Tuesday, January 04, 2022

6m UK homes may be unable to pay energy bills after price hike, charity warns

The number of UK households living in fuel poverty could climb to the highest level on record by this spring unless the government moves to soften the blow of a looming record high energy bill hike, according to a fuel poverty charity.

Around 4 million homes in the UK were already classed as fuel poor before a surge in global energy market prices triggered one of the steepest ever energy bill hikes in October, but campaigners are braced for a record increase in the numbers unable to pay their energy bills following another hike this spring.

The charity National Energy Action warned that the double blow to household bills could cause at least 2 million more homes to slip into fuel poverty compared with the start of 2021, taking the total to 6 million households. This would be the highest level of fuel poverty across the UK since records began in 1996.

The looming energy price hike has not yet been finalised by the regulator but Adam Scorer, chief executive of National Energy Action, told the Observer that the number of households in fuel poverty would “skyrocket” in April.

This is expected to deepen the UK’s national energy crisis and compound the “year of the squeeze”, predicted by the Resolution Foundation last week, which threatens to trigger a “cost of living catastrophe” for hard-pressed families.

Households are already paying record prices to put petrol in their cars, and can expect the cost of consumer goods to rocket as fuel prices and supply-chain disruptions take their toll on major companies.

“Those on lowest incomes and in less-efficient homes will not just face financial hardship but intolerable living conditions, ill health and, for too many, a shortened life,” Scorer said. “This is not just conjecture. It will happen and we’ve had enough time to see it coming and act.”


The Tories risk blowing themselves up with gas

Blackouts bring down governments. The Conservative administration of Ted Heath paid such a price at the ballot box in 1974 when it had failed to keep the lights on, having mishandled (to put it mildly) the coal industry. Now gas, rather than coal, is the dominant fuel in heating our homes. While a shortage of the stuff is not so critical as to lead to people freezing through lack of available energy, the effect on domestic bills could have a similar effect, at least among the poorest.

The soaring open-market price for gas combined with a consumer price cap imposed by Theresa May’s administration (as pledged in her 2017 election manifesto) has caused the collapse of numerous suppliers. If the entire industry is not to be rendered bankrupt, the cap will have to be lifted to a level that would at least double the average household’s gas bill.

That is a recipe for mass discontent. But, extraordinarily, it represents success in terms of the government’s energy strategy. While natural gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels, it is still a hydrocarbon and therefore set for gradual elimination under the government’s “world-leading” commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

To that end, it has mandated the ending of gas boiler sales by 2025. The heat pumps that are to replace them are currently at least five times more expensive to buy, so the government faced the dilemma of whether to clobber the consumer with the tens of billions of pounds this would cost in aggregate, or to subsidise the cost of replacement via increased taxes — which would scarcely be more popular.

But, now, wonderful news! If gas becomes much more expensive, not just temporarily but in the long term, the whole thing would look almost rational. People would be incentivised to move away from fossil fuel heating. They would still be hard hit financially, but the government could at least avoid the impression that it was imposing a form of energy poverty.

Yet it would still be held responsible, as governments always are, even when simply the victims of a global market trend — and as the Heath government was when Opec, under Saudi leadership, used tight conditions in the oil market to drive up prices to previously unimaginable levels. In the present case, however, the British government has actually willed an increase in the cost of hydrocarbons and therefore fully deserves to pay whatever is the political price.

This can be seen with particular clarity in the arguments it made when refusing to consider the benefits of a strategic gas reserve, in effect abandoned when the North Sea storage facility known as the Rough gas field was closed down in 2017. When the gas price began to soar in late September 2021 and it emerged that the UK had reserves in storage equivalent only to the demand of four to five winter days (about a tenth of the supply held in reserve by that other North Sea gas producer the Netherlands), a government spokesman told the i newspaper: “We would be moving in the opposite direction to the rest of the world if instead of decarbonising we started storing more gas.”

Except it so happens that the world’s two most populous nations — China and India — are not moving in the direction claimed, as was demonstrated by their refusal at the Glasgow Cop26 conference to set any date for their own abandonment of fossil fuels, notably coal, which dominates their domestic and industrial energy usage. Last week China announced that it had completed the construction of the first 1,000 megawatt unit of its biggest coal-fired power station to date.

