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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”