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Sunday, 10 November 2013

To develop a low carbon economy we must focus on long-term objectives

An interview with a world-leading energy expert persuades me of the need to focus on long-term objectives when it comes to energy policy.

“We do not have a shortage of energy; it is a question of harnessing that energy to our needs. If you use sun or if you use wind, it is expensive, but we can do it.”

This sentence illustrates an important point that often gets lost amidst the whirlpool of false facts, statements and counter statements that characterises the energy debate. We have the technology to develop a low carbon economy - the only barriers to doing so are political and economic.

Before you accuse me of blind optimism, this point came from Janusz Bialek, DONG Professor of Renewable Energy at Durham University. As the author of some 140 research papers and an adviser to the UK Government and European Commission, this optimism comes right from the top of the scientific elite.

The political and economic barriers to a green future are always characterised by short-term thinking. Indeed, we have a political system in which the party in government frequently appears unable to plan beyond the next election. Examples of such limited foresight in energy policy are numerous - just look at the solutions suggested by the Conservatives and Labour to the recent rise in energy bills.

David Cameron’s proposed remedy is to “roll back” green taxes; a policy that is representative of the worse kind of recklessness. We know he no longer cares about the environment – his green credibility is melting as fast as the Norwegian glaciers where he performed his ‘hug a husky’ stunt – but the extent to which he even seems to be ignoring carbon cutting targets that are enshrined in law is mind-boggling.

But let me strip away the emotion for a moment in favour of cold, hard facts. Of the £1,267 that the average household pays for gas and electricity each year, just £53 (9% of the total) goes towards subsidising low carbon energy development. The overall figure of £112 quoted by a number of media outlets includes money given to the poorest households to heat their homes, and is therefore an inaccurate representation of the price of green subsidies.

“If you look at electricity bills, about 50% of the bill is due to the wholesale price of energy,” says Professor Bialek. “The so-called ‘marginal’ fuel for electricity (which is the fuel that determines energy prices) is gas. So if the gas price goes up, as it is at the moment, then the final electricity price has to go up.”

In other words, the rising wholesale price of gas is the key issue, a factor that politicians would find hard – if not impossible – to manipulate. Blaming green levies, as David Cameron is currently doing, is representative of a failure of leadership. The long-term objective of developing a low-carbon economy cannot be substituted for the sake of a few digits on a bill sheet.

Yet the same short-termism is also at work in Ed Miliband’s promise to freeze energy bills if Labour win the next election. As I have already mentioned, retail prices are completely dependent on wholesale prices, and these are determined by world markets which UK politicians are unable to influence. Any savings that consumers might make during a freeze would effectively be fool’s gold, as the huge losses incurred by energy companies if they are unable to offset rising wholesale prices with profits from retail operations would deter vital investment.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

The energy equation - lighting up the Dark Continent

Bringing energy to Africa depends on solving a vital equation.

Africa is on the up, with the International Monetary Fund forecasting growth of 6.1% next year compared to a global average of 4%.

However, chronic energy shortages mean that Africa is still very much the ‘Dark Continent’, with satellite maps showing a land in shadow next to the burning lights of Europe.

According to a report by the World Bank, the lack of reliable electricity represents a key barrier to development:

“School children often cannot read after dusk, businesses cannot grow, clinics cannot refrigerate medicine or vaccines, and industries are idled hampering economic growth, jobs, and livelihoods.”

So it is clear that Africa needs more energy, but the key challenge will be to achieve this increase in a way that does not heighten emissions from a continent acutely vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

This is where the energy equation comes in, with the future of African prosperity dependent on meeting this formula:

Increased energy supply (x) + no rise in emissions (y) = sustainable prosperity (z)

Clearly, the difficulty comes when we consider what is currently seen as the best way to achieve x – increased fossil fuel extraction. Indeed, the resource potential of Africa is widely recognised, with Nigeria set to become the third largest supplier of natural gas in the coming years.

Friday, 25 October 2013

"If and when people get their heads together to solve the problem, they will solve the problem." An interview with a world-leading energy expert.

I talk to Janusz Bialek, DONG Professor of Renewable Energy at Durham University. 

An expert's view of the issues facing the energy industry

“Necessity is the mother of invention”. Professor Bialek’s phrase neatly sums up the most important feature of the energy debate in Britain and across the world. We need energy for our civilisation to function, but we also need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions if our civilisation is to continue to exist. The attempt to reconcile the need for energy with that of protecting the environment underlies all of Janusz’s work.

Alongside being a world-leading expert who has produced some 140 research papers, Janusz has advised the UK government and European Commission on energy infrastructure. An interview in the New Statesman in 2011 confirmed his prominence in the national energy debate, and he is widely sought after by the media.

We start on the issue of rising energy bills, which is especially timely as a number of companies have just announced significant increases in customer levies. The rising cost of energy has been criticised as yet another example of corporate greed by some commentators, but Janusz is keen to stress the importance of other factors.

     “What the generators do is obviously to increase prices now in order to ride through any price             freeze if it comes”.

“If you look at electricity bills, about 50% of the bill is due to the wholesale price of energy. The so-called ‘marginal’ fuel for electricity (which is the fuel that determines energy prices) is gas. So if the gas price goes up, as it is at the moment, then the final electricity price has to go up.”

He explains that rising gas prices are due in part to the increasing demand for the fuel as countries such as Japan and Germany abandon nuclear power after the Fukishima disaster. The glut of shale gas from fracking has also caused a huge amount of coal to flood the European market from the USA, as it is no longer needed for electricity generation. This means that gas plants in Britain are running at a loss, because it costs generators more to buy the gas than they get from selling it. Energy companies therefore rise prices for consumers to correct this shortfall. I ask if Labour’s proposed energy bill freeze if they win the election in 2015 could be a solution to the growing pressure on households.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Off with the petrol heads! the tyranny of the motorists must end

If we are really going to turn Britain into a 'cycling nation' then we need to challenge the dominance of motorists. 

