Monthly Archives: October 2014

Catherine Mitchell is Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Exeter. She is also one of the academics behind a joint venture between Exeter University and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, called IGov: ‘Innovation, Governance and Affordability for a Sustainable Secure Economy’.

IGov is a four year research project aiming to understand and explain the nature of sustainable change within the energy system, focusing on the complex inter-relationships between governance and innovation. The project is housed in the University of Exeter’s Energy Policy Group and is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Our approach is to examine theories of change alongside actual practice in the UK and a number of comparison countries. The ultimate objective is to develop a framework for governance that better enables practices to change and the UK to move towards a sustainable, secure and affordable energy system. IGov is about new thinking for energy.

Needless to say, I find this stuff weird.

Why? First, leaving aside what we know about the Green Blob (we’ll come back to that), I find the growing nexus between the academy and the state weird. ‘A government of all the talents’, as Gordon Brown called it, seems to make at least superficial sense. But it leads to the grim politics that Gordon Brown will be remembered for. Expertise, though a necessary thing for governments to draw from, given undue prominence, is corrosive to the democratic sphere. Second, it seems to me that Academe’s growing role as outsourced policymakers invariably attracts the dimmest academics, who nonetheless are now able to campaign for “change” under the cover of academic prestige, rather than out in the public sphere, amongst the hoi polloi. I don’t think that is a healthy way to construct policy.

For example… What business is it of Exeter University to lobby for ‘sustainable change within the energy system’? Who asked them to devise plans to get ‘the UK to move towards a sustainable, secure and affordable energy system’?

That’s not to criticise academics for having views — and stating them — about how the world should be organised, if it should be organised at all. But put it this way, would IGov ask an academic who is critical of its aims to join it? No. But neither is it open to public criticism, yet it has influence in the public sphere.

On Monday, Professor Mitchell posted an article to the IGov blog, criticising David Rose’s Mail on Sunday article on the Green Blob, which Barry Woods and I helped with. Mitchell says ‘It is the Black Fog the Daily Mail needs to worry about, not the Green Blob’. After dismissing the article as ‘reactionary, evidence-free journalism which provides a small part of a whole picture, thereby giving the wrong view’, she makes her argument that the fossil fuel lobby — the Black Fog — is far more extended into policymaking than the Green Blob is.

One thing we can be certain of is that it is not the green blob which is somehow taking over parliament. The ‘black fog’ which supports fossil fuels and the conventional energy system is far bigger, and has a far greater impact across the globe, and in Britain.

To make her point, she uses research from the IEA, OECD and IMF, which claims that subsidies for fossil fuels are much greater than the subsidies for renewables. This is a proxy, on Mitchell’s view, for the extent of the lobbying either sector does. I thought I’d email Professor Mitchell, to explain why she’s wrong.

Dear Professor Mitchell,

As one of the reporters on the Mail on Sunday story you refer to in your recent blog post, I was interested in your comments that the ‘Black Fog’ should concern the Daily Mail {sic} more than the ‘Green Blob’. Being a freelance researcher on energy and climate matters, a number of your other comments also concerned me.

You express the view that the article represented ‘reactionary, evidence-free journalism which provides a small part of a whole picture, thereby giving the wrong view’.

In fact a substantial amount of research was undertaken for the article, and some was produced beforehand. The bulk of the evidence for the claims made in the article exist in the published reports of the organisations referred to – a requirement of US (though sadly not UK) law. I have provided some links below this email.

The reports published by the US, UK and Brussels-based organisations referred to all emphasise their roles in campaigning for planned coal-fired generating capacity in the UK to be cancelled, and their success in bringing about national and EU legislation. We show that The Hewlett Foundation alone made grants of $0.5 billion to ClimateWorks, which is the major donor in turn of the European Climate Foundation (ECF), who make further grants from a €25 million budget to organisations to lobby for policy change. We found further substantial grants are made directly between ClimateWorks and ECF’s funders and their beneficiaries.

You go on to claim that a greater problem than the effect of ‘green blob’ funding over policy-making is the black fog, which is ‘taking over parliament’. The only evidence you offer in support of this claim is the ‘direct public subsidies to different energy sectors’, revealed in reports by the International Energy Agency (IEA), IMF and OECD. I believe that you may have misunderstood the research you cite.

