Jun 082010

(This post was programmed to appear automatically while I was away, but for reasons that I have failed to discover, did not do so. In light of what I have come across in the reading that I have done since my return, there seems to have been few developments since I wrote it, including some press comments that are unlikely to keep Mr Huhne smiling.)

In the aftermath of the general election, Chris Huhne has succeeded Ed Miliband at the helm of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. There can be no doubt that he will be navigating in some extremely stormy waters.

Of all the cabinet posts other than those relating to the public finances, this is probably the one that will come with the highest risks attached. I am not going to rehearse the evidence that, unless the UK gets a viable energy policy together immediately, there is a very real likelihood that we will be suffering a third-world type energy crisis within as little as five years, the intended lifetime of the current parliament. Huhne’s post at the DECC needs to be filled by someone who can think straight, think big and think fast. It is by no means certain that the present incumbent possesses all these qualities.

There is no reason to think that Huhne is a fool. He was educated at Westminster School, like his party leader Nick Clegg, before going on to  the Sorbonne and then Oxford where he took a first in PPE. As a student he was active in Labour politics.

He went of to become an economist in the CIty of London, rising to be the managing director of Fitch ratings, an international credit ratings agency, so it would seem that someone thought that he had management abilities; no bad thing for a minister. He has also had a successful career as a journalist, rising to be financial editor of the Independent and the Independent on Sunday.

After unsuccessful attempts to enter parliament in 1983 and 1986 he turned his attention to Europe and became a Liberal Democrat MEP for South East England from 1995 to 2005, when he was elected to Westminster as member of parliament  for Eastleigh. Since then, his rise has been meteoric.

Less than a year later, he challenged Sir Menzies Campbell for the leadership of the party, and although he lost, he received 21,628 votes to the winner’s 29, 697. Not a bad score for a new boy who started as a rank outsider. Huhne stood for the leadership again in 2007 when he lost to Nick Clegg by just 511 votes. He has served as his party’s environment spokesman.

The picture one has of Huhne is that of an extremely capable, ambitious and successful man in a hurry to get to the top.

For the British, coalition politics are a new experience. We have entered a political era in which some things are certainly being done very differently, but it is far too early to even begin to consider whether they are being done any better. For all the avowals of unity in the face of apocalyptic fiscal problems that we have heard during the last three weeks, there is little reason to suppose that the new Prime Minister, David Cameron, is playing the game so very differently from his predecessors. The pressures to watch your back if the keys of 10 Downing Street are to stay within your grasp haven’t gone away, and certainly not when there is someone like Chris Huhne about.

The formation of a coalition made it inevitable that some senior cabinet posts would go to Lib Dems, and there were quiet chuckles in Conservative ranks when one of the new prime minister’s first appointments was David Laws as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. ‘No bad thing’, said the Tory wiseacres, ‘to have one of those other people playing hatchet man during a time of austerity. It helps keep our hands clean if there is a surprise election’. Perhaps the thinking was similar where Huhne’s appointment was concerned.

Energy and climate change is likely to provide a very rough passage for whoever is in charge over the next few years, and Huhne is possibly the most unlikely person to be able to cope with this and keep any semblance of integrity.

There are two major problems that will face him. As a committed green, he cannot back-pedal on the reduction of carbon emissions. Yet even if clean energy was not a consideration, he would be facing colossal problems keeping the lights on. Can he possibly deal with the problem when many of the obvious solutions are already ruled out?

Also as a committed green, Huhne is anti-nuclear. He has already had to perform some fancy footwork where this is concerned, and it looks as though there will be a lot more to come.

In a recent newspaper article he is reported as saying that:

I am not an ideological ayatollah against nuclear power per se.

I am simply a sceptical economist about the record of nuclear power on delivering on time and to budget in a way that can make returns for investors.

He now claims that his objection to nuclear is entirely based on cost and the possible need for subsidies; merely the reservations of a shrewd economist. This sounds unconvincing.

