Here comes the sun – and fuel poverty

So the EU election results show, more or less as predicted, an increasing polarisation between broadly globalist and broadly nationalist people. As in the USA, this trend is worrying for long-term civil peace, but is probably inevitable because their respective visions for society are, truly, incompatible.

One of the clear trends, worldwide, is the feeling of disenfranchisement especially (though not exclusively) by poor working people who feel unrepresented by increasingly “progressive” career politicians, by media both traditional and social, by arts and entertainment, by big business both traditional (as in oil, banks and pharmaceuticals) and modern (as in Silicon Valley oligarchs), by state education and academia, and even by the churches following every wind of moral change.

For those with a more critical interest, the list would also include the hugely wealthy private philanthropic foundations, the NGOs, the scientific professional bodies and the supra-national organisations, of little obvious relevance to the working class, but which basically share around the same privileged individuals and the same apparently limitless funds to shape the world to their wills. Last year’s green activist is this year’s solar-panel entrepreneur, and next year’s UN policy adviser and simultaneously research director of a vast philanthropic foundation.

The problem with that, politically, is that however ordinary people might vote for change, all those institutions will tend to remain the same, and will certainly not give up their unprecedented global power willingly. You don’t have to read dystopian novels to foresee either iron-fisted totalitarian control of the masses or violent rebellion (though it helps).

Actual poverty is an underestimated cause of populism, which not only underlies, but focuses the ordinary man’s attention on, more frequently cited matters like concerns over mass-immigration, national sovereignty, free speech and so on. One major cause of economic deprivation is fuel poverty, defined as spending 10% or more of income on fuel, and this is almost entirely the result of environmental policies that have been imposed at national, regional and international levels to fight promised climate disaster. Public attention tends to be diverted from this as a cause because it’s inconvenient to admit a worsening situation with no prospect of solution.

To give one small example of such obfuscation, UK government has spent public money on various enquiries into the alleged profiteering of energy companies, in the light of escalating prices, all of which have so far shown no wrongdoing. But in fact ministers well know that most of the increases are due to the costs of switching to renewable wind and solar power, the enormous costs of adapting the grid to cope with their unpredictably intermittent supply, the cost of conversion of power stations from cheap American coal to expensive American hardwood biomass, the cost of building a network of polluting diesel generators for when sun and wind fail, and so on. The enquiries serve only to divert attention from the realities, of which most people have no suspicion.

This is comparable to the shock-horror discovery of diesel car particulate pollution, which led to a range of costly disincentives to car-owners who had bought diesels in order to be green, but which was actually known to government years in advance of the promotion of diesel. The excess urban respiratory deaths from diesel were seen as a necessary price for “sustainable development.” The VW scandal of emissions fraud simply changed the disinformation priorities for government, finally coalescing into the present drive for electric cars, currently no less carbon-saving than conventional cars, but adding to the future problem of recycling energy-hungry rare-element batteries.

Perhaps the excess winter deaths, hard to estimate but probably over 10,000 in the last, warm, winter here and increasing year on year, are also a necessary price for green energy. The issues of climate change and overpopulation are inextricably linked by all kinds of eminent environmentalists so perhaps the final solution to both problems is the same, to them.

A good source for chapter and verse on the economics of green fuel policy is Rupert Darwall’s Green Tyranny, which I actually bought primarily to explore how the social progressivism of cultural Marxism might be linked to the environmental agenda. They don’t seem closely linked conceptually, except that the same kinds of people are activists for both. The book delivers on that – documenting nicely the transition of New Left “sixty-eighter” students, inspired by the Frankfurt School and Herbert Marcuse, from left-wing violence to “proper jobs” (once terrorism failed in the late 70s), founding the Green Party in Germany and going on from there to take over the NGOs, the EU and so on. Fascinating story.

Analysing the failures of green economics is a bonus of the book for me, though it only confirms what I have learned from other sources about energy policy in Germany, Australia, the UK and America, in particular.

In all these countries, renewables were sold as “free energy,” but as prices escalated (since they are intrinsically as well as actually uneconomic), more people moved into fuel poverty. 10% of British households were in this category in 2015, and it will not have improved since.

Germany’s radical energy policy, Energiewende, has been a famous disaster, and between 2011 and 2015, 300,000 German households had their electricity supplies cut off annually for non-payment. The fact that the Greens did so well in the EU elections there is mysterious, though in Germany fuel poverty tends to lead to shame and disengagement from society.

