Electricity

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I have never given much credence to the idea that an international agreement on climate change capable of establishing a global carbon price was likely to be reached – either in Paris this December or anywhere else – anytime soon.

If Europe, which is way ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to climate policy, can’t set its own carbon price, what hope is there that the US, India and all the others will?

As a result I’ve never taken seriously the view that a vast amount of energy investment by the oil and gas companies will be left stranded as carbon-generating fuels are priced out of the market. The argument has always felt like wishful thinking. If everyone obeyed the Ten Commandments there would be no prisons and the police forces of the world would be redundant.

But, and it is a very important qualification, change doesn’t come just through legislation and international treaties. Technology is arguably much more important and there is growing evidence that some fundamental changes are coming that will over time put a question mark over investments in the old energy systems. Read more

Meet EVA — the latest racing car. EVA has an elegant shape, with aerodynamics worthy of any of the cars which race in Formula One. The difference is that EVA is solar powered. Read more

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One of the many lessons to be learnt from the dramatic developments in the world energy market over the past six months is that outcomes are driven primarily by economics – often at the micro level. Another is the extent to which the market, in its rough and ready way, is linked globally and across the range of fuels. In the oil market, for example, a mild downturn in China upset expectations and started to pull down oil prices across the world because China has been the main engine of demand growth. Once the fall began, it turned out that no one had the power to call a halt. The result has been a fall beyond all expectations, with consequences across the world – from Libya to Angola, from Russia to Mexico and Venezuela. In the coal market, prices fell globally because shale gas was pushing coal out of the US power sector and because of Chinese import tariffs. Politicians in one country or another can try to cut themselves off from the underlying economics, but they rarely succeed for long. The economic impacts are not limited to the oil and coal markets. A set of changes beginning in the US is set to transform the global petrochemical business. A surplus of ethane, driven by shale gas development, is undermining the status quo. Read more

The sun sets behind Hinkley Point B, and (R) Hinkley Point A nuclear power stations besides the Bristol Channel near Bridgwater on November 12, 2013 in Somerset, England (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

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The EU approval of the nuclear development at Hinkley Point marks an important, if not decisive, chapter in the story of new nuclear in the UK. There are still legal challenges to be overcome and a financing package to be finalised within the constraints set by the EU ruling but this is a good moment to identify winners and losers.

The obvious losers are the UK’s consumers who are trapped into paying a price for electricity that is double the current wholesale price for 35 years after the plant starts up. The deal will go down in history, alongside the privatisation of the Royal Mail, as an example of the inability of the British government – ministers and civil servants alike – to negotiate complex commercial deals. The phrase “rolled over” will enter the French language and be accompanied always with a Gallic smile. Still, one should recognise talent and so chapeau to the French negotiators. Read more

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Why are renewables moving so slowly? Of course the output of renewable energy is growing in absolute terms and in terms of market share in most countries in the world. But the growth starts from a very low base. On the International Energy Agency’s latest numbers, renewables provide just 13 per cent of total global energy needs at the moment, and will provide only 18 per cent by 2035. If traditional biomass is excluded the figures are 7 per cent and 14 per cent.

The problem is cost. Electricity produced from offshore wind and solar costs somewhere between 50 and 100 per cent more per MW/hr than power from natural gas and, with some variations, will continue to do so for the next decade unless one makes the assumption that gas prices are going to increase. Onshore wind is cheaper and in the US in particular is the closest of all the renewables to being competitive without subsidies. Read more

A 220-page document entitled “Commission Staff Working Document: In-depth study of European Energy Security” is hardly designed to be a best-seller. Few outside Brussels will read the European Commission paper in full, which is a pity because it is an excellent piece of work. It also provides the basis for a series of proposals contained in an accompanying document, which if accepted and carried through could create a common energy policy for the EU comparable in scale, scope and cost to the Common Agricultural PolicyRead more

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Imagine being elected prime minister of a country with one and a quarter billion people, about 300m of whom live in absolute poverty. That is the challenge facing Narendra Modi in India. The hardest question must be to know where to start.