All we are getting from politicians is carrots, and no sticks. This isn't a complaint you hear too often, yet when it comes to turning Britain into a 'cycling nation', we are fooling ourselves if we think this can be achieved without concessions from motorists. Alongside investment in infrastructure, we need to introduce a road management system that prioritises cyclists over other road users.

This decision is based on a clear judgement of value. Firstly, cyclists are more vulnerable on the road, meaning that their safety should be put first. More importantly, cycling is generally more beneficial to our society than driving. Replacing the vehicles on our roads with bikes will mean less air pollution, decreased carbon dioxide emissions, reduced traffic congestion, and better public health. Motoring groups have dismissed the idea of giving priority to cyclists as “bonkers”, but these factors suggest that it is the right thing to do.
The clearest sign that Britain’s cycling revolution is failing comes from a simple comparison of data. Although bike use in the UK increased by eight per cent in 2012, the number of cyclists killed on our roads also went up by four per cent. This is not an obvious correlation. Common sense might indicate that more cyclists would make the roads safer and thus reduce the number of deaths. However, the facts say otherwise. Chiara Luisa Giacomini – who was tragically killed by a lorry in London last week – is the last in a long list of needless victims of our failure to make space for cyclists. Although it pains me to say it, I would challenge anyone to ride through central London and claim that our roads are safe.

Underpinning all efforts to promote city cycling must be a drive to separate cyclists from other road users. This does not mean creating hopelessly narrow cycle lanes that suddenly end amid a whirling mass of traffic. Instead we need routes protected by a permanent partition. If there is not sufficient space, then this must be taken away from motorists. A huge shift in focus from car to bike will also dramatically decrease traffic levels.

The Mayor’s 
Vision for Cycling in London has called for 20 mph speed limits, priority for cyclists over other road users, and an end to half-hearted attempts at segregation. We will soon see the benefits of these plans, with a new ‘crossrail for bike’ expected by 2016 and tighter restrictions for HGVs. What does concern me is the apparent scattergun approach of this investment, which allocates huge funds for grandiose plans, such as a floating cycle path in Kingston Upon Thames, when many roads in London do not even have a proper cycle lane. Despite not wishing to dampen the ambition behind these ideas, this seems akin to a starving man spending his last few pounds on a teaspoon of caviar rather than a sack of wheat.

We must also resist any superficial measures to improve the safety of cyclists. The argument in favour of making helmets compulsory – though well meaning – is a red herring. The priority should be separating cyclists from other road users, and making helmet use mandatory may introduce complacency and stultify any efforts to achieve this aim. Similarly, much has been made of 
comments from the Olympic gold medal winner Laura Trott about the damage caused by dangerous cycling. Although she may be right to highlight the need for cyclists to act responsibly, the majority of deaths are caused by careless driving, not cycling. A change in the law which places the burden of evidence on the motorist in the event of an accident, similar to the Dutch model, is vital.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

The great killer cover up

Britain has some of the worst air pollution in Europe, so why does the government want to scrap air quality monitoring stations?

For a country whose capital city has the worst air quality in Europe, you would expect England to be taking drastic steps to curb the problem of air pollution. However, in a move of almost unparalleled recklessness, the government intends to make changes that could result in the closure of up to 600 air quality monitoring stations.

Ministers want to remove obligations on local authorities to assess levels of air pollution, a decision that could spell disaster for efforts to curb a problem that causes 29,000 early deaths every year. This scheme is part of the ‘Red Tape Challenge’, in which government departments compete to make savings to their budgets. 

What is even more mind boggling is the justification for this irresponsible cost-cutting, as outlined in the consultation document. After explaining the extensive monitoring that is currently in place to assess air pollution, the overview concludes:

“It is therefore perhaps more important that local authorities focus their actions on what is needed to… reduce the public health impacts of poor air quality rather than continue their current focus on local assessment”.

In other words, politicians wish to obscure the true scale of the problem and instead gain some positive PR through superficial measures to green up our cities. Monitoring is there for a reason – to inform and direct action. It is impossible to have an effective air quality management strategy without it.

Justine Greening, the excellent MP for Putney, is one senior minister who recognises the importance of this process. She specifically identified the “detailed monitoring of air pollution” as a means of tackling the problem in her constituency.

The possibility of removing air quality monitoring stations is even more worrying when we consider the lack of political action that characterises the current approach to air pollution.

This summer, the government twice failed on their duty to notify the public about dangerous levels of ozone on 16 and 22 July in line with UK and international law. 

Ministers have also refused to warn drivers of diesel vehicles – potentially numbering in the hundreds of thousands – that they risk legal action by removing particulate filters which reduce emissions of carcinogenic gases.

This catalogue of errors led to a Supreme Court ruling this year that the government was not doing enough to tackle the problem of air pollution. This decision by the highest court in the land could also pave the way for legal action by the European Commission, which has the power to levy huge fines for the government’s failure to meet air quality targets.

What is needed is a total rethink of our approach to the problem of air pollution in our society. Using a comparison originally made by the environmental journalist George Monbiot, we need to make the same fuss over deaths caused by car fumes as we do with cigarettes. Forget passive smoking, what about “passive driving”.

With smoking, it is accepted that people have a moral right to harm themselves through their own lifestyle choices but that this cannot be at the expense of others. Therefore, people falling ill through passively inhaling cigarette smoke is rightfully seen as unacceptable, and this is used as a justification for nearly all government policies to discourage smoking.

Thursday, 22 August 2013