Category Archives: Energy

This week’s media picks: infrastructure, Bangladesh safety, fracking, climate change, bioscience

FT (23/4/14): Leading article: Time to invest in Britain’s future

As the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and Chancellor, George Osborne, welcomed £36 billion investment in infrastructure projects, the Financial Times, remained to be impressed. In a leader, it said that one of the biggest and most persistent questions facing the UK economy is the worryingly low level of investment in infrastructure. Despite fine words, the government’s record is decidedly mixed, and the new set of initiatives may not match the scale needed to raise infrastructure spending to the level required. The FT outlines three areas of weakness in policy: 1) Spending is not high enough, and is persistently less than many of our competitors; 2) Given low interest rates, the government should borrow more to finance big projects; and 3) the government needs to establish a more stable and clearer framework for private sector investment.

Fibre2Fashion (24/4/14) Bangladesh Safety Accord on course, says UNI official

A year after the tragic collapse of the Rana Plaza factory building in Bangladesh, a demonstration of corporate social responsibility in action, rather than just words, is making progress towards improving the safety, prospects and lives of the country’s garment workers. Despite the many barriers to progress imposed by the political, social and commercial cultures of Bangladesh, the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh can be proud of its progress when it marks its own one year anniversary next month.

An official from, UNI Global, one of the two global union bodies that negotiated the Bangladesh Accord, Alke Boessiger, said: “The inspection program is in full operation. There is a strong team of more than more than 100 technical experts and engineers in Bangladesh who are conducting 45 inspections per week, with the aim to inspect 1500 factories by October.  More than 280 factories have been inspected for fire and electrical issues and 240 for structural safety.  Every inspection has revealed critical issues which must be repaired as a condition of doing business with signatory brands in the future. These issues include, for example, the absence of fire doors to separate the work area from the fire exit.  Brands are responsible to ensure that sufficient financial resources are available for the renovations and improvements.”

FT (24/4/14): Shale gas a multi-billion-pound opportunity for UK business

A report by EY, commissioned by the UKOOG, the shale-gas trade body, said that fracking shale gas could potentially generate 64,000 jobs in the oil and gas supply chain. It said that over the next 15 years, the UK would need to invest £17 billion on specialised fracking equipment and skills. This won’t mollify fracking’s opponents, but does at least show that the industry is seeking to make a positive, factually-based case for its development.

The Guardian (25/4/14): Kingfisher CEO warns on underestimating impact of climate change on business

In an opinion piece, Kingfisher plc CEO, Ian Cheshire urged business to sign a communiqué aimed at policymakers gathering in Paris next year for the UN Climate Change Conference. He warned that resource scarcity, energy price increases and extreme weather are real and growing threats to the long-term viability of business. That’s why hesigned the Trillion Tonne Communique, drawn up by the Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group, and is encouraging other business leaders to do so too. Adverse climate events are increasing costs for business, Kingfisher’s alone, were tens of millions of pounds, and as business doesn’t have a seat at the table, it needs more of them to sign the Trillion Tonne Communique to ensure that its voice is heard. 103 businesses world wide have signed so far, but it will require quite a few more to overcome the political resistance that clearly exists in some quarters.

FT (25/4/14): UK medical science drive shaken by US takeover fears

News that AstraZeneca was approached by Pfizer about a £60 billion takeover, has called into question the UK’s ambition to remain a leading global player in life sciences. AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline are the only large companies with research and development operations in the UK. Oxford University’s Professor John Bell said: “If we were to lose one of them it would be a real blow to our capabilities. It’s a sector that is crucial to our future economic success. The news prompted Andrew Miller MP, Chairman of the House of Commons science committee to call for tougher standards to protect strategic UK assets, such as considering the national interest when looking at takeovers. Steve Bates, chief executive of the UK Bioindustry Association, pointed to successful smaller biotech companies, but said: “It is important to have whales in the ecosystems around which minnows can flourish.”

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This week’s media

It’s been  a short week, but here are a few articles worth reading if you missed them:

FT:Labour urged to court business

Former Labour Cabinet minster, Alan Milburn, has risked stoking tensions between New Labour-ites and Milibandists, by calling on the party to “embrace an avowedly pro-business agenda.” In a Financial Times article, he says that there are encouraging signs that the Labour leadership is trying to rebuild bridges with business, but they need to go “further and faster”. Ideas he suggests include supporting a Heathrow third runway, HS2, being tough on public expenditure, while using public funding to support high-tech innovation. A Labour insider, dismissing Milburn, said: “We’re not going to get into a game with the Tories where they get a load of business people to write a letter to The Times and we try to match it.”

