The power to save Britain

How our island could be supplying Europe with green electricity. Plus Peter

It may not feel like it on a gusty grey day in Rhyl, but this country is blessed. Take a boat out into the choppy waters off the North Wales coast, and you can see why. Thirty bright white turbines spin continuously just five miles off the coast, producing enough electrical power to supply 40,000 homes with clean, green energy. The wind and waves seem limitless and powerful - and they are. If the UK had been more aggressive and far-sighted in developing renewable energy, we would already be exporting green electricity and wind turbines to Europe and further afield.

In renewable energy terms, we would be the Saudi Arabia of Europe. A full 40 per cent of the continent's wind blows across British shores, enough to meet all our energy needs and more. But instead of leading the world in renewable energy and at the same time cutting carbon emissions, the UK languishes close to the bottom of the European clean energy league. Just 2 per cent of our energy comes from renewable sources and the rest from dirty, climate-changing fossil fuels. This is the legacy of years of contradictory policies, conflicting priorities, ideological pig-headedness and government incompetence.

It's a story that shames Britain.

A good place to start is the government's Low Carbon Buildings Programme (LCBP). This was launched in 2006 to provide grants to householders wanting to instal renewable generation technologies - from solar panels to small hydro schemes - on their properties. Ministers acknowledge that micro-generation could play a big part in our clean energy future, and that turning homes into mini power stations is good for energy security, household income and the environment. But what actually happened? Instead of kick-starting a whole new market sector, the government starved it of funds. A measly £12.7m was allocated, with a monthly cap. On the first day of each month all the available grants were snapped up within hours.

This stop-start approach led to frustrated householders and cash-strapped solar installation companies, many of which began to go bust. The number of grants given for solar hot water systems fell by half last year, and the number for micro wind turbines by two-thirds. For ground-source heat pumps, while 100 grants were made in the last three months of 2006, the equivalent number for 2007 was zero. For electricity, we managed to put only 270 solar panels on British roofs last year, while Germany installed 130,000.

Gordon Brown, first as chancellor, and now as Prime Minister, has successfully ensured that it makes no financial sense whatsoever for householders to invest in generating their own energy renewably. If you put up a solar photovoltaic panel in this country, you do it for altruistic reasons only: at present, you are guaranteed to lose money hand over fist.

Germany's renewables sector has rocketed, thanks to a system that guarantees long-term paybacks at above-market rates for cleanly generated power. This is called the "feed-in tariff", which has also successfully catapulted Spain and Portugal to the top of the European clean energy league. Portugal gets 39 per cent of its electricity from renewables and is aiming for 60 per cent by 2020. In stark contrast, the UK government continues to rule out feed-in tariffs, insisting instead on retaining its outdated Renewables Obligation system, a support mechanism which is so complicated and cumbersome that only the biggest players can make any money from it (or, indeed, even understand it).

The RO system reveals another classic new Labour problem: an obsession with the market. Instead of simply guaranteeing a good return for solar or wind electricity over a long enough time period to make this an attractive investment, the government insists on making the Renewable Obligation Certificates tradable. If a company doesn't meet its obligation to generate power renewably, it must buy certificates from another company that has produced a surplus. The result is long-term price uncertainty, which makes investment much more costly, due to the "risk premium" that must be added to any lending. The ROC system has been fiddled with so many times that the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) now opposes a feed-in tariff system, on the grounds that yet more policy uncertainty might scare off potential investors for good.

Lost business

This catalogue of failure has not only been bad for the climate, it has been bad for business. Britain might once have led the world in wind turbine development. But with no domestic market, production moved elsewhere, and today most turbines installed in this country are imported from Denmark. The leader in solar power is not Britain but Germany, which has pioneered a lucrative export industry in solar photovoltaic cells. In China, too, solar manufacturing is big business: the country's second-richest man leads a solar energy company. This is an energy sector which saw growth last year of roughly 40 per cent, and has attracted tens of billions in venture capital. None of that came to Britain. Instead of creating a brand new industry and thousands of jobs, British-based renewables companies have been going out of business.