When it comes to energy Mr Modi’s first acts have been encouraging. He has set a high but achievable target for the installation of solar, on and off the grid, building on his experience in the state of Gujarat. He has also forced together three key ministries – covering power, coal and renewables – under a new minister, Piyush Goyal. He should probably have gone further and added petroleum and natural gas as well. Structural change in the complex bureaucracy of the Indian government matters a lot. Read more

For a long time it has looked as if the large-scale gas finds in the eastern Mediterranean would be stranded. The Leviathan field, located 80 miles off Haifa in Israel, which holds some 16tn cubic feet of gas was discovered five years ago but remains undeveloped and is not even completely defined. Israel has enough gas for its own needs from the smaller Tamar field, and politics and economics have combined to deter any of the wider development options. Now though a new option is emerging which makes development much more likely. The gas can be sent to Egypt. The move is rich in irony but it makes commercial and political sense. It could also mark an important moment of change in relationships across the region. Read more

Energy storage has long been regarded as something close to a holy grail. Of course, there are ways of storing some forms of energy – using pumped water or compressed air for instance. There are conventional batteries – and there have been advances in their capacity over the last few years. But the search for storage systems which are simultaneously economic and practical for use at scale in the modern energy market has long been a source of frustration.

Recent advances made by scientists in the US suggest, however, that real progress is now being made and that major breakthroughs are close. The whole of the energy sector should be watching because any such breakthrough could transform the economics of the whole industry. Read more

The subtle redesign of Germany energy policy agreed by the government in Berlin last week sends some important signals not for the German market but for the rest of Europe. Far from damaging the renewables business the move could be the salvation of the sector. Other countries, the UK included would do well to adopt similar measures. This would be the most effective way of responding to the urgency expressed in the latest IPCC report. Read more

The full-scale competition review of the UK’s energy market which will be announced later this week is a challenge the industry should welcome. The inquiry will absorb a huge amount of time and effort over the next year but it offers the chance both for the industry to clear its name by removing the cloud of public suspicion over pricing policies and simultaneously for individual companies to examine their own strategic positioning in a market which is changing rapidly.

Of course, the competition review will add to uncertainty and will reinforce the reluctance to invest in new generating capacity, which is already evident, but the sense of doubt will exist in any case, and the review may help to produce some longer-term clarity. In the short term the government will have to find a new mechanism to ensure that supply is adequate to meet demand – and doing so with an expensive plan for emergency electricity supplies. But that is a separate issue from this fundamental analysis Read more

George Osborne in his Budget speech on Wednesday talked, correctly, about US industrial energy costs being half those of the UK. The situation has deteriorated rapidly over the past five years. His proposed response is worth quoting directly:

“We need to cut our energy costs. We’re going to do this by investing in new sources of energy: new nuclear power, renewables, and a shale gas revolution.”

This must be a speechwriter’s joke. A line written in where the content bears absolutely no relationship to reality. New nuclear at £92.50 a megawatt hour will double the current wholesale price of electricity. New offshore wind on the Department of Energy & Climate Change’s own figures, which many feel are too low, will cost more than £120/Mwhr. These are not secret figures. They are well known in the Treasury, as is the risk of generating capacity failing to meet demand. There was no mention of that little problem. Read more

This week’s meeting of the European Council in Brussels will be a significant test of the EU’s relevance and unity in dealing with the consequences of what is happening in Ukraine. Over the years as indigenous production, especially of gas, has declined Europe has allowed itself to become more and more dependent on Russian supplies. Last year Europe imported 160bn cubic metres of gas – a quarter of its total requirements. Even if Russia were a normal country that level of dependency would look high. Now, with Russia ignoring the strong messages from the German and American governments urging restraint in Ukraine, and massing troops on the border, reducing that degree of dependence is a matter of urgency. Read more

Older UK readers will remember the Green Goddesses – fire engines held in reserve for moments of national emergency. At the height of a crisis army drivers would maintain an essential service. Well, lo and behold, some new Green Goddesses are to be created as the government launches its “emergency electricity reserve”. Read more