I wonder whether he will use his fluent French to talk to his French counterpart, who presides over an electricity grid that is nearly 80% supplied by nuclear, with no fears of the lights going out, and supplies abundant enough to export large amounts of electricity to southern England.

Huhne certainly has a point about not subsidising nuclear generators. But he makes no mention of the vast subsidies to wind power, which are being taken straight out of the public’s pockets in the hope that no one will notice that this inefficient, unreliable, environmentally devastating, and very expensive form of generation can appear to be free of subsidy. Instead he talks about the rising cost of carbon eventually making nuclear, and presumably wind power too, competitive and able to stand on its own two feet. Of the obvious consequence that the consumer will have to pay more for electricity in  any case, he says nothing,

Few people who have thought about Britain’s parlous economic plight are now in any doubt that we face years - perhaps even decades - of austerity. Rising costs are likely to be on everyone’s mind, and particularly where something so ubiquitously necessary as electricity is concerned. Celebrating the supposed economically therapeutic effects of rising energy costs is likely to be very short-lived phenomena.

Given that all the opinion polls I have seen recently show an accelerating rise in scepticism about climate change, Chris Huhne’s first venture into public office looks doomed. Only a globally binding agreement on carbon emission reduction at Cancún in the autumn could make relying on green energy even begin to look credible, and if what one sees on the net is even half true, this is not a lifebelt anyone should rely on.

From a purely political point of view, Chris Huhne’s position is a very interesting one. His past activities in European politics must make him aware that present energy policy in the UK is dictated not by Westminster, but by emissions targets imposed from Brussels. The combination of climate scepticism and Euro-scepticism on the Tory back benches is likely to make any discussion of energy policy highly volatile, and this cannot have escaped David Cameron when he made the appointment. Presumably it was agreed with Nick Clegg, and one can hardly blame him for not intervening to protect an ambitious rival who has already tried to get his job twice, and only just failed to do so quite recently.

This all looks like high-risk politics of the most ruthless kind, with the future of the UK economy at stake. No industrialised nation can survive without an abundant, reliable and cheap supply of electricity. No country that is in the midst of a potentially catastrophic debt crisis can contemplate a vast hike in the cost of energy that will jeopardise its competitiveness.

As things stand at the moment, our energy policy is on a collision course with reality, and reality doesn’t usually chicken out.


If anyone is wondering about the title of this post, my spelling skills are very poor in English and non-existent in German.

76 Responses to “Playing chicken with energy policy”

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  1. 51
    manacker Says:

    PeterM and Peter Geany

    You are absolutely correct, PeterM, when you write

    all commercially useful oil and gas fields, without exception, are found in sedimentary rocks

    That is where most hydrocarbons can be found and from where they can be extracted commercially.

    How they got there is still not certain, although the fossil origin is generally accepted.

    Petroleum and natural gas reserves (as well as coal reserves) on our planet are not unlimited.

    An optimistic estimation of these total reserves shows that there is enough contained carbon to raise atmospheric levels to around 1000 ppmv by the time they are all gone.

    Whether there are enough to last 100 or 200 years is a matter of opinion, but it is most likely that they will become too expensive to use for motor fuel and power generation within the next century or so.

    We have no notion what the new commercially viable sources of energy will be 100 years from today.

    We have no notion how much human CO2 will be generated 100 years from today.

    We have no notion of what our planet’s climate will be 100 years from today.

    All we know with high degree of probability is that these will all be different from today (and that our society, our environment and our planet will survive, as they have for thousands of years), despite all the hype and hysteria out there.


  2. 52
    James P Says:

    AFAIK, gas turbines don’t run on gas, they run on kerosene. The gas in question is the combustion product used to provide the motive force (and is the equivalent of the steam used in most other turbines).