Wind should already be our biggest single power source. The BWEA estimates that wind could generate 27 per cent of our electricity by 2020, which, combined with other renewables, could easily meet our EU-assigned target of 15 per cent renewable energy by 2020. Instead, wind accounts for just 1.5 per cent of UK electricity generation today (the equivalent figure in far less windy Denmark is 20 per cent, for Spain 8 per cent and Germany 5 per cent). That 1.5 per cent could be ramped up very quickly if the planning system worked in favour of renewables. According to the BWEA, 220 windpower projects are currently stuck in planning. If all received immediate consent, they could generate 9.3 gigawatts of electricity, enough for an estimated 5.25 million households. If the 39 projects that were refused planning permission last year had instead been allowed it, they could have provided power for 750,000 households, and prevented the emission of three million tonnes of CO2. (Anti-wind campaigners need to recognise their moral liability for these climate-changing emissions.)

While 39 projects were refused planning permission, just 26 projects went ahead. This year, we are level-pegging: seven wind applications have been approved and six refused. It can now take ten years for a windfarm project to get approved and built, and another five for it to get a grid connection (unlike in other countries, renewable generators here have to pay for their own grid connections). This does not look like a country on the fast track to a clean energy future. Indeed, power companies such as E.ON are pro posing to invest billions in hugely polluting coal power plants instead.

The government has proposed to reform the planning system to make it easier for windfarms to get the go-ahead. Environmentalists and conservationists are opposed to the reform, however, for the good reason that it would also make it easier for new motorways, power stations and airports to gain approval, and stifle local democracy in the process.

A greener government might have focused on reforming the planning system for renewable energy projects, gaining support from greens and electricity generators alike. Instead, in its enthusiasm for aviation and nuclear power, the government has bundled windfarms into a planning policy package that will be opposed by almost all. A missed opportunity.

There is some good news. The 1000MW London Array - which will generate enough power from wind for a quarter of London's households - has been given the go-ahead. Several other major projects are under way, and this year the UK will overtake Denmark as the largest offshore generator in the world. The UK also still leads in marine renewables (wave and tidal stream power). With 30 marine technology developers headquartered here, compared to only 15 in the rest of Europe, the UK is able to put its offshore operational skills learned from North Sea oil - now in long-term decline - to good use. At the end of last month the world's largest conference on wave and tidal stream energy, Marine 08, was held in Edinburgh. Tidal power would address the intermittency question: what to do when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine. Tidal power is predictable. Wave power is also more dependable. The more sources of energy we can call on, the less vulnerable we will be to losing power in any one sector.

Yet in marine renewables, too, the government has risked Britain losing its competitive edge. The world's first commercial-scale wave-generating array, while built by a UK-based company, is being launched off the Portuguese, not the British, coast. And, mirroring the disaster of the Low Carbon Buildings Programme, the Marine Renewables Deployment Fund - supposed to support the fledgling sector with capital grants and other financial aid - has a tiny budget and a cap per project of £9m, far too little for any British design to make it past the prototype stage into commercial production. Once again, we are wasting a historic advantage.

With the right policy levers pulled, we could in the not-too-distant future be generating 20 per cent of all our electricity out at sea using wave and tidal power, and far more from onshore and offshore wind. We could lead the world in a new manufacturing sector and generate thousands of new jobs. We could have a zero-carbon electricity grid as early as 2030. We could also lead the world in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

But, for this to happen, the government will need to admit that its policies have been a cala mitous failure and put clean energy at the top of its long-term agenda, before it is too late.

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it

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What Marx got right

...and what he got wrong.

1. You’re probably a capitalist – among other things

Are you a capitalist? The first question to ask is: do you own shares? Even if you don’t own any directly (about half of Americans do but the proportion is far lower in most other countries) you may have a pension that is at least partly invested in the stock market; or you’ll have savings in a bank.

So you have some financial wealth: that is, you own capital. Equally, you are probably also a worker, or are dependent directly or indirectly on a worker’s salary; and you’re a consumer. Unless you live in an autonomous, self-sufficient commune – very unusual – you are likely to be a full participant in the capitalist system.

We interact with capitalism in multiple ways, by no means all economic. And this accounts for the conflicted relationship that most of us (including me) have with capitalism. Typically, we neither love it nor hate it, but we definitely live it.

2. Property rights are fundamental to capitalism . . . but they are not absolute

If owning something means having the right to do what you want with it, property rights are rarely unconstrained. I am free to buy any car I want – so long as it meets European pollution standards and is legally insured; and I can drive it anywhere I want, at least on public roads, as long as I have a driver’s licence and keep to the speed limit. If I no longer want the car, I can’t just dump it: I have to dispose of it in an approved manner. It’s mine, not yours or the state’s, and the state will protect my rights over it. But – generally for good reason – how I can use it is quite tightly constrained.

