could create an extra margin of profit for the producers of Fuel A, and they could then return higher dividends to their shareholders. Why should investors stop holding stocks in Fuel A when their rates of return are higher ?

    If neither consumers nor investors are going to change their practice because Fuel A becomes more costly than Fuel B because of a price on carbon, then the oil and gas company are not going to transition out of Fuel A resources.

    For Shell to urge a price on carbon therefore, is a delegation of responsibility for change to other actors. This is irresponsible. Shell needs to lead on emissions reduction, not insist that other people change.

    2.   A price on carbon will not change overall prices or purchasing decsions

    In economic theory, choices about products, goods and services are based on key factors such as trust in the supplier, confidence in the product, availability and sustainability of the service, and, of course, the price. Price is a major determinant in most markets, and artificially altering the price of a vital commodity will certainly alter purchasing decisions – unless, that is, the price of the commodity in question increases across the board. If all the players in the field start offering a more expensive product, for example, because of supply chain issues felt across the market, then consumers will not change their choices.

    Now consider the global markets in energy. Upwards of 80% of all energy consumed in the global economy is fossil fuel-based. Putting a price on carbon will raise the prices of energy pretty much universally. There will not be enough cleaner, greener product to purchase, so most purchasing decisions will remain the same. Price differentiation in the energy market will not be established by asserting a price on carbon.

    A key part of Shell’s argument is that price differentiation will occur because of a price on carbon, and that this will drive behaviour change, and yet there is nothing to suggest it could do that effectively.

    3.   A price on carbon will not enable Carbon Capture and Storage

    Athough a key part of Shell’s argument about a price on carbon is the rationale that it would stimulate the growth in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), it seems unlikely that the world will ever agree to a price on carbon that would be sufficient to stimulate significant levels of CCS. A price on carbon will be deemed to be high enough when it creates a difference in the marginal extra production cost of a unit of one energy resource compared to another. A carbon price can only be argued for on the basis of this optimisation process – after all – a carbon price will be expected to be cost-efficient, and not punitive to markets. In other words, carbon prices will be tolerated if they tickle the final cost of energy, but not if they mangle with it. However, CCS could imply the use of 20% to 45% extra energy consumption at a facility or plant. In other words, CCS would create a parasitic load on energy resources that is not slim enough to be supported by a cost-optimal carbon price.

    Some argue that the technology for CCS is improving, and that the parasitic load of CCS at installations could be reduced to around 10% to 15% extra energy consumption. However, it is hard to imagine a price on carbon that would pay even for this. And additionally, CCS will continue to require higher levels of energy consumption which is highly inefficient in the use of resources.

    Shell’s argument that CCS is vital, and that a price on carbon can support CCS, is invalidated by this simple analysis.

    4.   Shell needs to be fully engaged in energy transition

    Calling for a price on carbon diverts attention from the fact that Shell itself needs to transition out of fossil fuels in order for the world to decarbonise its energy.

    Shell rightly says that they should stick to their “core capabilities” – in other words geology and chemistry, instead of wind power and solar power. However, they need to demonstrate that they are willing to act within their central business activities.

    Prior to the explosion in the exploitation of deep geological hydrocarbon resources for liquid and gas fuels, there was an energy economy that used coal and chemistry to manufacture gas and liquid fuels. Manufactured gas could still replace Natural Gas, if there are climate, economic or technological limits to how much Natural Gas can be resourced or safely deployed. Of course, to meet climate policy goals, coal chemistry would need to be replaced by biomass chemistry, and significant development of Renewable Hydrogen technologies.

    Within its own production facilities, Shell has the answers to meet this challenge. Instead of telling the rest of the world to change its economy and its behaviour, Shell should take up the baton of transition, and perfect its production of low carbon manufactured gas.

  • The Price on Carbon

    Posted on June 2nd, 2015 Jo No comments

    Although The Guardian newspaper employs intelligent people, sometimes they don’t realise they’ve been duped into acting as a mouthpiece for corporate propaganda. The “strapline” for the organisation is “Owned by no one. Free to say anything.”, and so it seemed like a major coup to be granted an interview with Ben Van Beurden of Royal Dutch Shell, recorded for a podcast that was uploaded on 29th May 2015.