The Times:Shale gas can help to prevent global warming

A report by the United Nations’Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), says that shale gas can help the world avoid climate change, but only if it displaced coal. IPCC report co-chairman, Professor Ottmar Edenhofer said: “The shale gas revolution…can be very consistent with low-carbon development…Gas can be very helpful as a bridge technology.” However, as regards the UK, IPPC report member, UCL Professor Jim Skea said that exploiting the UK’s shale gas reserves would not reduce its emissions, as it would simply displace imported gas.

The Guardian:The shirt on your back: the human cost of the Bangladeshi garment industry

One year on from the Rana Plaza disaster, which killed more than 1,130 people, The Guardian traces, in video, words and pictures, the life cycle of cheap garments from Dhaka to the West. The video illustrates, for the duration of your progress through the feature, how much a worker will have earned and how much the industry will have sold in the UK – take a guess before you start. Although the Bangladesh Accord is not mentioned, workers, trade unions, clothing companies and NGOs are now looking to it to make a difference.

This week’s media picks worth a read

We found these articles worth reading, you might too depending on your interests.

FT: Criticism of energy groups overshadows good news in [wind] sector

The changing view of the “big six” energy companies is symbolized by a recent Mirror front page headline that showed Centrica CEO, Sam Laidlaw as the “blackout blackmailer”. Commons energy select committee chairman, Tim Yeo, cannot remember energy being such a high-profile issue in his 30 years as MP. The CMA referral and the Tories proposed block on onshore wind farms have exacerbated fear in the sector. But Siemens’ Yorkshire wind turbine factory and the investment push by Dong, Statoil, Statkraft and Vattenfall show that “the big six are not the only game in town.”

FT:Labour vows to spread wealth away from London

In a little-noticed speech Ed Miliband confirmed Labour’s move away from the old regional development agencies as a means of generating growth in the English regions. Instead, the new local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) would be retained and the focus would be on cities, city-regions and partnerships of councils.

The Guardian:Government contractors begin to realise public trust is an end in itself
Jim Bligh, head of public services at the CBI, writes that the private sector is starting to recognise that building public trust is a worthy end in itself. The risks of not being transparent – of hiding behind bureaucracy or commercial confidentiality – far outweigh the risks of the alternative. Transparency ultimately shines a light on good performance and bad performance alike, which means that it can greatly improve the competitive dynamic. The losers will be companies and public bodies which simply aren’t performing well enough.

The New Yorker: Heartbleed: an example of ungovernability

You may not yet have heard of Heartbleed, the latest cyber-threat, but you are probably already a victim of it. The New Yorker reports on why one respected cryptography expert describes the threat of Heartbleed as 11 on a scale of one to ten. Was it on the Government’s cyber-crime radar? And even if it was, what can one Government do to tackle what is a global threat?

The Independent: Over here for the beer

A bevy of brewers is increasingly flocking to London from overseas. Discover why the English beer regulations make the capital the place to be for German and US brewers thirsty for innovation

The Independent: Erdogan: from model strongman to tinpot dictator

The Turkish premier’s decline into authoritarianism has dangerous geopolitical consequences.

A house divided can stand

Abraham Lincoln quoted scripture when he said of the young United States, as it faced threats of seccession by southern slave-owning states, that a divided house cannot stand. He went on to defeat these threats in the bloodiest war the United States has ever endured.

The British government doesn’t face quite the same existential threat, thankfully. But the steady occurrence of divisive political issues keeps raising the spectre of the Coalition’s collapse.

Yesterday in Parliament we were treated to the bizarre spectacle of the Prime Minister, David Cameron’s, statement opposing much of the Leveson report on the press, being starkly contradicted by his Deputy, Nick Clegg, who supports it. Also in Parliament yesterday, we saw the Lib Dem energy secretary, Ed Davey, present his battle-scarred Energy Bill, with his wind-sceptic Tory junior, John Hayes, sitting behind him, glowering supportively.

