Renewables

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

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

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

Week by week Scotland seems to slip away. The reaction to the fiasco at the CBI demonstrates just how sensitive business is to involvement in politics. But the future of the United Kingdom is a matter on which business should have a strong and clear voice. In its absence the momentum behind the cause of independence will grow. 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 first and easiest prediction arising from the continuing crisis in Ukraine and the deterioration of relations between Russia and the EU is that natural gas prices will rise. After all half the gas Europe imports from Russia comes through Ukraine. Very little of that supply can be replaced from other sources in the short term.

Russia has announced a sharp (44 per cent) increase in prices for the gas supplied to Ukraine – in part as a punishment for past unpaid bills. Surely Europe must be vulnerable to either a cut-off of supplies or a forced price rise? And yet in the real world actual gas prices have fallen over the past month and now stand at a three-year low. Is the market mad? Read more

What happens now for the numerous companies, led by the oil majors, who have chosen to invest in Russia? The surprising answer may be that the short-term risks are less serious than the longer term prospects of disengagement as energy consumers, especially in Europe, reduce their dependence on a supplier they do not trust. 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

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.

Gas prices - data sourced from Knoema Beta
Gas Prices – data sourced from Knoema Beta

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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