Utilities

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

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

It is impossible to understand the outlook for energy prices – internationally or at the domestic level – without looking carefully at what is happening in the gas market. The simplistic assumption is that because demand is rising, prices must also increase inexorably. This assumption underpins a lot of official forecasts and the business plans of some optimistic producers. The reality is much more complicated. The emergence of a spot market suggests that there is a strong chance of prices falling over the next decade. Read more

With the world’s population growing by almost 10,000 a day, and more and more people in Asia and Latin America enjoying access to effective spending power for the first time, the energy business should be a thriving and happy place.

It is not. Across the sector, the mood is downbeat. The talk is of building resilience against risks and threats. 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

Any new graduate wanting to learn about how companies should handle tough public policy questions should study how the energy companies have responded to Ed Miliband’s proposal to freeze utility prices in his party conference speech three weeks ago. Their actions and comments have been a masterclass in how to make a difficult situation worse.

We have had a mixture of denial (“they’ll never get elected”, “he didn’t really mean it”, “the lawyers will stop him”), mindless abuse (“I don’t think people want to live under Stalinism”) and fear tactics which usually mention the prospect of the lights going out. No one in the industry has bothered to think about why Mr Miliband’s comments have proven so popularRead 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

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

Is it possible that while one Whitehall Department is constructing a “secret” crisis centre to deal with cyber attacks, another located less than a quarter of a mile away is preparing to sell part of the UK’s national infrastructure to the very people behind those attacks?

The establishment of a cyber security centre was reported by the FT last week. Anyone who doubts that its primary focus is the Chinese should read the report produced a couple of months ago by the specialist US consultancy Mandiant.

The company identified attacks originating in a building occupied by the General Staff Department of the People’s Liberation Army in Shanghai which had targeted 141 companies across 20 major industries. China has denied official involvement but has not yet agreed to stop the attacks.

Unfortunately no one seems to have mentioned these developments to Ed Davey, energy secretary, or EDF, the company which wants to develop new nuclear power stations in Britain. If the price and risk allocation for that deal is agreed, and Mr Davey has said that agreement is close, the next question is how the deal will be funded. EDF does not have the capacity to find the £14bn required and so has been looking to Chinese partners to provide much of the cash. Read more

The rumours that Vladimir Putin is about to replace Aleksey Miller as the chief executive of Gazprom continue to swirl around the markets across Europe. As usual it is hard to know what is true and what is dreamt up by Mr Miller’s enemies. Removing Mr Miller would not, however, solve Gazprom’s problems. What the company really needs is a new strategy. What should it be. ? Read more

For an interesting and creative perspective on the changes that are occurring in the energy sector take a look at the material being put out by Alexa Capital. Alexa is the brainchild of Bruce Huber the long-term guru of the renewables business at Jefferies.

To illustrate what the report is about let’s start with a question – why has the power sector, particularly in Europe, lost so much of its value when electricity demand (other than from nuclear generation) continues to rise? Read more

After Nick Butler’s post on David Cameron’s energy policy John Kay writes about the complexity of retail energy tariffs and how the simplification of these will not be easy.

Last week, David Cameron told the House of Commons that UK energy suppliers will be required to ensure that all their customers benefit from the lowest tariff. Coincidentally, Britain’s energy regulator Ofgem published a document proposing simplification of retail energy tariffs. The document demonstrated that simplification will be complicated. Certainly more complicated than the prime minister’s statement implied. Read more

David Cameron is the first prime minister in living memory who has not employed a business policy adviser in Number 10. The lack of such an adviser is all too evident in the continuing shambles around the UK’s energy policy.

Picking up public irritation with rising electricity and gas bills, the PM declared that companies would be compelled to supply customers on the basis of the lowest tariff available. This signals a real lack of understanding of how business works. The rapid consequence of such a policy would be to push all tariffs up and to remove any incentive on any supplier to provide competitive packages to end users. Read more