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

8th June 1939:  Babies in a row of cots brought out for some sun by their nurses at the Duchess of York's Hospital for Babies at Burnage, Manchester.  (Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images)

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A new academic study, the results of which were published last month in the magazine Science, suggests that previous population projections have been understated. Rather than plateauing at 9bn the global population could rise during the current century to 11bn or more. How can the world manage such numbers?

The focus of attention – in politics, markets and companies – is so concentrated on the short term that long-term challenges are easily lost from sight. Tomorrow’s problems are left to tomorrow’s leaders. However understandable when individuals are working under the pressure of 24/7 news cycles and quarterly reporting standards, the result is that some of the most profound challenges are being neglected. Population growth is perhaps the most fundamental challenge of all because its consequences are so widespread.

The issue has been raised again by the publication of a new research paper from the University of Washington. Professor Adrian Rafferty and his colleagues argue that for a variety of reasons (including the success of the fight against Aids and the failure of attempts to spread knowledge on contraception), the global population could now be 2bn or more higher in 2100 than previously anticipated – that is within the lifetime of many of the children alive today. 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

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Imagine being elected prime minister of a country with one and a quarter billion people, about 300m of whom live in absolute poverty. That is the challenge facing Narendra Modi in India. The hardest question must be to know where to start.

When it comes to energy Mr Modi’s first acts have been encouraging. He has set a high but achievable target for the installation of solar, on and off the grid, building on his experience in the state of Gujarat. He has also forced together three key ministries – covering power, coal and renewables – under a new minister, Piyush Goyal. He should probably have gone further and added petroleum and natural gas as well. Structural change in the complex bureaucracy of the Indian government matters a lot. 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