The claim by the British government that the financial cost of going to net zero — which the Treasury has estimated at well over a trillion pounds for the UK — is less than the “costs of climate change” makes no sense at all if the biggest and fastest-growing economies don’t follow suit. Because, since we represent barely 1 per cent of global emissions, we would have all the cost to our own consumers and industries, without any of the notional benefits in terms of a more stable global climate.

This is in stark contrast to the US, which, having tapped previously locked reserves through the production technique known as fracking, now enjoys gas prices about a third of those in Europe. Traditionally the American and European gas markets were aligned, but that has completely changed, with obvious consequences, the most recent being the announcement by the US firm Alcoa last week that it was ceasing its aluminium production business in Spain because of high energy costs.

Indeed the main reason the European gas price fell back to slightly less eye-watering levels just before Christmas — having increased by 350 per cent over the past year — was that two giant tankers carrying liquefied natural gas from the US to China were suddenly rerouted to the Netherlands. But that is hardly a sustainable solution. Things would be different, at least in the UK, if the Conservatives, who originally hailed the discovery of potentially vast onshore gas reserves in geological strata identical to those that have been developed in the US, had not later decided on an effective moratorium on fracking here.

Instead, in the drive to net zero, they have continued to subsidise renewable energy — including billions of pounds in handouts for the Drax power station in North Yorkshire, which burns wood chips imported from forests in Louisiana, among other far-flung places — with levies adding up to a quarter of our total energy bills, according to the chief executive of Eon UK, Michael Lewis. Yet at one point last November, when we had the scarcely unprecedented combination of a cold snap and still weather, our vaunted wind industry was able to supply little more than 3 per cent of UK electricity demand. It was left to gas to supply the majority of our needs. What happens when the gas power stations are all closed?

In response to the current gas price squeeze, the shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, declared that the government must “immediately remove VAT on household heating bills over the winter”. Hilarious, given that Labour has criticised the government for not moving faster to incentivise people away from hydrocarbon-based energy — and that such a tax cut would most benefit most those with the biggest houses.

In summary, I can’t improve on the description by Andy Mayer of the Institute of Economic Affairs think tank, in his pamphlet The Gordian Knot of UK Energy Policy: “Politicians fight a never-ending intervention race where the latest proposal is designed to correct the bad headlines attached to the last one, while creating new and unintended consequences, and repeat.”

If your energy strategy has been to prioritise emission reductions over security of supply and affordability, this is where you end up. It’s not a good place.


Countryside campaigners have warned that swathes of rural southern England face being ruined by “massive industrialisation” if plans for one of the country’s largest solar farms are given the go-ahead

The approval of plans for a large solar power plant in Oxfordshire has sparked fears of a “tidal wave of solar farms” despoiling rural areas.

There are now proposals for another four huge solar farms covering between 160 to 340 acres each, close to the Chiltern Area Of Outstanding Beauty and the north part the Oxford Green Belt.

One planned for Nuneham Courtenay, near Oxford, would be one of the biggest in England at more than 340 acres, with councillors set to discuss in the coming months whether to give it the go-ahead in the face of mounting opposition from environmental groups.

Enso Green Holdings Limited, a joint venture between Enso Energy and the Green Investment Group, has submitted the plans, which could generate enough power for the equivalent of 13,000 homes each year.

The firm says new grassland habitats would be planted beneath the solar panels, with sheep allowed to graze, and the existing hedgerows and trees on the site would be retained.

Enso Energy said: “We’re determined to use the latest solar technology to make a positive impact on the country and communities we work with.”

The proposed solar farms are part of Britain’s push to reduce its carbon footprint and switch to renewable energy.

But the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) says the scale and “alien appearance” of the Nuneham Courtenay project and other solar farms are an obtrusive impact on the landscape, representing “an unwelcome and inappropriate industrialisation of the countryside”.

The Oxford Preservation Trust has also objected to the scheme, saying it would be “highly visible” in the landscape surrounding the city.