We’ve also had, recently, the unceremonious ditching by the Conservatives of Lords reform advocated by the Lib Dems. As an eye for an eye, the Lib Dems have said that they will oppose the re-drawing of Parliamentary boundary changes that would have benefited their coalition partners.

Opposition MPs’ criticism that Lib Dem ministers who can’t abide by collective responsibility should resign is an obvious debating point. This ignores the fact that it is in the nature of governments to set precedents. And with the first peacetime coalition formed purely as a result of Parliament being hung, the nature of the government itself is unprecedented.

The rules of collective responsibility have been re-written. There will no doubt be more intra-Coalition spats in the months to come, but none of them will bring down the Coalition until one, or both, parties decides that it’s time to pull down the temple.

The Coalition may eventually reach the point where it falls apart, but my hunch is that this won’t happen until well into 2014 at the earliest. The reason is that both parties are wedded to austerity and need to be able to demonstrate that it has worked. The economy will need to have returned clearly to growth, or be showing credible signs that it will do so. Only then can they face the electorate and be able to tell them that the pain has been worth it.

We will then face the delicious irony that as soon as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats can demonstrate that the Coalition has been successful, they might then decide to terminate it. Quite what the electorate will make of that, we will have to wait and see.

Boris throws a FIT

David Cameron must getting used to being sniped at by erstwhile allies. His Liberal Democrat coalition partners have made regular show of objecting to their own government’s plans on the NHS, tuition fees, repatriation of powers from the EU.

I suppose that comes with being in coalition. The junior partner will genuinely take a different view in some policy areas. It will also be looking to the next election and will feel the need to do something to preserve its vote. What better way than to set position yourself against particular policies, particularly if they are controversial.

This has also been Boris Johnson’s approach, almost since the moment he was first chosen as the Conservative Party candidate for London Mayor in September 2007. David Cameron, his nominal leader, acknowledged this when he launched his first mayoral election campaign, saying: “I don’t always agree with him, but I respect the fact that he’s absolutely his own man.”

Whether it was suggesting a one-off amnesty for illegal immigrants or proposing a new airport in the Thames estuary to replace Heathrow, Johnson has frequently pursued his own unique policy lines. Some issues, like the future of Heathrow are a legitimate concern of the Mayor. Others, like the UK’s approach to the EU are, to say the least, stretching it a bit.

This week, he has been at it again. In a letter to the Chancellor that somehow found its way into the press, he threw a hissy fit (or is that a hissy FIT?) and attacked the Government’s decision to halve the feed-in tariff (FIT) for solar photovoltaic electricity. He argued that this will “slowly suffocate the growth that this policy has so far encouraged.” In his letter, he writes that “While the government will argue that the costs of solar panels have reduced, the costs of inverters, stands and labour have not.”

Boris Johnson’s intervention comes on the eve of a Labour Party opposition day debate on support for the solar industry in the Commons on Wednesday and a mass rally in Parliament today. Ministers will come under pressure to justify the cuts to FITs. The solar power sector will find some relief that such a senior figure in the Conservative Party is taking its side and not just the Labour opposition.

Of course, Johnson is facing London’s voters in just over five months, and is looking for ways to portray himself as not the Government’s candidate. It will be tempting to take a cynical view Johnson’s support for solar power subsidy, but right now the industry needs all the support it can find.

Johnson may also be looking to elections much further in the future that would give him power over more than just bendy buses and pay-as-you-go bicycles. The trick for the industry is to keep his support over the long-term, that is, if it survives that long.

No “boom and bust” for solar industry?

The previous Labour Government was memorably accused of failing to fix the roof while the sun shone. The solar industry might be thinking the same of the present government, which the Prime Minister asserted would be “the greenest ever”.

Recent government announcements show that support for some renewable energies, such as offshore wind, wave and anaerobic digestion, is being maintained.  In contrast, that for solar photovoltaic is being cut drastically, which was expected, and being cut precipitately, which few expected. The feed-in tariff for small domestic solar PV installations is to be cut by more than half from 12 December.

In announcing this decision, energy minister, Greg Barker, said that “Boom and bust for solar must be avoided”. This is a phrase we have heard before and Barker must be hoping that it doesn’t come to haunt him as it did Gordon Brown.