This web of rules and constraints, which both defines and restricts property rights, is characteristic of a complex economy and society. Most capitalist societies attempt to resolve these tensions in part by imposing restrictions, constitutional or political, on arbitrary or confiscatory actions by governments that “interfere” with property rights. But the idea that property rights are absolute is not philosophically or practically coherent in a modern society.

3. What Marx got right about capitalism

Marx had two fundamental insights. The first was the importance of economic forces in shaping human society. For Marx, it was the “mode of production” – how labour and capital were combined, and under what rules – that explained more or less everything about society, from politics to culture. So, as modes of production change, so too does society. And he correctly concluded that industrialisation and capitalism would lead to profound changes in the nature of society, affecting everything from the political system to morality.

The second insight was the dynamic nature of capitalism in its own right. Marx understood that capitalism could not be static: given the pursuit of profit in a competitive economy, there would be constant pressure to increase the capital stock and improve productivity. This in turn would lead to labour-saving, or capital-intensive, technological change.

Putting these two insights together gives a picture of capitalism as a radical force. Such are its own internal dynamics that the economy is constantly evolving, and this in turn results in changes in the wider society.

4. And what he got wrong . . .

Though Marx was correct that competition would lead the owners of capital to invest in productivity-enhancing and labour-saving machinery, he was wrong that this would lead to wages being driven down to subsistence level, as had largely been the case under feudalism. Classical economics, which argued that new, higher-productivity jobs would emerge, and that workers would see their wages rise more or less in line with productivity, got this one right. And so, in turn, Marx’s most important prediction – that an inevitable conflict between workers and capitalists would lead ultimately to the victory of the former and the end of capitalism – was wrong.

Marx was right that as the number of industrial workers rose, they would demand their share of the wealth; and that, in contrast to the situation under feudalism, their number and geographical concentration in factories and cities would make it impossible to deny these demands indefinitely. But thanks to increased productivity, workers’ demands in most advanced capitalist economies could be satisfied without the system collapsing. So far, it seems that increased productivity, increased wages and increased consumption go hand in hand, not only in individual countries but worldwide.

5. All societies are unequal. But some are more unequal than others

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an increasing proportion of an economy’s output was captured by a small class of capitalists who owned and controlled the means of production. Not only did this trend stop in the 20th century, it was sharply reversed. Inherited fortunes, often dating back to the pre-industrial era, were eroded by taxes and inflation, and some were destroyed by the Great Depression. Most of all, after the Second World War the welfare state redistributed income and wealth within the framework of a capitalist economy.

Inequality rose again after the mid-1970s. Under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the welfare state was cut back. Tax and social security systems became less progressive. Deregulation, the decline of heavy industry and reduction of trade union power increased the wage differential between workers. Globally the chief story of the past quarter-century has been the rise of the “middle class”: people in emerging economies who have incomes of up to $5,000 a year. But at the same time lower-income groups in richer countries have done badly.

Should we now worry about inequality within countries, or within the world as a whole? And how much does an increasing concentration of income and wealth among a small number of people – and the consequent distortions of the political system – matter when set against the rapid ­income growth for large numbers of people in the emerging economies?

Growing inequality is not an inevitable consequence of capitalism. But, unchecked, it could do severe economic damage. The question is whether our political systems, national and global, are up to the challenge.

6. China’s road to capitalism is unique

The day after Margaret Thatcher died, I said on Radio 4’s Today programme: “In 1979, a quarter of a century ago, a politician came to power with a radical agenda of market-oriented reform; a plan to reduce state control and release the country’s pent-up economic dynamism. That changed the world, and we’re still feeling the impact. His name, of course, was Deng Xiaoping.”

The transition from state to market in China kick-started the move towards truly globalised capitalism. But the Chinese road to capitalism has been unique. First agriculture was liberalised, then entrepreneurs were allowed to set up small businesses, while at the same time state-owned enterprises reduced their workforces; yet there has been no free-for-all, either for labour or for capital. The movement of workers from rural to urban areas, and from large, unproductive, state-owned enterprises to more productive private businesses, though vast, has been controlled. Access to capital still remains largely under state control. Moreover, though its programme is not exactly “Keynesian”, China has used all the tools of macroeconomic management to keep growth high and relatively stable.

That means China is still far from a “normal” capitalist economy. The two main engines of growth have been investment and the movement of labour from the countryside to the cities. This in itself was enough, because China had so much catching-up to do. However, if the Chinese are to close the huge gap between themselves and the advanced economies, more growth will need to come from innovation and technological progress. No one doubts that China has the human resources to deliver this, but its system will have to change.