Currently the largest solar farm in the UK is Shotwick Solar Park, near Deeside, in Cheshire, which is spread over 250 acres.

This would be outstripped by the Nuneham Courtenay proposals, along with separate plans for a 270 acre solar farm on farmland near Thame. There are also plans for a 163 acre one near the village of Stoke Talmage, near Watlington.

The single largest British solar farm is set to be built on the north Kent coast after planning permission was given to the 900 acre scheme last year, despite opposition from an alliance of local residents and some environmental groups.

Richard Harding, of Oxfordshire CPRE, warned: “This area seems to be facing a tidal wave of solar farms - on green field sites and on working agricultural land. They represent an industrialisation of the rural landscape.”

“Up until now they have been comparatively small but in the last year a number of proposals have come forward which are considerably larger - covering between 160 to more than 300 acres, essentially whole farms.”

The CPRE argues that solar farms should be built on brownfield sites and not in open countryside.

Last month, South Oxfordshire District Council's planning committee gave the go-ahead for the building of a 193 acre solar farm at Harlseford Farm, near Tetsworth, to generate electricity for thousands of homes over the next 40 years.

A substation and 30 inverters, which will be roughly the size of shipping containers, will also be built on the site, which would produce about 49.99 megawatts of electricity.

Sheila Stoakes, whose family farm the land, said money from the solar farm would ensure it could be kept for future generations.

She said her family was happy that it could make a "meaningful contribution to combatting climate change" by allowing their land to generate electricity for renewable energy company Low Carbon.

The Environment Agency, Highways England and South Oxfordshire District Council's climate action lead officer said they had no objections to the Harlseford solar farm.

The authority's conservation officer said it would result in "less than substantial harm" to the countryside.


Vaccination skeptics now looking at climate too

Groups spreading misinformation about Covid-19 lockdowns and vaccines are starting to use the same language to spread conspiracy theories about climate change, experts have warned.

As the impact of the pandemic and need for restrictions begins to wane, Covid-19 conspiracy theorists are starting to use terms such as “green lockdowns”, according to analysts at the the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.

The term refers to the belief that, in future, people will be regularly forced to stay at home and restrict their travel and social contacts to reduce carbon emissions and tackle climate change.

Ciaran O’Connor, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), told the PA news agency that coronavirus misinformation on topics such as vaccines and lockdowns could evolve to focus on climate policy.

Mr O’Connor said conspiracy groups “will frame” climate policy as a “loss of civil liberties and loss of freedoms”.

“If you think about the Covid protest movements – be it anti-mask, anti-lockdown, or anti-vaccines – the branding and the language that’s been used by these kinds of conspiracy units has always been around,” he said.

“This is a civil liberties argument.

“The climate dialogue, rhetoric and discussion is gonna be rolled into that kind of civil liberties discussion, I think (that) is where you’re going to see a lot of these groups go.”

Dr Jonathan Bright, an associate professor at the Oxford Internet Institute, agreed, adding that there “could be more activity” from climate conspiracy groups in 2022.

“I think people are going to be thinking about climate change misinformation quite a lot,” Mr Bright told PA.

The experts were also concerned that conspiracy groups and communities have traded mainstream platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter for Telegram – a platform with comparatively relaxed content guidelines.

“Telegram has… taken a very robust ‘we’re not interested approach’ to any media pressure to get it to moderate its content,” Dr Bright said.

Mr O’Connor added: “Telegram has become the platform of choice for far-right, extreme right wing groups, for conspiracy communities, (and) for extremist communities in general. Facebook and YouTube… they do have community guidelines, they do enforce them.

“Telegram takes largely a hands off approach to this. They have bare bones terms of service. That means that essentially they only take down threats of violence and child pornography and things like this.

“What that means is that Telegram is a safe space for conspiracy communities.”


My other blogs. Main ones below

http://dissectleft.blogspot.com (DISSECTING LEFTISM )

http://edwatch.blogspot.com (EDUCATION WATCH)

http://pcwatch.blogspot.com (POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH)

http://australian-politics.blogspot.com (AUSTRALIAN POLITICS)

http://snorphty.blogspot.com/ (TONGUE-TIED)


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