Emissions

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

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

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

We all spend so much time looking at the dramatic changes on the supply side of the energy business that we risk overlooking the more gradual but equally important shifts on the demand side. To correct that its worth looking at some new work from the Transportation Research Institute picked up in the excellent Energy Collective blog.

The research shows that in the US – by far the world’s largest consumer of oil – transport sector demand is falling. This is not a temporary phenomenon driven by the economic downturn. This is a structural shift reflecting changes in life style and work patterns as well as gains in fuel efficiency. 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

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

At a painfully slow speed the consensus on climate change is building. There is a human impact on the climate as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. Those who seriously question this view are now reduced by the sheer weight of the evidence in the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report to the level of the eccentrics who maintained that the earth was flat long after the reality had been proved. 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

Energy policy has barely surfaced as an issue in the Australian election. Both of the main parties are committed to moving to an emissions trading system but neither seems likely to impose prices which fundamentally shift Australia’s energy mix away from hydrocarbons. The greater impact on the energy sector will come from international developments and that is where events are adding to Australia’s existing natural advantages. 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

Month by month, the consequences of the shale gas revolution in the United States are working their way through the international energy market. There has been much discussion of whether the US will permit shale gas exports in any quantity. But even before that is decided the growth of shale gas production in the US is already having an impact. The reduced need for US gas imports leaves supplies from Trinidad, North Africa and elsewhere to find a new home. That means that gas prices in Europe and Asia will fall. And even more important, shale gas is displacing coal from the US power generation sector. 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

The news that Exxon is to build a $10 bn LNG export facility in Texas marks another significant step forward in the story of shale gas and its disruptive impact on the world energy market. Those who want a parallel for the painful process through which so many of the established forces of the industry on one side and the lobby groups on another have struggled to come to terms with the reality of shale gas over the last three years should read John Heilbron’s fascinating book on GalileoRead 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

Access to energy is now crucial for India’s continued development. But the scale of the challenge and the changes required could alter the whole structure of governance and the way in which the Indian economy works over the next few years.

A seminar held at Kings College London earlier this week looked at the issues – investment, trade, energy security and the impact of energy on the balance between the urban and the rural communities. We produced more questions than answers but even the questions are instructive. Read more

A report from the Grantham Institute and the Carbon Tracker initiative, titled “Unburnable Carbon”, has produced a studied silence from the energy industry. The study, published last week, is privately being dismissed as the predictable conclusions of people who don’t understand business. But investors should take it more seriously because it opens up some very interesting questions about what energy companies are doing with their money.

In summary, the report says the investment of more capital to find hydrocarbons is a waste of money. More than enough has been already identified to fulfill the world’s needs if we are to meet the carbon limits implied by international agreements on climate change. Under those agreements, carbon use will be reduced over the next four decades, leaving substantial supplies stranded. On this basis, some companies – and therefore the funds which hold them – are carrying dangerous levels of risk, based on the false assumption that the international agreement will never be implemented. The companies are overvalued because some of their assets will never be used.

I have two points of doubt about this thesis. Read more

A Chinese miner unloads coal from a train

Those who keep talking down shale gas should read the views of Elizabeth Muller. Ms Muller does not run a shale gas company. She is co founder and executive Director of Berkeley Earth, an impeccably green non profit research group in California.

In her opinion, environmentalists in the US and elsewhere should be encouraging China to develop its shale gas resources. Those resources are huge – perhaps 50 per cent greater than those of the US, and have yet to be explored in detail. That process is just beginning and includes a number of international companies including Shell.

Ms Muller’s argument, which is unanswerable, is that any development of shale gas will offset the use of some coal. Shale gas is not carbon free but it is cleaner than coal which is China’s basic fuel now. And unless things can be changed radically, will be the dominant source of energy for the next several decades. If shale gas could back out some amount of China’s coal consumption, emissions could be materially reduced. Read more

Burbo Bank Wind Farm, River Mersey
Finally, the UK’s energy policy is taking shape after months of confusion. At its heart is a realisation that, while some decisions are urgent, others can wait. Time and timing matter. The approach is practical as well as political but it won’t suit everyone. And it leaves the biggest issue of all – climate change – unresolved. Read more

The World Economic forum is getting underway in Davos, Switzerland. Getty Images

Fashions come and go and the agenda for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos is usually a pretty good guide as to whether skirts are long or short this year. This year’s title for the meeting is “Resilient Dynamism”, which is very cool. But the issues that have slipped down the agenda are energy security and climate change.

There are a few odd sessions, but the focus has shifted and apart from one brief reference to natural resources, neither energy nor climate are mentioned on the web page setting out this year’s themes. This is a very big change from only four or five years ago, when both were prominent topics at every meeting. Read more