Energy politics ‘after the Milk Round

News of the 25% collapse in Areva’s share values triggered an unexpected sliver of sympathy in me.

The collapse followed their announcement of further delays in the construction of nuclear power plants in France and Finland. It also followed hot on the heels of news of the ‘secret’ UK review of whether Hinkley Point C will ever be viable/affordable. Even Sir David King (who knows a dead horse when he sees one), has been revising his own position; saying that the UK may not (after all) need any new nuclear power stations.

The whole debacle took me back to a schoolboy tale.

An investment consortium had bought the offspring of two champion racehorses. The offspring would be a sure-fire winner of the future.They fed it, groomed it, trained it and, with great expectations, took it to the races. But the horse consistently failed to look anything but an abject loser.

In one race after another it came in last. Finally, the owners lost patience. “Listen” they told the jockey “This is his last chance. If the horse doesn’t win today he’s out pulling a Milk Round tomorrow”.

But the race turned out like all the rest. The horse trailed the field. And the jockey, desperate to close the gap, began to use his whip, urging the horse on. Forlornly, the horse turned its head and whispered “Ease up, will you mate…I’m up early in the morning.”

I could hear the same (unspoken) words coming from Areva.

The ‘clip clop’ Coalition

For the UK’s ‘investment consortium’ (the Coalition government), Hinkley Point C is rapidly becoming its own ‘Milk round mare’; the most expensive way of keeping no one’s lights on.

Politically, however, the problem goes well beyond nuclear. It reaches deep into the heart of Britain’s outdated energy thinking. At the moment, Britain has an energy market that is not just a racket but a non-repairable one.

Privatisation turned energy into a short-term paper chase of profits and dividends. Infrastructure renewal could be ignored because, in the end, the State (the taxpayer) could always be blackmailed into throwing limitless amounts of cash into the mouth of “keeping the lights on”. It is a dilemma that continues to feed yesterday at the expense of tomorrow.

Epoch changing moments come whether governments will them or not. And empires end on the same basis. It happened to the Romans when their armies had to chase into other people’s forests to keep their arms furnaces running. And it happened to wood once coal was found, and to coal as it was displaced by oil.

Today’s ‘end of an era’ will see the replacement of non-renewables (fossil fuels and nuclear) with renewables. It is a change being driven more by technology than politics. But old empires do not die easily; especially when the empire owns the energy infrastructures that are most likely to be bypassed by tomorrow’s energy systems.

The Empire bites back

Energy politics has very little to do with ‘keeping the lights on. Fundamentally, it is about money, profits and corporate power.

In 2008, Europe’s Top 20 energy utilities had a market value of €1 trillion. The Top 10 had a Credit Rating of ‘A’or above. By 2013, the market value of these utilities had been cut in half – to €500 billion – and only 5 had a Credit Rating of ‘A’ or above. Boardrooms around Europe are now having difficulty with bladder control.

The place that scares them most is Germany. This is why so much effort (and money) is being thrown into buying/scaring governments into an “anything but Germany” approach to future energy thinking. It is easy to explain why.

Already, 50% of Germany’s electricity generating capacity comes from renewables. People point to the fact that Big Energy only owns about 5% of this generating capacity, but they miss an even more important fact.

Under Germany’s ‘Merit Order’ system, the Grid takes clean energy before ‘dirty’. Moreover, once installed, both wind and solar come with near-zero marginal costs, and are key elements in the regular production of German electricity surpluses.

The practical effect of this is to have driven wholesale German electricity prices down from €80/MWh in 2008, to €38/MWh in 2013. Nothing illustrates this more graphically than a look at the daily pattern of German electricity production.

German (electric) power production (28/09/14)

The lighter shaded areas denote the contribution of renewables, and the critical role they play in taking the ‘peak’ out of peak demand.

Utilities have always known that peak demand meant peak pricing. And peak pricing is what drove their profits and dividends. Once the market opened up – once clean came before dirty, and once people could share what they themselves produced – old energy’s game was up.

This is the last thing Old Energy wants people in Britain to understand.

The World Bank wakes up?

Just to complicate matters further, the World Bank seems to have woken up to the disaster of its old energy policies. Having thrown £13bn in subsidies into fossil fuel projects over the last 5 years, the Bank has called a halt. Henceforth, I t’s support will now go into renewable energy.

For the rest of the financial world, the question is when will High St banks follow suit and, more importantly, when will governments do so? In Fools Britannia the prospects do not look good.

With £37bn of financial promises and loan guarantees still pledged to Hinkley Point C, the Coalition is still betting heavily on Milk Rounds. And with unlimited endorsements of ‘Fracking’ and further oil exploration, Britain also looks set to remain a nation of exhaust-fumes inhalers for a long time to come.

Will Labour ride in to the rescue? Not as things stand. Almost as a replica of how the SPD found itself left behind by the German Energiewende transformation, Labour still finds itself surrounded by Old Energy interests that will not make it round the racecourse.

There is talk of signing up to the idea of 17 (or more) ‘Super-Cities’, to radically drive a new vision of decentralised governance. But this still has more to do with spending rather than earning. Parliament has forgotten that, until 1947, most local authorities earned 50% of their income from the work of their (localised) utilities.

If Germany can already have 180 local authorities taking their energy grids back into public ownership, why should Britain aspire to just 17? Some part of British politics has to be able to reach out for something bolder.

Across Europe and the USA, there is a clearer recognition that a more exciting ‘Back to the Future’ moment stares us in the face.

Back to a different future

This is not a ‘moment’ that would spin Britain back into pea-soup smogs, filthy washing lines and endemic bronchial illness. Today’s (and tomorrow’s) radical reclamation of local energy systems will be based on ‘clean’, ‘smart’, ‘lightness’ and ‘less’. And the first political party to grasp this will leave all others at the starting line.

You know it isn’t going to be UKIP. But who else it might be remains a mystery.

All we do know, so far, is that when canvassers come knocking on people’s doors, there will be little appeal behind the line “Come on. Go easy on us… we’re up early in the morning.”

Alan Simpson

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