I was on BBC Radio Newcastle this morning, discussing what some are calling the North East region’s ‘energy revolution’. Some.
It’s a funny kind of ‘energy revolution’, when the outcome is a reduction of living standards.
I wish I’d said that, but the fact is that I can barely register sights and sounds at 8.30 on a Monday morning, and frankly, I was astonished by Professor Richard Davies’ arrogance. Enough excuses.
Davies was asked, why he thought the things going on around Newcastle — the dimming of streetlights and the switching off of escalators in the city’s underground train network — represents a ‘quiet revolution’? He replied,
Well this is just a sign of what’s taking place around the UK, around Europe. There are big targets which have been set by the EU and by the UK and even by Newcastle City Council to reduce our carbon footprint. And so it’s not surprising we’re starting to see evidence of measures to reduce demand, to switching off escalators, also measures to create more renewable energy. This is an absolutely sensible way of proceeding in order to reduce our carbon footprints and also to develop and change with what is clearly an evolving situation across the globe and in the EU and in the UK.
Yeah… it’s no surprise that when you make energy more expensive, people start turning things off. Things like public goods: street lighting intended to make possible for pedestrians to navigate the streets at night without colliding with street furniture. And things like escalators which help people who might otherwise struggle with poor health and shopping. You don’t have to be a professor to understand it. If there’s less money, fewer things can be done with it. The reason this ‘revolution’ is quiet is that it causes things to be shut down. But it isn’t a revolution, any more than an existing tyranny exercising its power more forcefully is a ‘revolution’. It’s not even an industrial revolution. There is no transformation; there is just a reduction in the quality of public goods, and increased costs, spun as ‘progress’.
Davies was then asked, ‘So are you surprised that not everyone is happy about these changes?’.
I’m not entirely surprised because I think it’s human nature that we tend to, you know, switch on our light and expect it to work. And I think most of my generation have become… it becomes absolutely common that… er, you know assumed that electricity is at our fingertips. But I think we’ve got to be far more aware of the cost of energy. We’ve effectively had energy far too cheaply beleive it or not, because we’ve had fossil fuels, coal and oil and gas, we’ve effectively had it far too cheap. We’ve taken it for granted and I think that has to change. And that’s a big cultural and behavioural change we need to start to see.
In other words, people object to his plans because they have unreasonable expectations of light, heat and power on demand.
Except they don’t. And this was the point I was trying to emphasise. The phenomenon of ‘fuel poverty’ almost tripled between 2004-9.
|year||Millions households in ‘energy poverty’|
And there’s no reason to beleive that, given the recent increases in UK energy bills, there are fewer households in fuel poverty today than in 2009. This means that there are tens of millions of people in the UK who are unable to pay their electricity and gas bills, and unable, consequently to pay for other things, including transport, clothing, food, and so on. We might as well just call it ‘poverty’.
Struggling to afford to pay for something is not the same thing as ‘taking it for granted’. Energy that one-in-five homes cannot afford is not ‘far too cheap’. There is no ‘behavioural’ or ‘cultural’ change that could make people who can’t afford to pay to keep their families warm more ‘aware of the cost of energy’.
The other thing I was hoping to emphasise was that, just as higher energy costs means a harder time for homes, it means that jobs in the energy-intensive sector are also vulnerable. The North East of England is particularly vulnerable to rising energy prices, because there is a great deal of energy-intensive industry there, such as steel manufacturing. Rising energy costs, and uncertainty about the effects of the UK’s climate policies were cited by steel manufacturers, Tata as reasons for the closure of several of their plants. Showing just as much indifference to the plight of the less fortunate, Baroness Bryony Worthington — who, as Barry Woods points out, was instrumental in the design of the UK’s energy policies — tweeted,
@sandbagorguk RT @BBCBreaking Steel giant Tata believed to be planning to cut around 1,500 jobs at three sites << revenge for the c[arbon] budgets?
So limited is Worthington’s grasp of the real world, she could only see the redundancies of hundreds of individuals as a simple act of revenge, rather than the inevitable consequence of a large firm seeking to protect its bottom line in the wake of policies — carbon budgets — she herself had crafted. It’s not unlike robbing someone, and then calling them mean for not buying you a Christmas present. What did she expect — for Tata, an energy-intensive company, to take staff on? Did she really not expect energy policies to have material effects?
One man whose industrial sector and whose job is not at risk, of course, is Professor Richard Davies himself. A look at his profile page at the University of Durham website reveals that his department is the beneficiary of many £millions of money from renewable energy companies, and the UK government…
Richard Davies’ main role at Durham University has been in building cross-department and cross faculty research research in energy. This started in the field of geo-energy (e.g. fossil fuels, carbon capture and storage) and more recently has been across a spectrum of energy research, with the development of Durham Energy Institute (DEI). Davies’ remit has been to build DEI from concept to a fully functioning and high achieving energy institute which is Nationally and Internationally significant. This has included development and roll out of effective governance, raising internal and external profile, attracting significant new funding for posts, getting recognition in UK government and enabling and triggering new research opportunities.
Sicne 2008 DEI has undergone spectacular growth and now involves 107 researchers across 12 departments. Research income for 2010 was almost £9M. Highlights in 2010 were collaborating on winning a £54M grant on Low Carbon Networks (DEI lead – Phil Taylor); £1M funding from DONG Energy for a Prof of Renewable Energy and £0.6M from Eaga for a Prof of Low Carbon Communities. DEI works closely with UK Research Councils and the private sector. It was officially launched by the Rt. Hon. Chris Huhne, Secretary of State, Energy & Climate Change on 28th March 2011.
Lucky Professor Davies and his colleagues! While thousands of his neighbours have lost their jobs, tens of thousands more have had their jobs put at risk, and hundreds of thousands of them cannot afford to heat their homes, Davies and his team have gone from strength-to-strength. Hooray! Hurrah! This must be what is meant by ‘green growth’: it is the hue of a fungus that colonises a decaying carcass. It’s Nature’s way, after all.
Davies and the Durham energy Institute are not involved in energy research. They are political tools. They lend the credibility of independent academic expertise to the UK and EU’s political environmental agenda. And in return, state department’s such as DECC give them generous research grants. (The £54 million grant from Low Carbon Networks is a grant from the Department of Energy and Climate Change.) As observed previously on this blog, the academy no longer speaks truth to power, but speaks official truth on behalf of official power.
If there is a ‘revolution’, it is one in which the likes of Professor Richard Davies, Baroness Bryony Worthington, and Chris Huhne (and the rest) have completely closed themselves off from accountability and criticism. This is neither an energy revolution, nor an industrial revolution, but a political revolution. This undemocratic move takes power — literally, and in the political sense — away from the public, only to go on to lecture the poor about their opulent lifestyles… ‘Let them eat cake’.