The summary of the report you linked to makes the claim that “The global cost of fossil-fuel subsidies expanded to $544 billion in 2012 despite efforts at reform. Financial support to renewable sources of energy totalled $101 billion.” However, what is not explained is how these figures are produced.

The IEA explain their methodology: “It compares average end-user prices paid by consumers with reference prices that correspond to the full cost of supply.” The OECD explain the problem with this approach. As the price paid by the consumer after duty and so on is generally greater than the reference price, the IEA do not consider that Britain subsidises the fossil fuel sector. And so on the IEA’s analysis, no country in Europe or North America subsidises its fossil sector, either. We can, on the terms of your own argument, then, determine that the size of the ‘black fog’ is zero, and that its influence in Westminster and in Brussels is zero.

The OECD’s analysis, which is drawn from the same data, does claim that Britain subsidises the fossil fuel sectors. But it admits that ‘The scope of what is considered “support” is here deliberately broad, and is broader than some conceptions of “subsidy”’. Taking the case of Britain, for example, the OECD looked at the tax benefits enjoyed by gas companies, and found the sector to be subsidised in 2011 to the amount of £3.631 billion. However, this includes £3.51 billion of ‘subsidy’ in the form of a reduced rate of VAT on domestic energy. If this is a subsidy at all, it is a consumer subsidy, not a producer subsidy. The remainder – £121 million is dwarfed by the amount the sector pays to the Treasury.

Returning to the IEA’s analysis, further investigation shows, too, that it includes in the largest part subsidies to poor consumers not to producers.

Neither analyses suggest, as you claim that ‘direct public subsidies’ are paid to ‘fossil energy sectors’ at all, much less in Britain. In fact, a PWC survey of the oil and gas sector found that it contributed more than £30bn to the Treasury. No subsidies are paid to the fossil sectors. And what the OECD claims is a ‘subsidy’ in the form of reduced rates of VAT on fuel and power in the UK is in fact a consumer benefit that is equally applied to green energy – it just happens that less of it is produced, so it draws less subsidy. In this respect, the OECD’s analysis is extremely misleading. My own research shows that, even taking the OECD’s analysis at face value, when we compare the ‘subsidies’ given to green and brown sectors on a unit-for-unit basis, the renewable sector enjoys thirteen times the subsidy that the fossil fuel sector received.

You are right to say that claims about the ‘green blob’ influencing policy should be seen in the context of the efforts of ‘black fog’ to do the same. However, you are wrong to suggest that our investigation did not attempt to do this.

In fact, I spoke to a number of green organisations’ press officers about the new EU 2030 targets and the effect of industry lobbying on both sides of the debate on the Friday before publication. The Greenpeace European Office, for example, were adamant that there was such resistance to the new targets, but were unable to identify it in the terms of the article, or quantify such intervention, beyond reference to the Magritte Group, which, the spokeswoman admitted, did not seem to have intervened in the discussion about 2030 targets. A spokesman for Climate Action Network Europe told me that “the business voice has been very divided, with some being more or less on the same page as NGOs… Big multinational companies, not just renewable energy companies”. We did not look into commercial support for green policies, though we had the opportunity to point out that substantial commercial interests exist in them, and are involved with ECF beneficiaries, and have working relationships with them and politicians.

Had the organisations we spoke to – and we spoke to quite a few – been able to offer us evidence that the ‘black fog’ had intervened in the way that the ‘green blob’ has intervened, this detail would have been in the article. However, and as the article pointed out, there is only one organisation which could be described in that way. But it is very poorly funded and it refuses donations from people with interests in the energy sector.

It does not seem unreasonable, therefore, to suggest that the black fog may be nothing more than a figment of the green blob’s imagination, and that if any such lobbying effort exists, its effect is negligible. After all, the ‘green blob’, as they themselves claim, were successful in closing down the planned Kingsnorth coal-fired power station replacement, and in securing a promise of ‘no new coal without CCS’ from the previous and coalition governments.

