Electricity

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

Energy policy is a serious problem which won’t be solved by gimmicks or slogans. Most of the debate in the UK over the last few weeks has focused on the prices being paid by domestic consumers. Now, though, the focus is set to shift to the competitive burden on businesses and jobs not just in the UK but across Europe. With yet more price increases to come, the need for a new and serious policy covering both supply and demand is becoming urgent. Read more

Sir John Major has hit some raw nerves in the UK government with his comments on “lace curtain poverty” and the harsh impact of rising energy bills. But to pin the blame on the energy companies is wrong and runs the risk of making a bad situation worse.

The former British prime minister alleges that the companies – unnamed but presumably the utilities and the suppliers of raw materials to those utilities – are profiteering. I hope he will show us all the detailed evidence. If that evidence exists, and if there is a cartel of any sort, it is a matter for Her Majesty’s constabulary. Read more

The details of the deal to build Britain’s new nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point are becoming clearer: a basic cost of £16bn, a quiet increase of £2bn since the last parliamentary statement on the issue less than six months ago. It guarantees a unit price of £92.50 per megawatt hour for the electricity produced, stretching four decades into the future, and the UK government in effect underwrites the investment. Read more

As the smoke of briefings from the government PR machine clears, the shape of the deal to secure the development of the new nuclear station at Hinkley Point in Somerset is becoming clearer. As mere consumers we are not allowed to know the full facts – that privilege is given, it seems, only to the companies involved and the French and Chinese governments. But we can piece the story together. Read more

Ed Miliband’s comments on energy in his Labour party conference speech on Tuesday have profound implications for policy. The immediate focus will be on the suggestion of a price freeze lasting until 2017. The industry will no doubt focus on the implications of cutting profits and the question of what happens if world prices rise. Some might also suggest that a hard freeze will not only deter new investment, but also lead to some companies exiting the business with the net effect of reducing competition. Mr Miliband clearly believes there is profiteering but he has not published the evidence. The Labour leader should and there needs to be a full competition inquiry. It may well be that if there is profiteering a price freeze is not the only nor the best solution. Read more

It is always a pleasure to have a good laugh. I am, therefore, grateful to the Scottish National party for announcing their new energy policy. Read more

According to reports in the Daily Telegraph, the Energy Department is blocking publication of a serious and detailed study of the impact of wind farms across the UK. This exposes the tip of an iceberg. At least a dozen major reports on energy policy issues, in many cases commissioned at considerable expense from external consultants, are being kept secret because of their inconvenient findings. It is time for a change of culture in WhitehallRead more

You have to feel very sorry for the vast majority of the companies who make up the world’s nuclear power industry. Westinghouse, CANDU, EDF and many others have all run overwhelmingly safe operations free of accidents for many many years. The companies have extended the lives of existing plant and spent tens of millions on plans for new capacity – in the US, the UK, Russia and some parts of the developing world. In many of these countries, the old fears of nuclear power had been tempered or removed. Even parts of the green lobby had embraced nuclear as part of the solution to climate change.

But now all that progress is once again vulnerable to the weakest link. Tepco. Read more

Can anyone really predict what the world’s energy market will look like in 2040? Many certainly try – including companies and governments – but they don’t deserve to be taken too seriously and certainly shouldn’t be the basis for decision-making. Read more

Nearly. That was my summary of the state of negotiations between the UK government and EDF on new nuclear last month. Nearly but not quite as comments by Ed Davey over the past week make clear. The government had hoped to make a positive announcement before the summer but it is now looking at the prospect of more months of further talks. A deal, intended by ministers in London to represent a final offer, was put on the table four weeks ago. EDF in Paris, where all the energy company’s decisions are made, has failed to respond.

Frustrated by the unwillingness of EDF to engage, the government, which wanted to do a deal and thought an agreement was possible after the last Anglo-French summit in May, has now effectively stepped back and is talking to other possible suppliers. Read more

At the last meeting of the President’s Committee of the CBI, the British employers’ association, members were asked to name the two biggest problems their companies faced. The answers were the skill levels of their recruits and energy policy – the chronic indecision of Whitehall which leaves investment frozen, prices rising uncompetitively and Ofgem warning about blackouts.

A few weeks ago at an Anglo Indian business summit one British bank Chairman warned the Indians that while an Indian energy strategy was clearly needed, the worst example they could follow was the UK model. Meanwhile on the serious side of Whitehall, there is increasing talk of a pre summer reshuffle to strengthen the Energy Department and even mutterings about abolishing the separate Ministry entirely and merging its functions back into the the business department. Read more

Those despairing of the lack of progress in managing climate change or the absence of practical and realistic energy policies in so many countries should take a look at the work being done by some of the world’s great universities.

In Durham, the Energy Institute has focused on the societal aspects of changes in energy technology. One of their main projects is to look at the role and potential of smart grids. Thanks to advances in IT, smart grids now offer the prospect of managing the distributed production and use of power in ways which will transform the economics of the whole sector. Smart grids create automatic processes which can help both businesses and households not only manage what they use but also to become producers themselves –selling power into the grid. Read more

Businesses which rely on continuing public subsidies or particular formulations of public policy always carry added risk. The reality is that public policy changes. For a brief period there is full-hearted support, often driven by a crisis or a sense of looming danger. But the attention span of electorates and policy makers is short. Something else happens, another crisis looms and a new priority takes precedence.

The news last week that Siemens is to close its solar business is just one of many indications that for the renewables sector times have changed. Read more

July promises to be a busy month in Whitehall Place, the home of the UK’s Energy and Climate Change Department. Unfortunately, however, despite the prospect of a flurry of activity it seems as if all key decisions will still be left on hold. Read more

If Samuel Beckett had made Godot a woman he would have called her Angela. That is the joke in Berlin where every policy is on hold and everyone – from the members of the Eurozone to the prospective nominees for the new European Commission – is waiting for Angela. And she in turn is waiting for the results of the election on September 22nd. Then and only then will we know the shape and balance of the next coalition Government. The result is a period of deep uncertainty, not least over energy policy which is frozen by indecision. Read more

The problems facing the Government’s plan to reform the UK’s electricity market go well beyond the departure of two of the limited number of civil servants who actually understand the proposals. The reality is that the Government is losing its appetite for a scheme which is liable to disintegrate under the weight of its own complexity. Read more