    However, the journalists, outoing editor Alan Rusbridger, Damian Carrington and Terry McAllister probably didn’t fully appreciate that this was part of an orchestrated piece of public relations. The same day as the podcast was published, Shell, along with five other oil and gas companies wrote a letter to officials of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

    Favourable copy appeared in various places, for example, at Climate Central, The Daily Telegraph and in the Financial Times where a letter also appeared.

    In the letter to Christiana Figueres and Laurent Fabius of the UNFCCC, Shell and fellow companies BP, BG Group, Eni, Total and Statoil, wrote that they appreciate the risks of the “critical challenge” of climate change and that they “stand ready to play their part”. After listing their contributions towards a lower carbon energy economy, they wrote :-

    “For us to do more, we need governments across the world to provide us with clear, stable, long-term, ambitious policy frameworks. This would reduce uncertainty and help stimulate investments in the right low carbon technologies and the right resources at the right pace.”

    “We believe that a price on carbon should be a key element of these frameworks. If governments act to price carbon, this discourages high carbon options and encourages the most efficient ways of reducing emissions widely, including reduced demand for the most carbon intensive fossil fuels, greater energy efficiency, the use of natural gas in place of coal, increased investment in carbon capture and storage, renewable energy, smart buildings and grids, off-grid access to energy, cleaner cars and new mobility business models and behaviors.”

    The obvious problem with this call is that the oil and gas companies are pushing responsibility for change out to other actors in the economy, namely, the governments; yet the governments have been stymied at every turn by the lobbying of the oil and gas companies – a non-virtuous cycle of pressure. Where is the commitment by the oil and gas companies to act regardless of regulatory framework ?

    I think that many of the technological and efficiency gains mentioned above can be achieved without pricing carbon, and I also think that efforts to assert a price on carbon dioxide emissions will fail to achieve significant change. Here are my top five reasons :-

    1. Large portions of the economy will probably be ringfenced from participating in a carbon market or have exemptions from paying a carbon tax. There will always be special pleading, and it is likely that large industrial concerns, and centralised transportation such as aviation, will be able to beat back at a liability for paying for carbon dioxide emissions. Large industrial manufacture will be able to claim that their business is essential in sustaining the economy, so they should not be subject to a price on carbon. International industry and aviation, because of its international nature, will be able to claim that a carbon tax or a market in carbon could infringe their cross-border rights to trade without punitive regulatory charges.

    2. Those who dig up carbon will not pay the carbon price. Fossil fuel producers will pass any carbon costs placed on them to the end consumers of fossil fuels. A price on carbon will inevitably make the cost of energy more expensive for every consumer, since somewhere in the region of 80% of global energy is fossil fuel-derived. Customers do not have a non-carbon option to turn to, so will be forced to pay the carbon charges.

    3. A price on carbon dioxide emissions will not stop energy producers digging up carbon. An artificial re-levelising of the costs of high carbon energy will certainly deter some projects from going ahead, as they will become unprofitable – such as heavy oil, tar sands and remote oil, such as in the Arctic. However, even with jiggled energy prices from a price on carbon, fossil fuel producers will continue to dig up carbon and sell it to be burned into the sky.

    4. A price on carbon dioxide emissions is being touted as a way to incentivise carbon capture and storage (CCS) by the authors of the letter – and we’ve known since they first started talking about CCS in the 1990s that they believe CCS can wring great change. Yet CCS will only be viable at centralised facilities, such as mines and power plants. It will not be possible to apply CCS in transport, or in millions of homes with gas-fired boilers.

    5. A price on carbon dioxide emissions will not cause the real change that is needed – the world should as far as possible stop digging up carbon and burning it into the sky. What fossil carbon that still enters energy systems should be recycled where possible, using Renewable Gas technologies, and any other carbon that enters the energy systems should be sourced from renewable resources such as biomass.