Top govt advisor attacks Big Power

Simpson: Local hero
Simpson: Local hero

The UK is in the grips of a power cartel, says an insider from the governing UK Labour Party.

That cartel actively hinders the fight against global warming by lobbying for its own narrow commercial interests at the cost of local democracy and the future health of the planet.   It’s an argument that off-gridders and anti-capitalist campaigners will be familiar with. It’s not really what you expect to hear from an advisor to Her Majesty’s Government. Yet it is precisely the belief of Alan Simpson, who occupies a place close to the heart of political power in Britain as  energy advisor to the Secretary of Energy and Climate Change, Ed Miliband and Member of Parliament for Nottingham South.

National Grid is outdated

“The national grid is monumentally inefficient as an energy system,’ he said. “It was a half-decent idea for the middle of the last century, but 70 to 80 per cent of energy put into the grid disappears before you or I even switch the light on.” “We need not an energy, but a power revolution that takes control from the centre and literally puts power back into the hands of the people,” he continued. The UK generated just 6MWp from solar sources last year while Germany produced 1500 MWp and Spain 2511 MWp. The reasons for the UK’s poor performance are to do with civil servants’ desire to retain central control allied with the commercial interests of ‘Big Power’, claimed Simpson.

“There are arguments that the grid can’t handle more than 20% renewable energy for technical reasons. But that can be easily overcome. Look at Germany, their solar industry is 250 times ours and recently at weekends  renewables were generating up to 90% of their electricity.”

Feed-in-Tarrifs (FiTs)

Simpson made his eye-opening claims at an event organised this week by UK solar company Solar Century to lobby for an increase in the proposed ‘Feed-In tariff’ –the amount paid for electricity sold to the grid by domestic producers. Next April the UK government plans to introduce feed-in tariffs of 5 pence per unit (kilowatt hour), plus a subsidy of 36.5 pence per unit generated off-grid –in small solar and wind-powered installations. Simpson argued that these levels provide only a 5%-7% return on investment in solar panels which is not high enough to kick-start the UK solar energy industry. He called for the FiT to be set at a minimum of 10p which would provide closer to a ten per cent return. And he said we don’t need to look to the Middle East to see the link between energy and politics, because its here in our own back yards. Calling for a decentralised power generation system in which individual homes and local areas generate much of the UK’s power, he said: “current energy policy in the UK is dominated by the vested interests of ‘Big Power’ (the six utility companies that dominate UK electricity generation).”

He said that civil servants have been trying to water down feed-in tariffs designed to boost the deployment of renewable energy in the UK and he accused them of “delaying” and “frustrating” their introduction. The FiT will be available for installations of up to 5Mw. But he revealed that initially the big power companies wanted the tariff to be available only for systems that generated less than 50kw. He argued that every other country that has introduced a reasonable FiT has seen demand for solar energy rise exponentially.

Big power scammers

Simpson described carbon off-setting as a “scam” and rejected both nuclear and clean coal as sensible options. “Clean coal and nuclear will not get us out of this mess. Neither will deliver anything towards the 2020 targets for renewable energy. Both revolve around big corporate interests requiring heavy subsidies that will have to be paid in direct or concealed terms.“ A key plank of the ‘clean coal’ argument is carbon capture which he described as “unsafe” and “uneconomic”. “If the roof caves in on any of those storage facilities, the earth will be left farting CO2 on an unprecedented scale,” he said. He went on to call for new financial instruments to help the transition to renewable energy such as green mortgages for off-grid energy, financed by energy savings. Earlier this year he proposed that the government should put £100bn into a Green Infrastructure Bank and issue long-dated Green bonds that pension funds and insurance companies could transfer assets into. Cynics say that the reason Simpson can be so outspoken is that as a Labour MP he expects to be voted out of power within a few months. However, the record shows that he has consistently criticised government energy policy.

MP who is off-grid ready

He is certainly one of very few British MPs to put his money where his principles are. Four years ago he spent £100,000 on a derelict building in Nottingham’s Lace Market area and another £200,000 giving it a thorough green make-over.

No jokes about claiming for it on expenses please. He refurbished the south-facing roof with solar panels that now provide his home with around 75 per cent of its power. Inside, is a micro-combined heat and power (CHP) generator, producing electricity at the same time as it heats the house. Internals walls are made from compressed recycled straw and insulated with recycled cardboard tubes.

Labour but ashamed of his party

In his talk Simpson chastised the Labour government for its feckless embrace of free-market economics. “Over the past 20 years we have had a government that bought into the Chicago School of economics, it was a culture that made itself beholden to markets. Free markets are innately flawed. ….We have an oligopoly not a free market.” His first view of energy as a problem was gained through the prism of community work when he began campaigning on behalf of the ‘fuel poor’. He is on record as saying that the experience opened his eyes to what he regards as an inextricable link between domestic energy consumption and climate change. Simpson’s politics provide a glimpse of the sort of progressive thinking the Labour party could have adopted when it abandoned its traditional socialist approach for Tony Blair’s New Labour in the early nineteen nineties. “I’m a left over hippy from the 60’s,” he told the assembled suits. “Here we have an opportunity to influence huge change.” Lets grasp it.

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