I am surprised that it needs to be pointed out to a professor of energy policy that the OECD, EIA and IMF reports on subsidies have no place in a discussion about energy policy lobbying, and are themselves misleading measures of the energy market. If the lobbying funded by American billionaires simply went to arguing for more cash for the renewable energy sector, it might be harder to criticise them. But the consequences of yet more and further-reaching policies such as the Climate Change Act and the new 2030 targets will be felt more by people outside of the energy sector than within it. Even with the EU’s targets, it seems unlikely to me that the fossil sector’s bottom line will be affected – the EU’s 2030 targets and CCA will not close down the world market for fossil fuels.

You are entitled to your own research interests and political preferences, of course. But it looks like you have dismissed an article out of hand, on a university blog, without the substance to back it up, merely on the basis of prejudices. If the point of academic expertise is to cheerlead preferred policies, and to shout ‘boo’ at Big Oil and the wrong kind of newspapers, we can surely add them to the list of organisations recruited into the Green Blob. It seems to me that you have done precisely what you accuse the Mail on Sunday of doing – namely, ‘reactionary, evidence-free journalism which provides a small part of a whole picture, thereby giving the wrong view.’

If I have misunderstood your blog post, however, I would be grateful for your explanation. Otherwise, I hope that you will be correcting your blog post.

Best wishes,

Ben Pile.

————–

ECF grantees:- http://europeanclimate.org/home/how-we-work/our-grantees/
ECF Annual Report 2013:- http://europeanclimate.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/ECF-2013-annual-report-web.pdf
ClimateWorks donors:- https://web.archive.org/web/20131127175640/http://www.climateworks.org/about/funders/

Hewlett Foundation grant database:- http://www.hewlett.org/grants/search

Hewlett Foundation statement of support for ClimateWorks:- “That is why the Hewlett Foundation decided to make a five-year, $100 million a year commitment, beginning in 2008, to ClimateWorks. ClimateWorks Foundation is a clearinghouse for this work, coordinating and supporting an international network of regional climate foundations in each of the world’s top carbon-dioxide-emitting regions-the United States, the European Union, China, India, and Latin America, as well as one to monitor the preservation of forests. The ClimateWorks Foundation is governed and led by a board of preeminent civic, business and scientific leaders from around the world and committed to supporting and sharing the best approaches to combating climate change from every corner of the world.” — http://www.hewlett.org/philanthropys-role-fighting-climate-change

Packard Foundation grant database:- http://www.packard.org/grants/grants-database
Includes the following grants to ClimateWorks:-
2014 – $66,100,000 – http://www.packard.org/grants/grants-database/climateworks-foundation-8/
2013 – $250,000 – http://www.packard.org/grants/grants-database/climateworks-foundation-7/
2013 – $66,100,000 – http://www.packard.org/grants/grants-database/climateworks-foundation-6/
2012 – $66,100,000 – http://www.packard.org/grants/grants-database/climateworks-foundation-5/
2011 – $66,100,000 – http://www.packard.org/grants/grants-database/climateworks-foundation-4/
2010 – $46,757,793 – http://www.packard.org/grants/grants-database/climateworks-foundation-3/
2009 – $40,400,000 – http://www.packard.org/grants/grants-database/climateworks-foundation-2/
2008 – $33,400,000 – http://www.packard.org/grants/grants-database/climateworks-foundation/

McKnight Foundation grant database:- http://www.mcknight.org/grant-programs/grantees
Includes the following grants to ClimateWorks:-

http://www.mcknight.org/grant-programs/grantees?query=ClimateWorks&year=&program_area=

Year Approved: 2008 – Grant Amount: $16,000,000
Year Approved: 2010 – Grant Amount: $26,000,000
Year Approved: 2013 – Grant Amount: $1,000,000

Oak Foundation grant database:- http://www.oakfnd.org/grants
Includes the following grants to ECF;-
2009 – $1,700,000 – http://www.oakfnd.org/node/2909
2011 – $2,938,505 – http://www.oakfnd.org/node/4136
2012 – $6,825,710 – http://www.oakfnd.org/node/4490
2013 – $468,270 – http://www.oakfnd.org/node/5163
2013 – 4,771,798 – http://www.oakfnd.org/node/5162