  3. 53
    peter geany Says:

    James gas turbines can run on anything from crude oil to gas. Just as with reciprocating engines they can be modified to run on many fuels. Saudi Arabia used filtered light crude as it was cheaply available, but maintenance costs were high due to the impurities not being refined out. And I shudder to even imagine how the real pollutants such as NOx, CO, SO2 particulates etc are increased by use of that fuel.

    For sure you cannot put oil in a 747 and expect it to fly, but you would be surprised at what the military test for use in times of war. In WWII the German Messerschmitt ME 262 Jet used petrol and not kerosene.

  4. 54
    TonyN Says:

    Eddy Mair interviewed Chris Huhne on the BBC’s PM programme this evening about his energy statement to the House of Commons today. It seems to contain some rather surprising things:

    Starts at about 11:20 in.

    According to the minister, onshore wind has suddenly become competitive with conventional generation although I don’t remember hearing anything about the kind of technological breakthrough that would make this possible. And I’m pretty sure that I would have heard. It seems that there is also some doubt about there being any government subsidies for alternatives in the future.

    Apparently Susan Watts will also have a report on Newsnight tonight.

    More on the BBC website:


    And once again, it takes a bit of believing.

  5. 55
    Alex Cull Says:

    Some pretty amazing stuff from Mr Huhne today – will catch up with all of it as soon as possible (NB. why aren’t there more hours in the day??)

    In an earlier interview, he said “The lights will not go out on my watch”.

    Can he guarantee that, though? And will the next person in the hot seat at DECC be able to say the same?

    Going by today’s statement, I think that is rather in doubt.

  6. 56
    manacker Says:

    Here is an interesting blog I just saw on a site discussing TransOcean, the contractor involved in the BP Gulf disaster:

    Wow the bashing has finally stopped on CNN because they can’t find anymore oily patches or oily birds and have resorted to showing old pictures from the beginning of the crisis. What are they missing?? Bio-degradation of the oil by the bacteria is occurring at a exponential rate. Given enough nutrient and substrate (oil) the bacteria can replicate every 20 to 30 minutes…..If you do your math one single bacterium will replicate and produce 280,000,000,000,000 bacteria in a 24 hour period given ideal growth conditions. CHEW on that you annoying CNN white-haired creepy looking dude. Where is the oil?? GONE!!!!

    Don’t know whether this guy’s science (or arithmetic) are correct or not, but maybe the long-term environmental impact on the Gulf (as opposed to the media disaster stories and the short-term impact for BP CEO Tony Hayward) may not end up being that dramatic, after all.

    And then, Hayward got a nice 1.25 million Euro “golden handshake” (plus a 715,000 Euro pension) to reward him for his performance as BP chief.

    Every cloud has a silver lining, it appears.

    Then there was a recent article in the Swiss press that pointed out that the cleanup efforts (especially those using chemicals to move the oil from the surface to the sea floor) were actually more harmful than doing nothing and letting nature solve the problem by itself.


  7. 57
    peter geany Says:

    Max I’m not sure about the Maths but if we remember the lessons and results of the Exxon Valdez disaster then we would remember that even in the cold waters of Alaska bacteria cleaned up the oil faster than anticipated.

    The real disaster in the Gulf is firstly to the families of those who lost their lives, and secondly to those who have lost their jobs. And all the disinformation is destroying the tourist industry.

    Whilst George Bush’s administration was slow to kick the incompetent local and state government into action over Katrina, Obama has sort to play politics and has only managed to demonstrate a degree of incompetence in federal government that is almost beyond belief. One of last night’s news reports finally reported what real Americans who live in the area were feeling and it’s not good. But the reasons given are not about the oil but over the misinformation over the extent of the spill and about government attempts to stop oil exploration and production.

  8. 58
    manacker Says:

    Peter Geany

    I agree wholeheartedly with you that the people living in the Gulf are are those who are suffering and that Obama has mishandled the situation from the start for political reasons, at the same time as both BP and Obama have misled the US public on what is going on.

    The Bush administration’s initial response to Katrina (“your doin’ a helluva job, Brownie”) was just as bad, as you write.

    The use of chemicals to “sink” the oil from the surface to the sea floor (where neither the oil nor the damage it causes can be seen) has most likely been a major mistake.

    Your point about the Valdez oil spill being cleaned up by bacteria in a relatively short time in much colder waters does seem to give credence to the blogger’s claim I cited (that the long-term environmental impact of the current disaster are not as great as feared or being claimed by the media).

    But, as you say, that does not bring back those who died in the accident. Nor does it help the people who have lost their livelihoods today and for the foreseeable future, particularly if Obama misuses this accident in order to further his political goal to stop offshore drilling.


  9. 59
    manacker Says:

    This analysis of the competitiveness of wind power is 6 years old, but still pertinent.

    Wind power is not competitive unless there are taxpayer-funded subsidies to make it appear so.

    And it is an environmental disaster.


  10. 60
    tempterrain Says:


    For once James Hansen, myself and yourself, are all in agreement.

    Whatever reservations anyone might have about nuclear power, there is no other viable option. So called carbon sequestration is never going to happen, or ,at least, its not going to happen anywhere near fast enough.

  11. 61
    manacker Says:


    Yes. We do agree that nuclear power is an economically viable option to provide added electrical power generation capacity to meet the world’s growing needs.

    New fast breeder technology, possibly using thorium (now being tested), will help to greatly reduce the spent fuel problem. And, longer term, there is the prospect of nuclear fusion.

    It is, however, questionable today whether nuclear power is politically viable in many countries, such as the UK and Germany, as opposed to France and tiny Switzerland, which have both found ways to cope with any green opposition.

    Both China and India will undoubtedly increase their nuclear power generation in the future, as well. There is unlikely to be any meaningful green opposition there.

    Then there is the question of the underdeveloped nations, which require an energy infrastructure in order to pull their populations out of abject poverty. These tend to be in politically unstable regions, where having a nuclear capability may not be in the overall interest of the world. And many of these nations do have oil, natural gas or coal reserves, so it seems logical that fossil fuel power generation would be the best route to achieve their energy infrastructures.

    On this latter point, you, Hansen and I most likely do not agree, but, then again, I have heard no viable alternates from Hansen. The pie-in-the-sky fantasies about “renewables”, would require massive subsidies from the industrialized nations (as a sort of “guilt tax”) to be economically viable, and we all know that these will not happen. So, in effect, the “Hansen plan” will guarantee continued poverty for these regions.

    If you believe in the “dangerous AGW” premise, it’s a “Catch 22″ situation.

    If not, you can support the solution that makes most economic sense for gradually covering growing power needs in the industrialized world with new nuclear plants and those in the non-industrialized world with new stations fired with (local, if possible) fossil fuels, with smaller “niche” demands covered by local renewables, where these are economically viable.

    For Germany it will be no problem to sign long-term supply contracts with France, based on new nuclear plants constructed (out of sight) across the Rhine, or with Poland, based on coal-fired plants (as is being done to stay within the “cap”).

    For the UK the problem is a bit more difficult, requiring transmission lines from France, but even that is not impossible and environmentally (plus economically) sounder than plopping up windmills all over the real estate (which only run around 25% of the time, when there happens to be just enough, but not too much, wind).

    So, while we agree on the broader principle, it appears that we have differences in the details.


  12. 62
    tempterrain Says:


    You mean a bit like a Creationist suggesting to Richard Dawkins that they “agree on the broader principle” but, nevertheless they have “differences in the details.” ?

  13. 63
    manacker Says:


    No (62). Not at all.

    Just read what I wrote without trying to make inappropriate and silly analogies.

