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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.