And hte following donations to ClimateWorks:-
2008 – $600,000 – http://www.oakfnd.org/node/3363
2010 – $2,000,000 – http://www.oakfnd.org/node/3367
2011 – $3,750,000 – http://www.oakfnd.org/node/4190
2012 – $2,400,000 – http://www.oakfnd.org/node/4488

ClimateWorks 2011 Annual Report:- http://www.climateworks.org/imo/media/doc/ClimateWorks%20Foundation_2011%20Annual%20Report.pdf
ClimateWorks 2010 Annual Report:- http://www.climateworks.org/imo/media/doc/ClimateWorks%202010%20annual%20report.pdf
ClimateWorks 2009 Annual Report:- http://www.climateworks.org/imo/media/doc/CWFAnnualReport2009.pdf

In which the following grants to are listed:

In 2009, CW gave $64,858,769 to regional climate foundations, which
included $10,100,000 to ECF
In 2011, CW gave $83,446,516 to regional climate foundations, which
included $13,632,557 to ECF

in 2010:
European Climate Foundation – To support E.U. programs – $13,775,200
European Climate Foundation – To help track, assess, and compare
countries’ climate mitigation – $963,000
European Climate Foundation – To support the Deutsche Umwelthilfe
“Soot-Free for the Climate” European diesel filter campaign – $715,000
European Climate Foundation – To support carbon capture and storage
(CCS) strategy and grants management – $1,000,000
TOTAL: $16,453,200

ClimateWorks 2012 990 form:- http://pdfs.citizenaudit.org/2013_11_EO/26-2303250_990_201212.pdf — in which CW declares that it made $25,367,175 in grants to
European organisations.

ECF grant to CAN Europe:- E345,453 in 2013 – http://www.climnet.org/about-us/60-about-us/caneeuropesfunding
ECF grant to FOE Europe:- E339,967 in 2013 – http://www.foeeurope.org/sites/default/files/foee_funding_breakdown_2013.pdf
Grants to WWF Europe:- E531,280 in 2013 from “foundations” – http://www.foeeurope.org/sites/default/files/foee_funding_breakdown_2013.pdf
Grants to Green Alliance from “foundations”:- http://apps.charitycommission.gov.uk/Accounts/Ends95/0001045395_AC_20130331_E_C.pdf

Example statement of ClimateWorks’ support of lobbying policy ends:- “ECF support helped ensure that the European Commission committed to strong, binding targets and minimized loopholes in its updated climate policies. ECF also helped defeat a half-dozen proposed coal power plants and supported adoption of some of the world’s strongest fuel-efficiency standards.” — http://www.climateworks.org/network/regions/region/?id=adac1221-b7c3-e0dc-3f30-67b27b29feec##regional-climate-foundation

Then I took another look at Professor Mitchell’s profile page…

She is on the Board of the Regulatory Assistance Project – a US based non-profit organisation that provides regulatory advice to Governments. She has also advised numerous national and international companies, NGOs and institutions on various aspects of the transition to a sustainable energy system.

The Regulatory Assistance Project sounds innocuous enough. It is ‘a global, non-profit team of experts focused on the long-term economic and environmental sustainability of the power and natural gas sectors, providing assistance to government officials on a broad range of energy and environmental issues’.

I’d seen the name before. It had popped up during my research for David Rose. If you have a look at ClimateWorks’ 2012 990 form, for instance, you’ll see this:

CW990

ClimateWorks gave The Regulatory Assistance Project more than $8 million in 2012. If you haven’t read the Sunday Mail article yet, the significance of this is that ClimateWorks is the clearing house for the vast funds that flow between ‘philanthropic’ organisations and special interest lobbying organisations, like RAP. The European Climate Foundation, which is the focus of the Mail on Sunday Article, is the European Office of ClimateWorks, and distributes £tens of millions to our friends such as FoE, Greenpeace, WWF and smaller propaganda outfits like Richard Black’s Energy and Climate Intelligence {sic} Unit, and The Carbon Brief, which is now headed up by my old pal, Leo Hickman.

ASIDE: On that last point, check out this from ClimateWorks’ 2011 report, where it explains what it spent its ‘climate science communications’ budget on…

climateBriefClimateWorks

$600,000… FOR A BLOG! If there are any generous billionaires reading this blog, please get in touch.

Back to Professor Mitchell. She was criticising David Rose’s article, and yet the organisation in the USA, which she is a director of, is a beneficiary of the foundation, funded by billionaires such as the Hewletts, Packards, and so on.

I sent Professor Mitchell another email.

Dear Professor Mitchell,

Since sending you my email, I notice from your profile that you are a board member of the US Regulatory Assistance Project, which was the beneficiary of $8,674,434 of grants from ClimateWorks in 2012.

Given that you discuss in your blog post the need for transparency, do you not think you should have mentioned your relationship with the organisations identified in the Mail on Sunday article?

Best wishes,

I’m not expecting a reply.


UPDATE: Catherine Mitchell has emailed to say that her blog post has been amended. The comment about ‘reactionary, evidence-free journalism which provides a small part of a whole picture, thereby giving the wrong view’ has been removed.

This was originally written for Spiked, who haven’t yet decided whether or not to publish it.

Plans to bring UK nuclear energy out of its torpor were given mild relief last week, as the EU Commission approved the deal between the Government and EDF – the developer of the proposed Hinkley Point power station. The Commission investigated whether or not the deal broke state aid rules, and found that it did not. But when the Somerset turf is finally cut to make way for Britain’s first nuclear power station in nearly 20 years, Hinkley Point will stand as an epitome of remote, self-serving and intransigent political institutions rather than the symbol of technological and social progress that nuclear power stations once were.

New nuclear has been on the table for some time. But years of talks with energy companies and potential developers resulted in them packing up their pitch and walking away, citing expense. With only one developer left in the running, and with the UK government having committed to new nuclear energy as part of its carbon emissions-reduction strategy, it was now held over a barrel. To save itself from embarrassment, the government would underwrite loans for the £16 billion project, and guarantee a minimum price (‘strike price’) for the electricity it produced for the first 35 years of operation: £92.50 per megawatt hour (MWh) – roughly double the current market value.

At such prices, it is no surprise that the private sector was reluctant to get involved or finance Britain’s new nuclear projects. And with such an extraordinary intervention in the pricing mechanism, it was no surprise that the deal was investigated by the Commission for a possible breach of state aid rules. What is a surprise is that the Commission – which estimated that the costs of construction may reach £24.5 billion, and which advised that the price support should be extended from 35 years to the full 60-year lifespan of the plant – did not find much wrong with the UK government’s intervention. People born today will still be paying over-the-odds for the electricity produced at Hinkley Point at the end of their lives. Never mind toxic waste; expensive energy will be the coalition government’s ‘nuclear legacy’.

The cost of the 3.2 gigawatt (GW) proposed Hinkley Point power station is extraordinary. To put it into perspective, a comparison can be made with the gas-fired power station at Pembroke, which opened in 2012. On a unit-for-unit basis, the £7.6 bn per GW Hinkley Point plant is expected to cost nearly 20 times as much as the £400m per GW Pembroke plant. Though the fuel costs of Pembroke are not reflected in such a comparison, even at today’s relatively high gas prices, Pembroke produces electricity for less than half the cost of the proposed Hinkley Point plant. If gas prices were to fall to the prices seen in the 1990s and 2000s, electricity from Pembroke might be produced for as little as an eighth of the cost of electricity produced at Hinkley Point. The gamble on such high energy prices demonstrates that cheap energy is off the political agenda.

The green lobby reacted by complaining about the expense of the deal. “This is a world record sell-out to the nuclear industry at the expense of taxpayers and the environment’, whinged Greenpeace. But people who have campaigned for the abolition of greenhouse gasses and lobbied for expensive alternatives should not throw stones about market distortion and costs to the consumer. The same legislation which gives the operators of Hinkley Point £92.50 per MWh also grants to renewable generators far more generous subsidies. The strike price for offshore wind in 2014/5 is £155/MWh. For onshore wind it is £95. Biomass generators receive £105/MWh. Large solar PV installations receive a very generous £120. And operators of wave and tidal stream generators will receive a whopping £305. Where were Greenpeace’s complaints about government largesse when these prices were announced? The extraordinary Hinkley Point deal needs to be seen in the context of climate change and renewable energy policies.

