Renewables

One of the most exhilarating aspects of working in the energy business – at least for a humble economist such as me – is that companies think and act on a timescale measured in decades. Projects are built to last for 30-40 years, and often longer still. This is in sharp contrast to the government where timescales are measured in hours and where long-term means the not-too-distant horizon of the next election. It is also in contrast to sectors such as telecommuications where the pace of change is so fast that thinking more than five years ahead makes no sense. But, as the current slide in oil, gas and coal prices demonstrates, a long-term perspective does not make investment judgments easier.

Most oil and gas fields, coal mines, nuclear power plants, wind farms and other energy sources are designed to last for decades. The construction time can be long: a liquefied natural gas plant can take six or eight years; a new nuclear power station a decade or more especially if the technology is unproven or excruciatingly complex. Payback only comes when the plants have been on stream for several years. Beyond that, however, the operating costs are usually low and the cash flow is strong and secure. Or, at least it should be. Read more

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The deal reached at last week’s European summit on climate change will satisfy no one. The non-binding Europe-wide targets place no responsibility on national governments and provide none of the confidence necessary for the essential investments in supply and infrastructure that are yet to be made. Poland may be the short-term winner – reflecting a clear shift in European decision-making to the east – but the summit failed to address the hard reality that current policies are not working. A new approach is needed.

The fractious debate which led up to the summit should be understood as marking the end of the “consensus” on energy policy established in 2008. Anyone wanting to understand the details of the debate should read the excellent summary produced by Carbon Brief which spells out the positions of the key states on major issues. Read more

Last week I wrote about the forthcoming independence referendum in Kurdistan. To move from events there to what is happening in Scotland is a surreal experience. In Erbil the vote will be a deadly serious matter which could create a new country for a nation which as they say has no friends but the mountains having been a victim of international betrayal and cynicism for centuries. There is no knowing whether the Kurdish referendum will end in triumph or tragedy. In Edinburgh what should be an equally serious debate about breaking the relationship with the rest of the UK is now close to a farce. 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

France has a new energy policy. Although some saw the statement presented for debate in the National Assembly ten days ago as simply political rhetoric designed to draw green support behind the Government, beyond the fine words and long term aspirations some of the tough immediate steps being taken suggest that the shift could be more serious. If so the statement will mark the beginning of a gradual but inexorable run down of the French nuclear business. Read more