Pissing into the wind

My policy of paying no attention to the news had been going well, and then the boss decided that we simply had to respond to an article in The Times. So it's temporarily back to banging my head against a brick wall, as you may have guessed from the appearance of this post.

The article in question was a Guest Comment by Sam Laidlaw, Chief Executive of Centrica, whose heading summarises his argument pretty well: "Put a price on carbon, but not a tax". This might seem to be a reasonable, even a liberal argument. Unless you are close to the energy industry, you would probably not realise how this was just another example of the way that energy policy has become a plaything for the energy corporates to try to gain commercial advantage. The Government's policy is practically being dictated by the positions of companies like Centrica, who are very clever in dressing up self-interested positions as plausible, apparently impartial and principled arguments. I will let the letter I sent to The Times explain how so in this case:


Sam Laidlaw says that we must "put a price on carbon". He does not differentiate between sources of carbon, and rightly so. Our climate does not, and neither should we.

One of the many failings of cap-and-trade, unlike a carbon tax, is that it is not practical for highly-fragmented markets, such as the very large market for domestic heating. The domestic consumer of 'natural' gas (or heating-oil or LPG in remote areas) is therefore not "forced to pay", which reduces incentives for householders to act sensibly and to consider alternatives like renewables.

Mr Laidlaw opposes the intervention of government(s) in setting the price of carbon, but in fact such interventions pervade the system of cap-and-trade. In the absence of a carbon-tax, the only other levers that the Government can pull in the domestic sector are either partial, bureaucratic and poorly-funded grant-mechanisms (such as the Low-Carbon Buildings Programme, in which Centrica’s subsidiary British Gas has been given a privileged position), or regulations and obligations (such as the Energy-Efficiency Commitment, in which again only the major energy suppliers, such as Centrica, can participate).

Mr Laidlaw presumably prefers these mechanisms to a tax that is the only practical way of pricing carbon equally across all types of consumers, large and small, but he then must accept that most of his customers are insulated from the cost of carbon, an approach that he says is wrong. Policymakers and consumers ought also to be concerned that those measures embed the power of the incumbent energy suppliers, and inhibit innovation and competition from new entrants.


It was not published, of course. I have no complaint - that is their prerogative. But more strangely, I also tried, when it wasn't published, to post this message (in two parts, because of the 1000-character limit) to their website, but it hasn't shown up there either. Another message that I posted afterwards, in response to another poster who suggested we should have a government-subsidised investment fund rather than carbon-pricing, has appeared, which makes me wonder why the earlier posts didn't show. Was this a technical hitch, or was it moderated? It seems unlikely to be a technical issue, as the later post got through fine, and it is strange for both halves of the first message to suffer a technical glitch that other messages did not experience. My guess is that it was moderated, but why?

Of course, waiting to see whether this message showed up meant that I started checking the papers again, particularly the Letters section of The Times. Which meant I couldn't avoid seeing this bundle of correspondence arguing that the absurdity of the Government's plans for wind-power meant that there was only one practical alternative - nuclear power. Blood pressure rising again, I had to write:


Electricity makes up roughly one-third of our primary energy demand. Heat and transport account in roughly equal part for the other two-thirds. Twice as much of our gas demand is for heat as for electricity. Gas fires around 40% of our electricity production, but almost all of our heat production.

Nuclear power can make a minimal contribution to our transport and heat needs. If we replaced all of our nuclear power stations with a new generation, it would still only account for around 7% of our primary energy demand, and around 3.5% of our final consumption. The Government's plans for wind are indeed unrealistic, but so is relying on nuclear. The Establishment's corporatist obsession with marginal electricity-generation technology is blinkered.

The Russians (and others) are highly unlikely to turn off the taps (they want the money), but they might try to push up prices, or supply interruptions may occur. If so, little old ladies will have to worry more about freezing than about the lights going out.


Again, they haven't published my correspondence. Again, that is their prerogative. So again, I tried to post this message to their website. And again, it has not appeared. One or two comments from other people have shown up, so they are clearly accepting posts.

Cock-up or conspiracy? It's a rather selective (one might almost say targeted) pair of cock-ups, which is unlike most cock-ups I've ever known.

What is also strange about this bundle of correspondence is that it does not seem to be in response to any particular article in the preceding days' editions of The Times. Of course, people probably write on all sorts of subject all the time, but it is a little strange to receive (and decide to publish) three unprovoked letters on the same subject at the same time without there being any correspondence of a contrary opinion (either that day, or subsequently - The Times' readers apparently all being in agreement with these correspondents).

I know one should always prefer the cock-up explanation to a conspiracy theory, but I simply don't believe it. I cannot come up with a plausible explanation for how this series of cock-ups could have occurred. It is one more example of how "national debates" are not really debates, but opportunities for those in positions of power to try to foist their ill-formed, naive or selfish, views on everyone else, and to give the impression that most people share those views. We are in a more Orwellian world than people realise.

Perhaps one day I will figure out how to crack this cabal. Probably not. In the meantime, trying to fight it with the tools available to me is just stress with no hope of success, butter knife versus nuclear missile. So I will go back to ignoring the bullshit we are fed by the media and our elites (although I may post one more item on similar ignorance in The Guardian).

As pawns in this game, the best we can do is to use this as an indication of which way the wind is blowing, and try to use that information. If you can find a way to bet or invest on these outcomes, bet on a new generation of nuclear stations being driven through regardless of opposition and of the economic realities, and for energy policy to continue to focus primarily on electricity (and particularly on technologies that over-promise), secondarily on transport, and in a very poor third place on heat and energy-efficiency. And on the continued dominance of the (energy) corporates in business, and of the interventionists in government. In other words, bet on the continued slow decline and disintegration of the British economy and society.

A Happy New Year to you all.


Strangely, the second comment (about nuclear and wind) appeared on their website within an hour or two of posting this here. Probably just a cock-up. Still doesn't explain why the first one has never appeared.