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
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
Is energy policy made in Brussels ? The obvious answer would be no. The EU may have an energy commissioner but he has little real authority. Energy policy is still under the control of individual national governments and as a result there are 28 very different approaches and outcomes. France is supplied by nuclear power. Germany by contrast is phasing out nuclear in favour of renewables. Much of Eastern Europe still depends on coal. There is cross border trade, of course, but most countries have their own distinct energy market.
A series of announcements over the last few weeks, however, suggests that the European Commission which is in its last year in office wants to assert its authority over energy issues by indirect means, using environmental and competition policy to create a de facto Common Energy Policy. A Commission policy statement on energy will be published before the end of January. The issue promises to become more visible and part of the continuing debate about the balance of power between Brussels and the member states. 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
Do renewables represent the future of the energy business or a minor contributor in a sector which will continue to be dominated by hydrocarbons? That will the underlying question at the FT Renewables conference this week. The answer looks to be the latter but financial engineering or a major technical breakthrough could yet change things. 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
The German election later this month might seem to be about to produce more of the same. On the eurozone currency crisis – as Quentin Peel wrote in the Financial Times a couple of weeks ago – the expectation of a big reform plan once Angela Merkel wins re-election has given way to the realisation that nothing much will change unless the markets force a radical response. Austerity and crisis management are the watchwords, and only a major event such as a collapse in the credibility of Italian debt repayment will force Germany to address the need for a full-scale resolution of the problem. That could involve the creation of a tighter EU core, or a reluctant acceptance that the euro as designed cannot work without a backstop funding mechanism in the form of Eurobonds. Nothing in the election campaign has provided a clue as to which of these alternatives will prevail.
Similarly on energy policy the election is beginning to look like a breakpoint which could have wide implications across Europe. But the direction of change remains uncertain and dangerously dependent on the precise make up of the next coalition government. 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
Price forecasts – particularly for gas – are being used to justify both public policy (including heavy subsidies to renewables in many parts of Europe) and investments in very expensive sources of supply. But when events start to show that the forecasts are wrong, both policy makers and investors can be left stranded.
There are basically three ways of approaching the challenge of forecasting. The first, favoured by non economists, is to project forward recent trends. But which trends? I once produced an oil price forecast based on the trends of the last six days, six months, six years and six decades. Not surprisingly the result was a hedgehog style set of spikes going in quite different directions. As a planning tool it was completely useless.
The second approach to forecasting, much used by those who have over-invested, or want to invest (think of High Speed 2), or want to advance a particular policy response is to reach for a forecast which fits the bill and then to construct a justification.
Both approaches have been used in gas price forecasting, with the result perhaps not surprisingly being a widening divergence between projections of ever rising prices and the reality which is that prices are clearly falling in the short term and look set to keep falling longer term.
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
Those who think that the best responses to the risks of climate change are ever stronger regulation, complex international agreements and higher energy prices should take a look at what is happening in America.
In the US, carbon emissions have fallen by 13 per cent in the last five years and are at their lowest level since 1994. Energy demand is flat even though the economy is growing. The key statistics to watch are oil demand, which is at a 15 year low, and coal demand in the power sector, which is down by more than 20 per cent since 2008.
Furthermore, energy prices are also falling thanks to shale gas. They have yet to stabilise and there will have to be a shakeout within the gas sector. But prices will settle in the range of $4.50 to $5 – sustaining development but also providing a sharp reduction in input costs for consumers including manufacturing industry. Shale gas, however, is not the whole story. Next will come tight oil, which is oil from shale rocks. Then and potentially most important of all will come advances in energy storage. Bill Gates has just made his third major investment in an energy storage technology business. Read more
Ed Davey, secretary of state at DECC, outside his ministry
The UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change is about to publish forecasts suggesting that gas prices could rise by up to 70 per cent over the next five years. This is scaremongering nonsense, and shows just how out of touch the Department is with the realities of the international energy market. Officials appear not to have consulted the industry or the traders. In reality the odds are that prices are just as likely to fall as to rise for three distinct reasons. Read more
Vast onshore wind farms are not a viable option for the UK
Barring a last minute intervention by the Treasury, the UK government will publish its new energy bill within the next few days. As it stands, the bill is a triumph of politics over economics and common sense – a symbolic victory for the Liberal Democrats designed to keep the coalition’s unhappy marriage together.
The problem is that serious investors will not believe a bill that reinforces subsidies to onshore wind, puts no hard numbers on the subsidies necessary for nuclear new build, sidelines the potential of energy efficiency and further technological advances, and completely ignores the issue of energy costs and competitiveness. Read more
Germany turns to renewables. Image by Getty
The future of the euro and the fate of Greece and Spain are not the only issues on which the key decisions are now taken in Berlin. As Gideon Rachman wrote the other day Berlin has taken its place as the centre of power in Europe, easily eclipsing Brussels.
On energy too, the policy choices made in the German Chancellery will shape what happens to the market across Europe and beyond. The only problem is that as in the case of the euro there is a marked reluctance in Berlin to take hard decisions. German politics work by consensus and reaching that consensus can take a long time. The result is that policy drifts and investment grinds to a halt. That is what is happening now. Read more
Why are renewables losing out? According to the International Energy Agency, renewables, excluding biomass but including hydro, currently provide just 8 per cent of global electricity supply and 3 per cent of total energy demand. By 2035 on the IEA’s main scenario those figures will rise to just 15 and 7 per cent respectively. That represents some serious growth but not a breakthrough. Hydrocarbons on all the IEA scenarios will still be providing well over 60 per cent of final energy. The figure could be higher if shale gas and tight oil developments spread from the US and if coal prices fall further.
This limited achievement comes despite a decade of high spending on research – especially in the US, and despite a variety of generous subsidies – ranging from direct grants and feed-in tariffs, to protected market shares. In the UK, the support is entrenched in legislation requiring the government to produce long-term plans for reducing emissions over the next four decades. Renewables have benefitted over the past few years from concerns about rising energy prices and energy security, as well as from the desire to tackle climate change. Read more
Mitt Romney has given Barack Obama a free pass when it comes to energy and environmental policy. Obama needs only to point to Romney’s energy plan - with its proposed demolition of federal controls on new energy developments and its omission of any mention whatsoever of climate change to claim the votes of the environmental lobby.
Even those most disappointed by the last 4 years can hardly fail to back Obama when the alternative is someone who used his acceptance speech last week to mock Obama’s commitment to the environment and to contrast Obama’s aim of helping to save the earth and the oceans with his own commitment to helping ordinary American families get jobs. But what won’t be said this week at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte is that the American energy outlook for the next four years at least is already very largely set, and won’t be much altered by whoever is elected in November. Read more