7. How much is enough?

The human instinct to improve our material position is deeply rooted: control over resources, especially food and shelter, made early human beings more able to reproduce. That is intrinsic to capitalism; the desire to acquire income and wealth motivates individuals to work, save, invent and invest. As Adam Smith showed, this benefits us all. But if we can produce more than enough for everybody, what will motivate people? Growth would stop. Not that this would necessarily be a bad thing: yet our economy and society would be very different.

Although we are at least twice as rich as we were half a century ago, the urge to consume more seems no less strong. Relative incomes matter. We compare ourselves not to our impoverished ancestors but to other people in similar situations: we strive to “keep up with the Joneses”. The Daily Telegraph once described a London couple earning £190,000 per year (in the top 0.1 per cent of world income) as follows: “The pair are worried about becoming financially broken as the sheer cost of middle-class life in London means they are stretched to the brink.” Talk about First World problems.

Is there any limit? Those who don’t like the excesses of consumerism might hope that as our material needs are satisfied, we will worry less about keeping up with the Joneses and more about our satisfaction and enjoyment of non-material things. It is equally possible, of course, that we’ll just spend more time keeping up with the Kardashians instead . . .

8. No more boom and bust

Are financial crises and their economic consequences part of the natural (capitalist) order of things? Politicians and economists prefer to think otherwise. No longer does anyone believe that “light-touch” regulation of the banking sector is enough. New rules have been introduced, designed to restrict leverage and ensure that failure in one or two financial institutions does not lead to systemic failure. Many would prefer a more wholesale approach to reining in the financial system; this would have gained the approval of Keynes, who thought that while finance was necessary, its role in capitalism should be strictly limited.

But maybe there is a more fundamental problem: that recurrent crises are baked into the system. The “financial instability” hypothesis says that the more governments and regulators stabilise the system, the more this will breed overconfidence, leading to more debt and higher leverage. And sooner or later the music stops. If that is the case, then financial capitalism plus human nature equals inevitable financial crises; and we should make sure that we have better contingency plans next time round.

9. Will robots take our jobs?

With increasing mechanisation (from factories to supermarket checkouts) and computerisation (from call centres to tax returns), is it becoming difficult for human beings to make or produce anything at less cost than a machine can?

Not yet – more Britons have jobs than at any other point in history. That we can produce more food and manufactured products with fewer people means that we are richer overall, leaving us to do other things, from economic research to performance art to professional football.

However, the big worry is that automation could shift the balance of power between capital and labour in favour of the former. Workers would still work; but many or most would be in relatively low-value, peripheral jobs, not central to the functioning of the economy and not particularly well paid. Either the distribution of income and wealth would widen further, or society would rely more on welfare payments and charity to reduce unacceptable disparities between the top and the bottom.

That is a dismal prospect. Yet these broader economic forces pushing against the interests of workers will not, on their own, determine the course of history. The Luddites were doomed to fail; but their successors – trade unionists who sought to improve working conditions and Chartists who demanded the vote so that they could restructure the economy and the state – mostly succeeded. The test will be whether our political and social institutions are up to the challenge.

10. What’s the alternative?

There is no viable economic alternative to capitalism at the moment but that does not mean one won’t emerge. It is economics that determines the nature of our society, and we are at the beginning of a profound set of economic changes, based on three critical developments.

Physical human input into production will become increasingly rare as robots take over. Thanks to advances in computing power and artificial intelligence, much of the analytic work that we now do in the workplace will be carried out by machines. And an increasing ability to manipulate our own genes will extend our lifespan and allow us to determine our offspring’s characteristics.

Control over “software” – information, data, and how it is stored, processed and manipulated – will be more important than control over physical capital, buildings and machines. The defining characteristic of the economy and society will be how that software is produced, owned and commanded: by the state, by individuals, by corporations, or in some way as yet undefined.

These developments will allow us, if we choose, to end poverty and expand our horizons, both materially and intellectually. But they could also lead to growing inequality, with the levers of the new economy controlled by a corporate and moneyed elite. As an optimist, I hope for the former. Yet just as it wasn’t the “free market” or individual capitalists who freed the slaves, gave votes to women and created the welfare state, it will be the collective efforts of us all that will enable humanity to turn economic advances into social progress. 

Jonathan Portes's most recent book is “50 Ideas You Really Need to Know: Capitalism” (Quercus)

Jonathan Portes is senior fellow The UK in a Changing Europe and Professor of Economics and Public Policy, King’s College London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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