The growth in solar PV has been dramatic. The generating capacity of solar photovoltaic installations has increased dramatically from 23 MW in 2008 to more than 400 MW from 100,000 individual installations by September this year. Yet it needs to be remembered that despite this dramatic growth solar PV accounted for just half of one percent of the electricity generated by renewable means. That is a tiny proportion of our electricity needs, yet the growth of the solar PV sector has all but exhausted the budget for feed-in tariffs.

The Government claims by cutting the feed-in tariff it will save households £23 on their annual electricity bill by 2020. It also says that industry costs are falling. The cost of an installation in April this year was £13,000, but now it is down to £9,000. Under these circumstances there is no longer a need for such a generous subsidy.

The trouble for the solar PV industry is that, at least up to now, it makes such a small contribution to total electricity generation. This means that were it to collapse, the impact on supply would be negligible. But political considerations are also counting against it. Ministers will be acutely aware of the need to address consumers’ bills, especially for energy. They will have asked themselves why upwards of 20 million households should pay extra on their electricity bills for the benefit of just over 100,000 households who are able to put up around £10,000 to install solar panels on their roofs.

Last week the British Photovoltaic Association held a reception in the House of Commons. Greg Barker was a, perhaps diplomatic, no-show. In his absence, the Department for Energy and Climate Change sent a senior official to deliver a pretty blunt message to the industry that the party is over. He said that the problem is that the rate of installation is unsustainable. In October alone there was a new peak of 4,216 installations with 15 MW capacity.

As he so deftly put it: “This is a problem in a fiscally constrained environment.” And although the Government is consulting, he said that the industry needs to plan on the basis that the “decisions” outlined in the consultation will go ahead.

Some figures in the industry are threatening legal action over the Government’s decision. This will not surprise ministers and they seem determined to press ahead regardless, confident that they will prevail. But the industry needs to do more than just shout “No!” Legal action is not a substitute for coherent, thought-through and practical policy proposals. The solar industry needs to look beyond open-ended generous subsidies and find other policy proposals that can support the solar industry’s growth. That is the best way to avoid bust following boom.

From zero emissions to zero debate

The irony of the 2010 General Election campaign is that it is the most unpredictable for a generation, yet there has been little serious policy debate apart from on the financial crisis and National Insurance. Even the arch spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, is calling for more media coverage of policy.

There has been massive interest in the leaders’ debates, which has blown away all the early predictions of the likely result. It has also nullified the parties’ best efforts to devote discussion to specific policy areas on particular days.

So it should come as no surprise that polling by Ipsos Mori should show that, for the first time since 1987 (when the question was first asked), party leaders are as important as policies in deciding voters’ choice of party. The gap in favour of policies over leaders widened from 1997 to 2005, but narrowed dramatically by summer 2008 and is now level.

I know it’s the economy, stupid, so it is entirely appropriate for the level of public borrowing and the fragile nature of the economic recovery to dominate what little policy discussion there is. But there has been virtually no discussion of other issues such as transport, crime, health or education, education, education.

Does anyone recall being told that tackling climate change was the number one issue facing, not just the country, but the whole world? True, this and the related issue of future energy supplies, came up in last night’s leaders’ debate. But there has otherwise been virtually no mention of the subject.

The Guardian did at least host a debate between Energy Secretary, Ed Miliband and his Conservative and Liberal Democrat shadows, Greg Clark and Simon Hughes. After 36 hours, the paper’s online report had attracted 52 comments. By contrast, just one of its comment articles on last night’s leaders’ debate received 281 comments in half that time.

There is no shortage of policy or initiatives on energy, climate change or reducing carbon emissions. We are told that so-called green industries have the potential to create up to half a million jobs. Yesterday, I attended the 2010 Sustainability Live exhibition in the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham. This brought together hundreds of exhibitors, from renewable energy equipment manufacturers to sustainable waste disposal and water treatment specialists, university research departments, trade associations and professional bodies.

There is huge commercial and academic interest in developing the means to reduce harmful emissions, and to develop a more sustainable economy based on innovative and more secure energy supplies. Yet none of the exhibitors that I spoke to were aware of any discussion in the election campaign that is relevant to this burgeoning sector.

When it comes to climate change, we seem to have gone from zero emissions to zero debate. There will, eventually, be plenty of discussion on the policies that the new Government should pursue, but not till after the election.