The energy business is unstable. Investors and consumers are unhappy. Returns are too low and slow to arrive. Prices seem too high, especially in Europe. Market structures are under political scrutiny. A sector which has been producer led for as long as anyone can remember is ripe for change. One element of that will be forced by the geography of energy demand – most of the growth is now in Asia. But there will be other significant changes – not least when someone harnesses new technology to produce a completely new offer for consumers. Read more

On Wednesday the cabinets of the France and Germany will hold a joint meeting in Paris. The occasion is highly symbolic – both in the way in which normal state-to-state relationships have replaced war in Europe, and in the continued commitment of the neighbours to maintain their alliance whatever their short-term political and personal differences. But the discussion this week could also produce substantive results.

President François Hollande, to the surprise of French business as well as his German visitors, has proposed that the two countries should work to achieve deep co-operation on energy policy. He compares this to the Airbus project which in his words “saved us from becoming a branch plant of the US economy”. The initial reaction to the idea in Berlin has been lukewarm. There is a general fear that Mr Hollande will do everything possible to get Germany to fund French debts. One German told me last week that Mr Hollande should “get on his scooter and stick to what he does best”.

That is a very shortsighted view. Energy policy is going wrong because we are accustomed to thinking within narrow national lines. Each individual country has to achieve whatever is the target of the moment – a 30 per cent cut in emissions; a 20 per cent share for renewables and so on. This is a suboptimal approach. Individual countries can achieve their targets but the costs of working in an atomistic way can be enormous. One of the greatest advances of a complex society is that different people do different things. We do not all grow or kill our own food every day. The case is best spelt out in Robert Wright’s brilliant book NonzeroRead more

Forget the evidence, feel the populism. That seems to be the motto of the UK secretary of state for energy, who has written to regulators suggesting that British Gas and perhaps other gas suppliers should be broken up because their profits are too high. There is nothing like picking on an enemy no one loves. With their refusal to be completely transparent on costs and pricing, the utilities have made themselves sitting ducks.

Never mind that there has been no competition inquiry (rejected by the Government despite support from EDF, who rightly argued that one was needed to clear the air). Never mind that the figures quoted by Mr Davey have been in the public domain for months, without triggering action by Ofgem. Never mind that Ofgem is a highly professional public body that knows what it is doing. And most of all, never mind the consequences. Read more

In a provocative paper published by the Institute of Economic Affairs just before Christmas Professor Colin Robinson, one of Britain’s most senior energy economists, says that the energy sector in the UK has been “effectively renationalised”. The language is strong and the case overstated. The claim is not true in any literal sense. Companies are not being taken over or expropriated by any Government agency. There has been no transfer of ownership. But behind the rhetoric is a real trend. There has been a transfer of effective control, the consequences of which are pushing large parts of the sector back under Government authority.

Professor Robinson’s paper focuses on the UK. But the trend is not restricted to Britain. In different ways a similar shift is taking place in Germany, Japan, and even to a limited extent in the US.

In what has always been a hybrid sector built on a mixture of public policy and private capital the balance of power is shifting year by year. In each of these countries and many others Government is now determining outcomes to a degree unseen since the wave of privatisation in the 1980s. Read more

You don’t have to believe that freezing consumer energy prices is good public policy to see that just three sentences in Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour party conference in September transformed the energy scene in the UK. The opposition leader’s comments sent a chill through the market, reducing the value of utility stocks and has left the coalition government struggling to respond to a completely unexpected outbreak of populism. The consequences of the speech, intended and unintended, run on and could yet force a change in energy policy across the EU. Read more

UK-based energy companies who have held investor relations meetings in the US in recent weeks have encountered a bleak response. The UK energy sector, they were told, is “uninvestable”. This is the market’s response to two months in which the certainties of the UK energy market have been undermined by politics. Given the scale of new investment required as old capacity is retired, this stark conclusion is very damaging and must be addressed by the Chancellor in his autumn statement on December 5. Read more