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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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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