Volatility is the next big debate in energy policy

Unstable prices, cultures, and companies all breed uncertainty in an area of our lives where we need reliability.

Yesterday, the New Statesman, in association with Shell, held an event called Fuel for Thought: Rethinking Energy. The focus of the event was on three "myths" about renewable energy: that more people means more demand, and only by reducing usage can we reduce carbon output; that investment in fossil fuels means reduced investment in renewables; and that, due to our reliance on importing fuel from unstable sources, we need to become self-sufficient.

If those myths were the stated focus, though, there was an undercurrent to the event, which was the idea of volatility. It was explicitly addressed in the final "myth", but came up throughout the session.

There was general agreement throughout the session on a number of compromise positions where there is frequently heated debate. We need investment, in the medium term, in both renewable technologies and transitional fossil fuels. We need to both reduce usage and reduce carbon produced per kWh. And we need to increase our domestic generation without cutting ourselves off from the wider market.

But the point about self-sufficiency opened wider disagreement. The key argument, provided from the floor, is that "instability" affects the market far more widely than one would think.

Most of our fossil fuels come from or through the Middle East and Central Asia and Russia, and this fact has been used by many to argue for decarbonisation. Surely it is better not to buy from nations which abuse their citizens, and which use their status as energy provider to silence criticism?

Quite aside from the fact that, as well as North Sea oil, we get a huge amount of gas from Norway – hardly likely to cause any diplomatic problems anytime soon –  it takes more than self-sufficiency to isolate yourself from volatility caused by instability. It would take total autarky.

The problem is that even nations which are self-sufficient in energy provision still tend to be engaged in the international market, but exporting, not importing energy. Generating all our energy internally would mean that the country spent less on importing energy, but it wouldn't prevent internal prices from rising when events rocked a world-wide energy exporter – because if they did rise, our domestic energy companies would start exporting more, and prices would rise here too.

This type of instability is the first that comes to mind when talking about volatility in the energy world (well, unless you're a chemist), but it's not the only one.

Jeremy Bentham, VP Global Business Environment at Shell, was careful to point out that, for energy companies, even "stable" nations can be rather volatile when it comes to the investment culture they encourage.

Energy, after all, is an extremely capital-intensive business to be in. As Bentham pointed out, the infrastructure turns over on the scale of decades, not months or years, and so for any real investment to happen, there has to be stability for at least that long. Unfortunately, in countries like Britain, that simply isn't the case. Ministers like John Hayes will always exist, battling against what were thought to be settled questions – such is the price of democracy.

That investment volatility is thus an argument against trying to build a self-sufficient energy system: to do so without the political structures in place to guarantee stability would be prohibitively expensive.

There was one source of uncertainty which went unmentioned by the panel – possibly because its root lies, not with politicians or foreign nations, but the business and investor communities in Britain.

As a paper from the Carbon Tracker think tank argued in March this year, much of the world's carbon is "unburnable".

We have in the order of five or six times as many fossil fuel reserves as can be safely burned without raising the global temperature too high. In fact, even the fossil fuel reserves held by just the top listed oil, gas and coal companies bring us above that limit.

What this means is that nearly every company specialising in fossil fuels faces the chance of a bubble bursting when the value of their reserves is reassessed to take the unburnable nature of most of their assets into account. That bust would make the volatility introduced by rebellious ministers look tame in comparison.

Perhaps the best hope for the holders of unburnable carbon is widespread adoption of CCS. But until that happens, those in the industry fearing volatility would do best to start warning their own investors that there's a tumble ahead.

Oil flares from a refinery. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear