Are we at a collision point between socialism and capitalism, and is the global energy business driving this collision?
Two events have occurred over the past few weeks which appear to encapsulate an observation that I have been considering for some time, i.e. whether or not capitalism has moved to the extremes of greed, and socialism has no answer to counterbalance this behaviour. Politicians and the media would have you believe that banks are the ultimate in capitalist greed. Whereas I have serious reservations about the activities in certain banks, I feel that the major energy companies from oil & gas production through to energy generation consider their power above that of politicians at the highest level, and that of the major trade unions. If my observation bears credible scrutiny then who are the winners, and who are the losers.
The two events that I would like to use in this debate, because they encapsulate the major drivers in this debate, albeit not the only events of concern, are the Grangemouth Refinery & Petrochemical plant debacle in Scotland, and the UK Parliamentary Committee meeting with the major UK energy companies this past week.
Perhaps a little background on the energy footprint in the UK will assist readers not familiar with the situation here.
According to Ofgen, the energy regulator, the UK has installed capacity for electricity of some 73GW of conventional generation and 9GW of renewable with ACS peak demand expectations around 60GW. Uncertainty around government policy (UK and EU) and future prices continues to limit investment in conventional generation and no new plant is expected before 2016. In the UK it is estimate that around 1GW of new gas plant will come online before the end of the decade and the installed capacity of wind power will possibly more than double over the same period albeit that this must surely now be in question. In any event, given the variability of wind speeds, they estimate that only 17% of this capacity can be counted as firm (i.e. always available) for security of supply purposes by 2018/19.
More than 2GW of LCPD opted-in plant have also closed or converted to biomass since October 2012, resulting in less pollutant plant but with significantly reduced capacity. Around 0.5GW of nuclear capacity is reaching the end of its technical life and is expected to close by 2014/15, though extensions now have to be considered. Around 2GW of CCGT plant should be retired by 2018/19 for the same reasons, but will this happen?
As installed capacity falls in the next few years, all else being equal, prices can be expected to rise and it is possible that this will lead plant, especially coal fired, that is currently mothballed to come back online to keep prices affordable.
According to National Grid, the expected drop in peak demand is mostly due to increased energy efficiency in the domestic sector and increased Demand-Side Response (DSR) insulation of buildings, etc. I consider this to be a convenient explanation politically where the truth may be more damning.
For completeness the interconnection capacity between the UK and mainland Europe and Ireland is currently 3.8GW. Assumptions about the likely direction and size of interconnector flows therefore have a significant impact on the calculation of the risks to the UK security of supply.
Ofgen expect that, in a situation of tight margins (please), ahead of mitigation actions being implemented, prices would rise resulting in higher interconnector flows into GB. However, GB is not the only European country expecting de-rated margins to fall in the next six winters. France, Ireland, Germany and Belgium are also facing security of supply challenges, and have very similar patterns of demand and supply availability.
As for gas, DECC reports suggest that gas consumption reached a record high in 2004 of 1,125 TWh. Since then, consumption has seen an overall decline, and in 2012 total gas consumption was 845.6 TWh, around 25% below its 2004 peak. These longer term trends are driven by commodity prices, energy efficiency and, for domestic use in particular, temperature. However domestic demand in 2012 was high, up almost 16 per cent on 2011, reflecting the colder, protracted winter, but gas demand for electricity generation fell by almost a third to 214 TWh largely as a result of coal replacing gas use due to high gas prices.
UK gas production peaked in 2000 and has since been declining. With declining production the UK has become increasingly reliant on gas imports to meet demand. Since 2000 net imports have steadily increased year on year, with the exception of 2011 which saw a 3 per cent decrease on the previous year’s level. The recent fall in imports can be attributed to the reduced gas demand from electricity generators, being replaced by coal.
Imports of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) through the two terminals at Milford Haven remain substantial, but their shares of total imports have dropped from 46% in 2011 to 27% in 2012. Demand for LNG on the global market remains strong but the UK has a diverse pipeline infrastructure (from Norway, the Netherland and Belgium) and the proportion delivered through each route will depend on global market conditions.
It is probably also worth noting that Europe, as a whole, has over capacity in crude oil refineries. The UK has 7 refineries. According to HIS Purvin & Getz Research Group the UK imports 47% of its diesel fuel, and 50% of its aviation fuel. However the UK has a 20% surplus of petrol which it exports.
Now let us look at the politics. In March 2007, the European Council agreed to a common strategy for energy security and tackling climate change. An element of this was establishing a target of 20% of the EU’s energy to come from renewable sources. In 2009 a new Renewable Energy Directive was implemented on this basis and resulted in agreement of country “shares” of this target. For the UK, by 2020, 15% of final energy consumption – calculated on a net calorific basis, and with a cap on fuel used for air transport – should be accounted for by energy from renewable sources. There was much grandstanding by the politicians at the time, especially directed towards the USA, indicating that Europe was a good citizen of the world, and would be a leader in the climate change revolution, setting targets that many reasonably minded people thought optimistic. However there followed much uncertainty surrounding the implementation of this and and other market reforms thus having as much impact on plant investment and retirement decisions as the expectations of the impact of evolving energy prices. This uncertainty means energy companies suffer much frustration of their long-term strategy through muddled energy policy, or indeed the lack of any definitive energy policy by various governments.
On the other hand the USA refused to sign up to Kyoto and, other than a little dancing at the edges, ignored the grandstanding of Europe and other countries and allowed the market to determine the future. The USA gets many things wrong, especially much of its foreign policy, but when it comes to protecting its own market it invariably gets it right. Developing new technologies and techniques such as fracking, the USA is now energy independent, energy prices are around 20% less than Europe, and they can export enough cheap fuel to disturb the markets in Europe.
In the UK the previous Labour government blindly signed up to all of the EU energy initiatives, could not fund these initiatives through already excessive taxation, so the current leader of the Labour Party, then Energy Secretary, came up with stealth taxes in the form of environmental and social levies to be collected by the energy companies from the domestic consumer, currently £117 per household, to fund these initiatives making a number of people in the renewable energy market very rich without delivering any tangible value today, or tomorrow. We now have a coalition government where the predominant Conservative Party want to repeal these stealth taxes and no longer subsidise renewable initiatives from public money but find themselves frustrated by the minority Liberal Democratic Party who see some value (to them) of continuing to wave the environmental flag. In addition the Labour Party, who created these woes for the consumer now wants to go to the dark ages of socialism and freeze energy prices. Maybe a good soundbite for the uninformed, but ridiculous in the world of global energy markets.
So let us review the Grangemouth debacle. As I said refining capacity in Europe exceed demand. Furthermore cheaper energy supplies are being imported from the USA. The management of Grangemouth, owned by INEOS, (the refinery can process some 210,000 barrels of oil per day) claimed that they are losing some USD 8 million per month fuelled partly by US imports where USA refineries pay some USD 15 per barrel less than UK refineries. The management, knowing that they need to invest some £300 million in the plant, decided that they could no longer afford to run the plant with the then operating costs. They put a package of pay and pension reforms to the 800 or so workers. In essence the UNITE union, one of the largest remaining trade unions in the UK (Margaret Thatcher saw off most of the trade union power in the 1980’s) applied its usual socialist dinosaur approach threatening strike action. The refinery management refused to accept revised terms from, or to spend 3 months negotiating with UNITE (giving the Government 3 months to find an alternative buyer) so INEOS, who had already safely closed the plant facing the threat of a strike then announced that they were going to close it. Both the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, and First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmon, quickly came into play to rescue this situation. We can only speculate on what happened behind closed doors but the UNITE union completely caved in and announced that they would recommend acceptance of the INEOS terms for its members, and it was clear that INEOS had been offered some government deal towards the required investment in the plant.
What we saw during the Grangemouth debacle is an example of how commercial reality surpasses political and trade union power. It was suggested that the loss of this facility would have been devastating for the Scottish economy, and they complain about banks being too big to fail.
Then we look at the Parliamentary Select Committee interrogation of the ‘big 6’ energy companies bosses, having raised energy tariffs by some 10% average to domestic consumers against wholesale price increases of just some 1.8%. The only reasonable summary of this session is too much grandstanding by the political panel, and total indifference by the energy bosses suggesting that the high price of energy was down to the stealth taxes mentioned above. I understand that the UK domestic consumers pay the highest energy costs in the European Union. One interesting analysis on a news broadcast was that British Gas had increased their profit from £45 per customer just 5 years ago to £95 per customer today. Apparently they need these profits to satisfy investment returns for their shareholders.
So who are the winners, and who are the losers.
- The capitalist (foreign) owners of Grangemouth
- The capitalist owners of the major energy companies
- The capitalist owners of the renewable energy companies who will be long gone with their accumulated wealth before the reality of this folly is known
- It will be interesting to know who claims the victory of Grangemouth, especially with the up-coming Scottish Independence vote: David Cameron claiming a victory for a United Kingdom, or Alex Salmon who wants Scottish Independence.
- The environmental lobby thanks to the short-sighted view of the Liberal Democrat coalition leader
- The domestic consumer who has to bear the cost of the bailout of Grangemouth because of a dinosaur socialist union leader.
- The domestic consumer who has to pay the cost of the increased energy tariffs, which could be indirectly attributed to the lack of energy policy by governments
- The domestic consumer who has to bear the socialist imposed stealth taxes for renewable energy policies that are far too optimistic, expensive, and will prove to be a waste of resources. It should be noted that the socialist principal of payment according to what you earn was ignored thus betraying their core socialist vote.
- The domestic consumer who has to pay for price increases to corporate energy users as they will pass their increases on to the consumer in the price of their goods/services.
- The domestic consumer who will have to bear the cost of frantic, last minute efforts to maintain supply because of the lack of any firm energy policy.
- It is claimed that reduction in demand is mostly due to the energy efficiency in the domestic consumer market. To some extent new technology and insulation will have an impact, but I fear that cost means that many domestic consumers cannot afford to heat their homes, and thus go cold. Thus the losers, again, are low income and pensioner domestic consumers – a direct reflection of capitalist greed.
I think that it was Socrates who observed that intelligent people discussed ideas, moderately intelligent people discussed events, and the vast majority, the uninformed, share gossip. Our largest selling newspapers, and to a degree some news channels, and political hype thrive on sensationalised gossip including important issues of energy policy – apocalyptic climate change gossip spread by brainwashed environmental campaigners sell more copies and buy more uninformed votes than mundane realities. There is a flaw in democracy if the noisy uninformed minority can unreasonably influence the uninformed, the impact of which is a substantial negative impact to the silent majority. It is an unquestionable fact that people united can make change happen. Therefore the people need to be properly and honestly informed.
Ironically all of this dithering means that the future is a return to non-other than the fuel which started the industrial revolution –Coal – because it is plentiful, and it is cheap, – look at Germany’s preferred fuel.
I would be very interested to hear how the above events in the UK would have played out in other countries, not least Germany and France.
Ofgen Electricity Capacity Assessment Report 2013
Various DECC reports
HIS Purvin & Getz Research Group
- Merkel Facing Power Dilemma as Coal Plants Open (bloomberg.com)