There are an almost endless number of perks to being a student at Imperial College, and in particular one studying the environmental and energy sciences, not least the free wine nights held ‘traditionally’ every Thursday night after a guest talk. However, this week’s treat was one of a slightly higher and more professional calibre - a talk by the recently crowned energy minister of state at DECC, John Hayes, the man leading the ‘greenest party ever’ forward unto the dawn.
I was unashamedly quite excited about this guest spot, as not only was it to be my first experience with a powerful politician in a public speaking environment, but it was also a man who was directly responsible for much of what I define as my most passionate of interests and enjoyments, the energy debate, and within that, the UK’s shambles of an attempt. So with this confidence, and of course a rather large expectation for something to annoy/anger/depress being said, I went to watch him speak to an audience of students, professionals, politicians and interested parties yesterday evening. The focus of the topic? The changing UK energy supply. Fascinating and current stuff for sure.
Unfortunately, it was not to be the case. Not only did I come out the talk feeling let down, disappointed, confused and kinda angry at the whole thing, but these feelings were far stronger than I thought I would experience going in. Politics never fails to surprise eh.
From start to finish, John Hayes, a man who recently replaced the much-loved by all (even greenies) Charles Hendry from an utterly un-environmentally linked background, gave us a masterclass in dodging the elephants in the room, not answering questions but doing enough to move on and being wholly like a Tory politician should be; funny in a way which boils the blood and patronisingly cocky at the same time.
When he finally stumbled onto the topic of energy sources and generation, with me believing at one point that he was never going to mention the words ‘sustainable’, ‘renewable’ or ‘climate change’, it was a speech filled with techno-political babble and attempts at covering everything possible with as little information as possible. He screamed past the likes of biomass production, solar PV and onshore wind without even mentioning offshore or tidal, focusing on the topic long enough to merely list their names, avoiding going into any deep, or even shallow conversation in regards to deployment, costs, future developments or the coalition’s stance. It was all behind us in a matter of seconds and yet it couldn’t have been more of an important topic when debating energy supply.
He only delved into onshore wind briefly when he wanted to point out, in a manner I felt similar to veiled hostility, that he had called for investigations into their costs and effectiveness, and to how best the communities affected by their development could be compensated. Of course, he was basically saying that he wasn’t prepared to talk at any length about them unless he was 100% sure they didn’t piss people off or ruin the countryside. Seems his anti-wind stance people had hoped he had dropped was still living on.
CCS, nuclear and natural gas, spiced up with some North Sea offshore drilling then became the main subjects of conversation, with each one generously fleshed out and described in a detail which was rarely employed anywhere else in his entire talk.
He mentioned how the UK was full steam ahead on the development of carbon-capture and storage technology, to be used in conjunction with the still necessary oil and gas industry (necessary?) and boasted about how fantastic the many competitions being held to pick CCS winners were, gleefully stating results would be announced soon. This struck me as slightly worrying, as CCS has many proven issues, and much less proven positives, not least the fact that as a commercial industry, it is nowhere near even the fully-functional prototype phase. This idea of capturing carbon and stowing it away underground is undoubtedly a beautiful idea, but it raises costs significantly, reduces plant efficiencies, places massive longterm liability issues on the energy investors and is yet to be viably demonstrated, and to many is an innovation heading to a dead-end unless serious backing is considered. Maybe John Hayes will pay himself.
In terms of nuclear, he generally avoided saying anything particularly new, mentioning how it is still a viable low-carbon source and inevitably a part of the energy mix of the future, and this I wholeheartedly agree on. I have always been a nuclear advocate, but understand the myriad issues with costs, safety and regulation, but feel all of these things can be smoothed out if the proper investment and time is spent adopting the correct technology. However, Hayes decided to focus on the apparently good number of UK projects ready to spring into action, when the truth is that only two sites are going ahead in the whole of Europe, with both far over their deadlines and millions over budget, a relic of the poor political and economic structures helping to kill such a potentially powerful energy source.
Horizon was a particular example, the nuclear site abandoned by its original investors E.ON and RWE, who pulled out due to financial issues, which has since been on sale to the next highest bidder, many of which have also backed out due to similar reasons. He used the terms ‘significant interest’ to describe the apparent situation, which puzzled me to say the least. I guess he meant the word significant only in regards to the reputation of the companies involved, but not how far along the line any sort of progress is. Either way though, it was good to see that the UK is at least attempting to kickstart a fledgling industry, but I fear this will be lost in the mire that is the rest of the policy.
Natural gas, as you’d expect, got a nice chunk of his and our time, with Hayes stating how important it is to the nation as a large portion of our energy needs, but surprisingly and I would imagine not by coincidence, there was no mention of ‘fracking’, that oh so dirty and risky term. Shale gas was present however, and the crowd visibly shifted upon hearing the words, with the energy minister explaining that it would most likely make up our future energy mix in a big way, but until proper analysis is carried out and its worth proven, he seemed to suggest that the UK would be cautious of ‘dashing for gas’ for now. This was one of the few apparent positives of his talk, with the announcement that ‘fracking’ may be held off for scientific investigation a surprising turn, although as a cynic I’m still not sure I fully believe him on that one.
Moving on, some things that didn’t get a mention but clearly deserve one. Electric vehicles were nowhere to be seen, energy storage was only touched on upon questioning at the end, and despite constant referencing to the energy market reform (EMR) the grid and associated upgrades were strangers to a party they should have been hosting.
The entire debacle of Cameron’s forced lower energy tariffs was also sorely missed, although Hayes did come close to accidentally talking about it. Warnings of more expensive energy prices and lessened profits for the ‘Big Six’ were flouted and he practically gloated about how his department was bringing transparency and cheaper prices to the public, despite these ideas supposedly killing market competition (what’s left) and blowing the minds of most people who heard the statement just the other day. He even went as far as seeming to suggest contestation and differences between Ofgem studies and DECC’s own, eluding to his departments as being the more trustworthy and ‘interconnected’, whatever that means. Ignore Ofgem at your own peril John, I fear they know better than you.
What made this entire thing just that bit more bitter in the mouth however, was the two main catchphrases of the night - John Hayes’ winning slogans on energy.
The first, ‘any certainty is better than no certainty’ is mostly stupid in this context. He calls for CCS, shale gas extraction and old-gen nuclear when these three sectors couldn’t be more uncertain under a UK perspective, whilst he ignores those renewables of which we know so much more and with much more certainty. Explain that one to me?
And secondly, and this is a real cracker, DECC and the coalition is bringing ‘energy for the many, not the few’. So would that be energy to the ‘many’, whereby the market is dominated by six companies, four of them foreign, who effectively set their own prices, will utterly crush the ‘lowest tariff’ policy and will no doubt be raising prices by 8% for the next few years just because they can? I hear it all the time now; our energy market has failed in providing us with competitive prices, and as a country, we are being totally screwed by suppliers.
Energy for the many is a romantic idea Mr. Hayes, but one I really doubt your charms will be able to bring us.