So we'll be bailing out the big energy companies if they crash: how likely is it anyway?

Keeping the flame alive.

As part of a team building exercise in my previous workplace, I once tried tight rope walking. Just to make the experience more exciting, I decided to do the dead-fall – something I had mastered at theatre workshops while in university – knowing there was a safety net below to catch me.

Had it not been for that safety net, I would have never tight rope walked in the first place – leave alone try the crowd pleasing antic. But my risky decision didn’t harm me or anyone around me.

Under a revised plan drawn up by the Government to avoid “market chaos”, UK consumers may be on the hook for a £4bn safety net if any of the six leading energy suppliers see a downfall.

Energy secretary Ed Davey is looking at a quick intervention with “adequate protection” if any of the ‘Big Six’ go out of business. Fair enough, but is it?

In a capitalist society such as the one we live in today, is it morally correct to ensure a safety net for corporates – such as big energy companies – to take risky decisions that could negatively affect millions in the UK market?

If the government is worried about any of these companies going out of business, the one thing it should not do is make it clear that it would be bailed out in case it does crash – providing the company with almost an incentive not to work towards keeping itself afloat.

The Big Six in the UK energy sector refer to German-owned E.On, Npower with its German parent company (RWE), France’s EDF, British Gas, Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) and Scottish Power.

Competition is imperative to a company performing well. A safety net only reduces the need or will to compete.

A big energy company crashing would be unlike the crash of the banking sector where the crisis risked consumers losing their lives’ savings and government bail outs were imperative.

If a big energy company does go bust, the way it would affect a regular householder would be to find a new energy supplier. Would it be any more complicated than that? Why not let the private sector undertake the rescue?

Half of the Big Six are foreign owned companies, and it could perhaps make sense to draw up plans for the government to separate UK subsidiaries from foreign parents.

However, what are the chances of a big energy company on the whole going under in the first place? Highly unlikely – as Ed Davey himself accepts. Could this be anything more than a threat of nationalisation?

In January this year, a new survey by uSwitch found significant differences between satisfaction in the UK with smaller energy suppliers and the ‘Big Six’. EDF and Npower ranked at the bottom of the survey while Good Energy, the UK’s only 100 per cent renewable energy company, owned top spot.

Of the "Big Six", only two – E.ON and SSE – came in the top ten, sharing ninth place, whereas British Gas and ScottishPower came joint 11th.

Is it really justified, then, that consumers collectively face higher costs and pay up to almost £4bn to save any of the "Big Six" crashing when the satisfaction levels may not be up to mark?

Some may argue it will be better if the costs of the bail out came out of the profits of the energy firms instead of heightening the prices for householders. But ultimately it would amount to the same thing.

Albert Camus said all that he knew about morality and obligations he owed to football. Taking his cue, one thing we do know about the rules of any game is winning –not losing – should be rewarded. By that respect, the Big Six should fight to keep their heads up in stormy times instead of looking for that parachute they know the government is already making for them. And an expensive one at that.  

Photograph: Getty Images

Meghna Mukerjee is a reporter at Retail Banker International

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.