Against the grain of US energy-richness (and decreased CO2 production) from fracking, California’s green policies have benefited the coastal rich, impoverished the lower middle class of the interior, and made it a net-importer of energy from other states. It has the highest number of billionaires, but when cost of living is taken into account, the highest poverty rate in America. It’s no surprise if Mark Zuckerberg’s opinions count for more than those of a single mother in Mendota.

One aspect of the Australian picture is interesting. There, as elsewhere, domestic solar power was kick-started by subsidised panels, and excess electricity could be sold back to the grid as a feed-in tariff, further offsetting costs. In effect, what this means is that people able to afford the outlay of solar panels (and possessing their own roofs!) are subsidised by those who cannot, whether from general taxation or, as in the UK, by increased electricity prices.

The initial effect of solar power policy in Australia, as predicted, was a markedly decreased reliance on the grid by solar panel owners, whose installations had been subsidised by the rest. But as time went by, poorer non-solar customers  facing fuel poverty (who had already subsidised them) were forced to use less energy by switching off their air-conditioning and so on. Meanwhile, solar-users, enjoying cheaper energy, began to use more electricity, until at some point the lines crossed, and solar-users were using more grid electricity, and hence causing more emissions, than those without.

Darwall explains, from a close examination of the way power grids work in terms of supply and demand, how feed-in tariffs almost inevitably price solar energy higher than its actual value at the time of maximum sunlight and minimum consumption (and of course, it cannot be economically stored). So once again, the profit of the well-off comes at the cost of artifical extra cost to everyone else.

The similar UK situation may “improve” imminently, as HM government are discontinuing feed-in payments for new solar-panel owners – ostensibly it’s because panels are cheaper (made in China using fossil fuels and CFCs – another nail in the coffin for Germany, which falsely expected 300,000 green jobs from Energiewende.) But existing users will still benefit for 20 years. And that leads to one moral dilemma for me, as my church, which had to be rebuilt after a fire 10 years ago, embraced environmental concerns throughout the planning stage and since: it’s a great witness if we save the planet as well as souls, yes? We have a silver environmental badge, and are going for gold this year.

Amongst our energy-saving measures we have a roofful of solar panels, advertising to the community our green credentials, and incidentally making our electricity bills very cheap. I’ve not checked recently, but I believe we have sold a significant amount of our surplus back to the energy supplier.

But actually, what that means is that we are contributing to pushing the poorest people in our nation into fuel poverty. More and more people are likely to fall into that category as fuel prices increase, for they show no indication of slowing as more and more money is invested in inefficient renewables and the fossil-fuel infrastructure is dismantled, whilst the nuclear option is stagnant. We are talking in terms of trillions of taxpayer pounds.

But how many churches are going to explore the issue enough to swim against the tide of fashionable opinion? Is it more important to be environmentally friendly, or to avoid exploiting the poor? We could, I guess, donate our feed-in profits to good causes – but first I have to persuade my fellow-leaders that there are some dodgy economics at work behind what we’re told in the news.

Of course, this ignores the fact that the most severe fuel poverty actually exists in undeveloped countries, now forbidden fossil-fuel investment by the western powers and dependent on hand-outs of Chinese solar panels from philanthriopists, or the burning of their local forests in open fires. Several million people a year are currently dying of this, I understand, and their votes count for even less than our working class’s. You don’t get the aid if you don’t toe the western line.

Are we really so certain that global warming will be catastrophic that creating a huge, voiceless and impoverished worldwide underclass is a price worth paying? Better ask some of those Silicon Valley billionaires, if you can somehow get a seat at their table.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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3 Responses to Here comes the sun – and fuel poverty

  1. Ben says:

    Most environmentalists seem to think there are too many people on the planet anyway. So people dying due to energy policy is probably a serendipitous side-effect.

  2. Avatar photo GD says:

    The great tragedy stems from the fact that (analysis by the IEA and promoted by the Stern Report from the UK) id energy efficiency measures were/are adopted in generation and use, emissions would have fallen by about 40% and prices would have stabilised with reliable fossil fuelled new generation plant – and closing aging crappy plant that was planned to be closed (for crying out loud).

    The disastrous situation we may face is higher cost for power, unabated increases in emissions, and an accelerated uptake of inefficient options. What foolishness, the human species.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Ben, George,

      What foolishness, the human species.

      True, and yet without the foolishness of government, big money and so on, quite a lot of problems get sorted out.

      A particular foolishness is the quite prevalent idea that the world would work best with <1 billion humans. Even if they dared to suggest a way of killing off the other 5 billion, it's hard to imagine that even depriving the whole world of electricity would achieve it.

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