High energy prices have been established as the norm by policy, not by scarcity. This has been legitimised by arguments that first-of-kind and immature technologies need help to compete with seemingly mature counterparts such as coal and gas. But the categories of ‘mature’ and ‘immature’ technology presuppose that one has reached its terminal point, while the other has more potential to be unleashed. But the reverse may be true: wind energy and the use of wood as fuel are in fact much older, and were largely abandoned by today’s politician’s wiser predecessors. Meanwhile, shale gas ‘fracking’ and the potential recovery of methane hydrates from the ocean floor demonstrate that there is a great deal of R&D left to do in the fossil fuel sector.

But abundant and cheap energy may create environmental problems. On the green view, this creates a tension between human needs and wants and the need for political leaders to address the urgent problem of a changing climate. Climate change may or may not be a problem requiring political intervention. However, there is no need for us to understand it as a problem to see the backwards thinking that has produced the climate and energy policies that now put expensive ‘negawatts’ further up the political agenda than cheaper megawatts. Although each EU member state – and many other countries throughout the world – spend many billions each year on renewable energy subsidies and emissions-reduction, global emissions continue to rise. But what if the tens of £billions ear-marked for the most expensive power station in the world instead went on actual energy research? Entire university campuses could be constructed and funded for just the price of Hinkley Point.

Just a small fraction of the many £billions spent each year on subsidising the extremely inefficient renewable energy sector could finance instead an array of projects like ITER – the European fusion research programme – where currently many countries now share just one. ITER is a good demonstration of political priorities. It is a 35 year research programme, intended to produce a proof-of-concept of sustained nuclear fusion: zero-carbon energy from water, forever. The programme has a budget of around €15 billion, shared between 35 countries – or very roughly €12 million per year, per country on average – barely enough cash to finance a small wind farm.

The budgets for nuclear energy research in the UK are, when compared to the money spent on renewables, mean, to say the least. A 2012 review of UK nuclear energy research found that UK Government expenditure on nuclear R&D was just £66 million in 2010/11 – around £30 million each for research into fusion and fission. The same review found that university research into nuclear energy between the years 2006-2012 was just £269 million — £44 million a year. Again, these sums are barely enough to build a small wind farm.

This is not to say that every last penny spent on renewable energy should have been spent on nuclear R&D. But these sums indicate that the problem of climate change isn’t being taken at all seriously from an R&D perspective. The emphasis on immediate, top-down and restrictive policies – targets, carbon budgets, subsidies and taxes – have yielded no practical benefit, whereas emphasis on energy R&D could have multiplied the number of experimental pathways into all forms of energy, both to mitigate climate change, and expand the reach of industrial energy production.
Investment in R&D, rather than top-down policies might well have delivered benefits that reduced the risks and costs of nuclear energy. There are many reactor designs that could compete on safety and therefore cost. Some designs offer to burn up waste stockpiles in sub-critical reactors. Some designs are modular, allowing easy and rapid deployment. Some are hybrids of fission and fusion. Some operate at low pressure. Some burn substances other than uranium and plutonium. The progress of each design is beset, not by technical challenges, but by political inertia. Rather than making a transparent choice of technique, or investing in such a way as to expand the choices on offer, policymakers were forced by first their own ineptitude, and second by their own intransigence into an expensive and hasty decision: not to save the planet from climate change, but to save their policies from embarrassing failure.

The predictable failure of renewable energy’s promises was the final cue for nuclear energy’s farcical return. The UK’s nuclear energy programme had been abandoned in the 1980s following the environmental movement’s successful mobilisation of public opinion after the Chernobyl accident. Meanwhile, the effect of the ‘dash for gas’ that had begun in the late ‘80s, and which led to low energy prices throughout the 1990s began to ebb away as North Sea gas fields seemed to dry up. In the 2000s, a timid and image-conscious Labour government sought the approval of green organisations, and allowed them to close down any possibility of new coal-fired power station. European emissions directives shortened the lives of existing fossil-fuel-powered plants though the Large Combustion Plant Directive and the Industrial Emissions Directive. Now the UK faced a growing energy gap.

