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.