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Wind, waves and tides – the Orkney Islands have it all, but they’ll need a little help to make a d

Look across the dark water from Stromness in the Orkney Islands, and you see the twinkling lights of the Flotta Oil Terminal, dominating the horizon and local economy. Yet just over the next headland is a harbinger of a very different future - a wave-power generator on test.

Orkney continues to reinvent itself both above and below water, from a Pictish settlement to a naval bastion, and now from a hub of the North Sea oil industry to the front line of Britain's low-carbon power revolution. These remote islands have wind, waves and tides - the raw material of renewable energy - in abundance. But, until now, growth has been hampered by the limited capacity of the grid to carry electricity back to the rest of the UK from a series of islands that are physically closer to Norway than to London.

As the site for the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC), Orkney is already an international hub for research into tidal and wave power. The Pentland Firth, the turbulent waters dividing Orkney from the north-eastern coast of Scotland, has some of the fastest tides in the world, with speeds of up to ten knots. If this elemental force could be tapped, it could produce up to ten gigawatts of power - more than twice the electricity consumption of Scotland. But with research on tidal energy still in its infancy, no one is quite ready for it.

Strong tides are also found at the Fall of Warness, off the island of Eday, where they reach speeds of almost eight knots. This is where the EMEC (a private company owned a third each by the Carbon Trust, Orkney Islands Council and the Highlands and Islands Enterprise development trust) built its tidal-energy testing site. Private developers lease EMEC infrastructure to test their devices and measure the quality and quantity of the electricity produced. The Carbon Trust estimates that marine energy around the UK could produce one-fifth of the national electricity supply, on a par with nuclear power.

But generating electricity from the ocean is not just a matter of locating the strongest tides and installing a machine. The sea is unforgiving and the tides flow in both directions. "We're building an industry in places that, historically, mariners would have avoided," says the EMEC's managing director, Neil Kermode.

Threats to survival

Along with strong waves and tides, Orkney's access to sheltered water and human resources helped it secure the EMEC bid. The locale boasts marine operations expertise, including diving and remotely operated underwater vehicles and harbour tugs. Meanwhile, the Stromness campus of Heriot-Watt University and various Orcadian businesses, such as the environmental consultancy Aquatera, offer experience in renewables. Gareth Davies, managing director of Aquatera, estimates that the renewables sector in Orkney employs about 180 people; that includes about six organisations with more than ten staff each.

Heriot-Watt, whose roots are in Edinburgh, has offered a Master's degree in renewable energy since 2004 and graduates provide a valuable pool of talent for Orkney's renewables industry. The oil and gas industry is another source of talent, as many of the skills are transferable. Sandy Kerr, a Heriot-Watt lecturer and member of the Orkney Renewable Energy Forum, says there is a push to ensure that the UK owns the technology. He points out that Britain had a lead in wind energy in the early 1980s.

“Germany and the Netherlands commercial­ised it and there are now 60,000 people employed on the Continent building these things [wind turbines] and exporting them back to Britain," Kerr says. "There is a desire not to let that happen again with wave and tidal."

Although they are late to it, wind's track record as a mature technology is precisely the appeal for small island communities that can't afford to waste money on speculative projects. For the people of Orkney, sustainability is not just an abstract notion. Most of the islands are flat and close to sea level, and so Orcadians expect to see the effects of climate change soon. But something even more immediate threatens their survival - as young people move away, the islands' populations are dwindling. On the smaller islands, the populations are in the hundreds. The term "mainland" refers to the largest of the islands, where Stromness and the capital, Kirkwall, are sited.

Orkney is so windswept that the only place where trees grow is in the shelter of St Magnus, the medieval cathedral in Kirkwall. In summer there is a constant breeze and in winter the winds regularly reach 60mph. Commercial investors have already harnessed this resource, building wind turbines throughout. This is unwelcome to some, because there is nowhere to hide turbines in terrain as open as Orkney's.

Yet, on the smaller islands, people see the commercial turbines as inspirations for building their own. They hope community-owned generators can boost the local economy and help solve social problems such as fuel poverty by providing funds to insulate the old stone farmhouses. Already the island of Westray has built a community-owned turbine with money from the Big Lottery Fund. The 900Kw generator has pumped power into the National Grid since the beginning of October 2009. Meanwhile, neighbouring islands, including Stronsay, Eday and Sanday, also have plans in various stages of funding and development approval.

Claiming a share

Despite the disappointing outcome from the UN climate-change talks in Copenhagen last month, the UK has lofty goals of its own. It aims to reduce its carbon emissions by 80 per cent on 1990 levels by 2050, while the Scottish government intends 50 per cent of the electricity generated in Scotland to come from renewable sources by 2020.

Orkney is laying claim to a share of the renewables boom. Yet the islands can generate more electricity than the undersea cables can carry, and generators also pay a higher rate to deliver power to the grid than competitors on mainland Britain, with price breaks available to offshore windfarms but not islands. Some people suggest exporting electricity to Norway instead, while others propose converting the energy to hydrogen and exporting it by ship.

Yet progress is being made. In late 2009 the Scottish and Southern Energy electricity company announced it had deployed "smart grid" technology in Orkney, allowing greater numbers of renewables generators to connect at a faster rate and lower cost. The company also won a €75m grant from the European Parliament to build a transmission hub in the Pentland Firth, with contracts expected to be signed this month. Then, on 6 January, the Scottish government approved a major upgrade to the Beauly-Denny power line, between Inverness and Falkirk, to improve the flow of power from north to south.

With its tremendous natural and human resources, the Orkney Islands could be a significant plank of Britain's energy platform. But it will need help from Westminster and Holyrood to make that happen.

Motion of the ocean

Tidal power works in a similar way to wind energy on land. The tides turn giant underwater turbines and undersea cables transport the energy produced back to shore, where it is converted to a suitable voltage if necessary and fed into the National Grid.

Wave power involves harnessing oscillation - a device is mounted to the sea floor or cliff walls, or held in place with stiff cables, and part of it bobs up and down with the waves to produce the power. Strong tides are not commonplace, so globally there is a greater number of places suitable for producing wave power.

Neil Kermode of the European Marine Energy Centre says it is not possible for wildlife such as seals or marine birds to get caught in the wave-power devices, and the company is monitoring effects of the tidal turbines. So far, it seems that animals are intelligent enough to avoid them; more curious creatures make their investigations from downstream.

The commercial potential of marine energy is not yet known, though Kermode speculates the technology could be making money, albeit on a small scale, within four years and using mass production within 20 years.

If you compare the position of renewables today with that of aviation, "We are about where the Wright brothers were," Kermode says. "We've just proved that heavier-than-air flight is possible, but we've got a huge distance to go before we get to what we'd regard as commercial passenger aircraft."

Caitlin Fitzsimmons

This article first appeared in the 18 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Palin Power

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.

 

 

This article first appeared in the 18 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Palin Power