    We agree

    - that nuclear power could be a solution for covering growing energy demand of industrialized nations

    We may or may not agree

    - that nuclear power would be an inappropriate option for currently undeveloped and politically unstable nations that might misuse nuclear technology

    - that it is, therefore, wiser to help these nations develop an economically viable energy infrastructure based on locally available fossil fuels, supplemented on a smaller scale local basis, where this makes economic sense, with renewable energy sources

    I am sure that Hansen would not agree with the second and third statement, since he has already gone on record with a “pie in the sky” proposal that has no chance of ever happening.

    But I am not sure what your position is on these two points, since you have not taken a stand, but instead only waffled around with silly analogies.



  14. 64
    James P Says:

    Max (56)

    the cleanup efforts .. were actually more harmful than doing nothing and letting nature solve the problem by itself

    A bit like AGW, then!

    If, as PeterG points out, bacteria cleaned up the Alaskan oil faster than anticipated, you have to wonder why extra bacteria aren’t used. I suppose the MSM would get the wrong idea about ‘bacteria’ though…

  15. 65
    tempterrain Says:


    I would suggest that portable mini nuclear reactors may be the way forward. They don’t have the same security risks as conventionally built reactors.



  16. 66
    tempterrain Says:

    Peter Geany,

    This statement could be just about true:

    “but if we remember the lessons and results of the Exxon Valdez disaster then we would remember that even in the cold waters of Alaska bacteria cleaned up the oil faster than anticipated.”

    But it would depend on the speed that had been anticipated in the first place!

    It wasn’t a quick process: according to Scientific American:


    or the University of Carolina


    “Exxon Valdez oil spill impacts lasting far longer than expected, scientists say”

  17. 67
    manacker Says:


    Mini-nukes may some day be a viable alternate for many locations, as you write.

    (If you’ll pardon the pun), the units being developed by Hyperion are getting a lot of hype today.

    Just how cost competitive and safe they will be is still an open question, but I’ll admit it does look like they might have promise, at least for some locations.

    So we have no disagreement here, Peter.

    Don’t know how the anti-nuke lobby (especially in the UK and Germany) will react to these mini-nukes, but that is another issue.


  18. 68
    manacker Says:


    BTW small nukes are nothing new. Submarines have been running on them for decades.


  19. 69
    manacker Says:

    Peter Geany and PeterM

    An interesting article on the natural bacterial breakdown of oil from human spills or natural seeps into the ocean is here.

    Adding dispersants or chemical products to make the oil sink to the sea floor is apparently more harmful than beneficial. One action that is apparently helpful is bioremediation, whereby nutrients (P, N) are fed to the bacteria to speed up the natural cleanup process.

    These processes are temperature dependent, so it is clear that they should occur more rapidly in the Gulf waters than off the Alaskan coast, as Peter Geany has written.


  20. 70
    manacker Says:


    Back to your interesting proposal (65) on local, modular “mini-nuclear” power plants.

    The mini-nuclear plants (as being developed by Hyperion) presumably have the same problem with spent fuel as large nuclear stations.

    The amount of spent fuel produced is relatively small, but is still there:

    Nuclear power produces around 2,000 metric tonnes/per annum of spent fuel. This amounts to 0.006 lbs/MWh.

    In other words, a 27 MW modular “Hyperion” unit operating 90% of the time would produce:
    27 * 0.9 * 8760 * 0.006 = 1,277 lbs = 580 kg of spent fuel per year

    Fast breeder technology could greatly reduce the spent fuel storage and disposal problem. It is estimated that the volume of highly radioactive waste is 1/20th the volume as compared to a conventional light water plant of the same size.

    France has two experimental fast breeder reactors in place. Fast breeder technology using thorium is now being planned for a full-scale prototype plant in India.

    A 500 MWe prototype fast breeder reactor (FBR) is under construction at Kalpakkam by BHAVINI (Bharatiya Nabhikiya Vidyut Nigam Ltd), a government enterprise set up under DAE to focus on FBRs. It was expected to start up about the end of 2010 and produce power in 2011, but this schedule appears to be delayed about 12-15 months.

