© Getty Images

The conflict at the heart of Germany’s energy policy is finally coming to a head. Can Germany claim to be an environmental leader while continuing to burn more coal than any other developed country apart from the US?

The issue is easier to describe than to resolve. Germany has led the EU in adopting “green” policies, including the promotion and subsidy of renewables. Energy consumers, including industry, have tolerated ever-rising energy costs. Electricity in Germany costs over 90 per cent more than in the US. The country has begun the process of closing its nuclear power stations — the last will be closed in 2022, although a vexed question remains over how the decommissioning will be paid for. Energy policy enjoys support across the political spectrum. The Green party won just 7.3 per cent of the vote in the last federal election but green ideas permeate the thinking of all the other parties. The grand coalition between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats is committed to reducing emissions by 40 per cent by 2020, 70 per cent by 2040 and 80 to 95 per cent by 2050. The whole plan is explained in a post by Mat Hope on the CarbonBrief website. The German approach is now being exported to Brussels with a determined effort under the new European Commission to shape an EU energy policy along the same lines. Read more


  © Getty Images

I have never given much credence to the idea that an international agreement on climate change capable of establishing a global carbon price was likely to be reached – either in Paris this December or anywhere else – anytime soon.

If Europe, which is way ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to climate policy, can’t set its own carbon price, what hope is there that the US, India and all the others will?

As a result I’ve never taken seriously the view that a vast amount of energy investment by the oil and gas companies will be left stranded as carbon-generating fuels are priced out of the market. The argument has always felt like wishful thinking. If everyone obeyed the Ten Commandments there would be no prisons and the police forces of the world would be redundant.

But, and it is a very important qualification, change doesn’t come just through legislation and international treaties. Technology is arguably much more important and there is growing evidence that some fundamental changes are coming that will over time put a question mark over investments in the old energy systems. Read more

Wind turbines in Peitz, Germany.

Wind turbines in Peitz, Germany © Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Forget Opec. If cartels can’t control output, they can’t control prices and in due course they fall apart, usually with a great deal of ill will in the process. The evidence of the last six months is that Opec can’t control the market — ask yourself how many Opec members want to see a price of $60 a barrel for their oil. Some in Saudi Arabia think a low price can squeeze out competing suppliers, but that feels like a justification after the fact of a fall which they can’t control. The question now is how the process of adjustment to the new price level will work. Read more

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)

  © Fox Photos/Getty Images

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

Getty Images

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

Photo by Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images

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

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

The continuing saga over the UK policy on subsidies to renewable energy supplies should serve as a warning to investors not just in wind power but across the whole energy sector.  Public policy risk is a permanent reality.  The Treasury is right to question the subsidy regime and producers have to be realistic about the nature of the business they are in. Read more