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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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