Renewable energy never stood a chance of filling that gap or providing electricity at a reasonable cost. The offshore wind farm at Thanet, completed in 2010, cost £900 million to build for 300MW of installed capacity. But due to the variability of wind, offshore wind farms produce around a third of their nameplate capacity. Thanet therefore cost a whopping £8.6 billion per GW of effective capacity – nearly a £billion more than Hinkley point, but supplying the grid with electricity at three times the market value, netting its operators more than £75 million in subsidies per year.

The rhetoric hailing the return of nuclear exists in stark contrast to the promises about white heat of technological revolution generations earlier. More than half a century since the first civil nuclear reactors produced electricity, Britain’s political leaders struggle to establish the lowest possible expectations for the highest possible price: keeping the lights on and tackling climate change.

Back in the 1950s, a year before Britain’s first nuclear power plant opened, ministers from the six member countries of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) gathered at Messina, Italy. The ECSC met to set out the priorities that would become the foundations of the European Economic Community, and later the EU. Amongst the three major objectives that were essential ‘to improve steadily the living standard of the population’, the conference agreed that ‘Putting more abundant energy at a cheaper price at the disposal of the European economies constitutes a fundamental element of economic progress’ and that ‘The development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes will very soon open up the prospect of a new industrial revolution beyond comparison with that of the last hundred years’.

Nearly sixty years of technological development and social progress, however, have taken their toll on the European political elite’s technological ambition and imagination. In 2007, they set out their new objectives. Europe abandoned the Messina Declaration’s objectives. “Energy is essential for Europe to function. But the days of cheap energy for Europe seem to be over. The challenges of climate change, increasing import dependence and higher energy prices are faced by all EU members.”

It may seem a radical proposition: if policymakers eschew the principle of cheap energy, might cheap energy become that much harder to find? Does the fact of Europe declaring that ‘the days of cheap energy for Europe seem to be over’ not establish expensive energy as a political priority, and shift the emphasis of public organisations and publically-funded research away from the discovery of cheap energy? Might this not explain why ITER and nuclear research are so poorly-funded, in spite of what so many politicians have described as a ‘planetary emergency’ and ‘the biggest challenge ever facing humanity’?

Whether or not climate change is happening, the tension between the necessity of dealing with it and wanting cheap energy is one that politicians have used for their own ends: to secure themselves and their institutions against the public’s wishes. The promise of abolishing coal, and supplying the UK with green energy may occasionally raise a standing ovation from the zombie faithful at party conferences, but most people just want there to be reasonably-priced electricity when the light switch is flicked. Accordingly, the problem, as policymakers conceive of it, is people, not the climate. Hence their preference for ‘behaviour change’, demand-side management, ‘efficiency’, and the imposition of limits, targets and subsidies, while eschewing innovation and the notion of economic development with it. The growing expense and decreasing reliability of electricity infrastructure throughout Europe is not merely a symbolic reflection of the European political establishment’s detachment from ordinary life; it is its product.

And so it is with nuclear energy now. We can keep our lights on, but only at colossal expense. The expense was caused by policies, which through accidents and by design, established high energy prices and expectations of government support for new capacity. Having established that much, the incentive to innovate, to produce energy for a lower cost and in greater abundance, disappears.

Electricity generation and its delivery are technologies that were mastered many decades ago. Nuclear power was developed not long after. The fuels for these technologies exist in vast quantities, and their quantities are multiplied as the means to extract and use them are developed. The thing that stops the transparent management of resources and their efficient delivery is a form of politics which legitimises itself, to itself, for itself, against us, by problematising such simple things as energy. The more that technical problems involved in life’s most basic necessities – like coping with the climate and producing energy – are made complicated, so the lower the aspirations of politics and the lower the expectations of politicians become.


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