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

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times