    How this will all play out over the next several years is hard to tell, but the political aversion in many countries to nuclear power, which has resulted from incessant fear-mongering by anti-nuclear activist groups, will be a factor that must be considered, even for the “mini-nuclear” solution.


  21. 71
    Alex Cull Says:

    Re nuclear, reading the book Surface at the Pole by James Calvert, about the journeys of the sub USS Skate to the North Pole, gives the strong impression of an extremely safe and reliable power source (for which Admiral Rickover must take a huge amount of credit, in the US Navy context, although he appeared to have become pessimistic about it in later life, as per this Wiki article.)

    Also re nuclear and renewables, here’s a transcript for Eddie Mair’s interview with Chris Huhne on BBC Radio 4, as per TonyN’s #54.

    Chris Huhne says there have been “enormous improvements in costs for example for onshore wind, which is now competitive with other forms of low-carbon electricity generation”; however, he does not say exactly which other forms.

    Another quote: “…this is an area which is inherently uncertain. Looking into the future, we don’t know exactly which technologies are going to be the ones that can really see us through the long term…”

    But also: “The Coalition Agreement is very clear, there will be no public subsidy for nuclear, precisely because it is a mature, proven, long-standing technology.”

    Then all the more reason to subsidise it, I would have thought.

  22. 72
    manacker Says:

    Alex Cull

    The March 17, 1959 surfacing of the nuclear submarine, USS Skate, at the North Pole was quite an event at the time (as National Geographic and the book you cite reported).

    The “inconvenient truth” that Skate was able to surface at the North Pole at the end of the winter season, has been a cause of discomfort for AGW believers today, with several posting blogs on AGW-faithful sites that this was not a real surfacing, that the archived photograph of the event was a fake or taken somewhere else or on another date, etc. (since sea ice at the North Pole had to be thicker in 1959 than it is today).

    Sometimes the truth is too painful to accept and one has to resort to “denial”.


  23. 73
    Alex Cull Says:

    Max, this brings back fun memories of last year’s threads re the Skate photograph on WUWT and the Guardian!

    Re TonyN’s #54 again, the BBC Newsnight programme from 27th July is here on iPlayer (relevant bit starts at 31.08). For those unable to access iPlayer (also bearing in mind that it will disappear after a couple of days, as they only show a week’s worth) I’ll try to put a transcript together soon. Here‘s a link to DECC’s 2050 calculator tool mentioned on Newsnight, in the meantime.

  24. 74
    James P Says:

    Max (72)

    I just about remember those photos in the Nat.Geog., although they may have been old copies that I used to thumb through as a youth!

    I’m amazed how few warmists appear to have seen the film Ice Station Zebra (it was on TV a few days ago here) but perhaps they’re just in denial. I see they used a model of a Skate class sub for the underwater scenes…


  25. 75
    Alex Cull Says:

    Re TonyN’s #54 here’s a transcript of BBC Newsnight for 27th July, on the day Chris Huhne announced his Energy Statement before Parliament (was on iPlayer but now gone.) Re DECC’s calculator, as was pointed out in the programme, it has:

    a) no costing, which makes it somewhat less useful, in that respect, than a world-building computer game I have called Sim City 3000, which at least tells you when the money is about to run out and enables you to budget, accordingly, and:

    b) as even Tim Yeo admits, “[y]ou could only get to the 80% cut target if you make some pretty optimistic, not to say heroic, assumptions about how Britain is going to be transformed, how our coal industry will be transformed, how our electricity industry will be transformed and how, as individuals, we’ll make low-carbon choices at home, at work, when we travel and so on. You’ve got to be at the optimistic end on all those things.” For “optimistic” assumptions, read “not likely to happen very soon”?

  26. 76
    po?yczki Says:

    The guarantees also encourage local banks to invest in the success of their local communities.

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