Sugar backs green energy

But wind farms are where the jobs are.

Lord Sugar has today called on the government to set a target for the decarbonisation of Britain’s electricity sector by 2030 in a bid to clean up one of the country’s largest sources of carbon emissions and remove uncertainty for companies and investors in the sector.

Already a hotly debated topic in parliament, the coalition government has been rife with in-fighting since the end of last year, after Chancellor George Osbourne firmly rebuffed a suggestion from the Committee on Climate Change, championed by Liberal Democrat energy secretary Ed Davey, to set a target to cut the power sector’s carbon emissions from 500g of CO2 per kilowatt hour to 50g CO2/kWh by 2030.

Osbourne’s claim that such a bill would damage investment in Britain’s healthy oil and gas sector was rejected by Tim Yeo, the Tory energy committee chairman, who said at the time:

“If the carbon cuts do not come from the electricity sector then deeper cuts will need to be made elsewhere, and if the reductions are not made in the 2020s then they could become even more expensive,” and has since suggested an amendment to the energy bill which would force coal and gas-fired power plants around the country to close over the next 18 years, unless fitted with carbon capture and sequestration equipment.

Lord Sugar has now added his weight to the argument, claiming Britain risks falling behind in renewable energy investment and the economy could benefit hugely from spending on green energy. “This country needs jobs, and the renewable industry could help unlock our crippled manufacturing sector,” he said.

While it’s true Britain has undoubtedly benefitted from this kind of investment, most notably in wind energy, the extent to which it has aided our ailing manufacturing sector is perhaps being overstated. Siemens, Vestas, GE et al., the industry leaders in wind turbine manufacturing, all produce their wares overseas, which would do little to aid job creation and boost manufacturing in this country.

Where the difference could really be felt though is in the installation and operation of wind farms, of which there is currently a healthly pipeline of work approved to take place over the next decade.  Already a world leader in offshore wind power, the UK currently boasts 3,321MW of electricity generation capacity from 20 offshore wind farms, with a further 31GW worth of projects already leased to developers. The industry currently employs around 4,000 people, but with construction on numerous new projects due to start from 2014 onwards, this figure could swell substantially.

Despite the obvious benefits for the job market, without the government’s support for renewable energy, most types of green energy, particularly offshore wind, simply cannot compete with conventional energy sources on a cost/kWh basis. Offshore wind currently stands at around 15.0-16.9pence/kWh to generate, whereas the cost of gas-fired power generation is considerably lower at around 8.0pence/kWh.

It’s true that the cost of offshore wind will come down over time, but without a firm target for carbon reduction enshrined in law, plus a mountain of other economic problems facing the government, it’s difficult to see how this momentum can be maintained.

The problem is exacerbated by the current competitiveness of coal prices on the international market, thanks in large part to demand falling in the US as it has turned to shale gas. This has caused the UK’s share of electricity generated by coal to reach 40 per cent, the highest since 1996, with emissions rising by 3.9 per cent in the last year alone. The Environment Agency’s Lord Smith has called Britain “the dirty man of Europe” and insisted the government must act to curb its rising emissions from coal, or risk threatening its attempts to tackle climate change. “We’re in a dash for coal that’s completely unsustainable (and) the government must ensure it doesn’t continue,” he said.

It’s not only coal that is giving cause for concern, with UK firm IGas today announcing that as much as 170 trillion cubic feet of gas could be recoverable from fracking in northern England. IGas chief executive Andrew Austin said; “The licences (we own) have a very significant shale gas resource with the potential to transform the company and materially benefit the communities in which we operate…Our estimates for our area alone could mean that the UK would not have to import gas for a period of 10 to 15 years".

Shale gas is extracted from bed rock by the injection of high pressure water and sand, which critics argue can cause dangerous seismic activity. Already having revolutionised the energy market in the US, the controversial fracking technique could yet do the same in the British energy sector.

With such attractive conventional sources of energy available for investment, the government has a difficult task in balancing the economic benefits and the environmental imperative of clean green energy. It is clear on which side of the fence Lord Sugar sits; “As someone who has spent over 45 years developing technology, it is disappointing to see the government has not seized the opportunities offered by this innovative sector… Without a 2030 decarbonisation target, the energy bill will be aimless, leaving businesses and potential investors with prolonged uncertainty and no real commitment from the politicians who were supposed to be the greenest government ever.”

With Tim Yeo’s proposed decarbonisation amendment to the energy bill gaining support from Labour, the SNP and Plaid Cymru, plus a number of Liberal Democrats, despite their official backing of the government’s position, the winds of change may yet force the Torys to follow suit and give investors the confidence to build on the ground work already achieved in the wind sector over the past decade.

Alan Sugar. Photograph: Getty Images

Mark Brierley is a group editor at Global Trade Media

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.