Brexit, the Frankenstein child disowned by its creators

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dw_ulkzwwaa0jed The Guardian view of the no lobby after the vote….also the first of the paper’s “spot the fool competitions”

I came across a comment somewhere online comparing the UK parliament to a bunch of seven year olds. I immediately reported this comment to the moderators, as its grossly unfair…..to seven year olds!

This week the government suffered one of the worst defeats in UK history as May’s brexit deal was put to the house. Inevitably many pro-remain MP’s voted against this, no surprise there. But so also did many of the brexiteers! Like the Frankenstein monster, the brexiteers created this monstrosity and now having glimpsed their creation, they’ve recoiled in horror and disowned it. But yet, still it lives and it stalks the realm.

The funny thing is that most of those who voted in favour of May’s deal were the releaver block within the Tory party. These being…

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North sentinel Island – a case study in first contact

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Late last year, there was the story about a young missionary who, with Darwin award levels of foolishness, landed on North Sentinel Island, an Island populated by an uncontacted tribe known to shoot dead any intruders. And I’m pretty sure, even if you’ve not read the news, you can guess what happens next. And unfortunately, that was really the only outcome that could have come from this foolishness.

They speak a language nobody else can understand, how was he supposed to preach the good word to them? He’d have had to teach them English, then reading and writing from scratch. Then, after several years, bring up the topic of Jesus. And given that they have no immunity to outside diseases, chances are that rather a few of them would die from infection during this process.

The North Sentinelese has survived for so long precisely because they shoot any white guys on sight, while other tribes who were friendly got robbed, enslaved or colonised by white guys (makes you wonder whether the native Americans should have attacked the pilgrims on sight rather than breaking bread with them).

However, the North Sentinelese also serve as a useful case study in the handling of first contact events. Which leads one towards an interesting thought experiment in terms of how any advanced alien species would react to humans.

When one civilisation encounters another civilisation it tends to work out badly for the less advanced civilisation. However, I’d add the caveat, but only if the more advanced civilisation is white (as noted earlier) and only if they had something worth stealing. The reason why north Sentinel Island wasn’t been coercively colonised back during the British Empire days is because it holds nothing of value. Hence it was overlooked.

The same is likely to be true of earth. There is little or nothing that is unique to this planet that would be of interest to any aliens (other that piles and piles of our pollution and rubbish). Even within this solar system, you can find far greater reserves of anything you’d care to mention on other planets. Hydrocarbons? You’d want to go to Titan which has literally lakes of the stuff. Metals? The asteroid belt contains thousands of metal rich asteroids that each contain more metal than humans have ever mined in our entire history. Hydrogen or Helium? The gas giants.

In short any aliens advanced enough to make it to our solar system will also have the technology to harvest whatever they need from these planets without having to deal with the troublesome natives on this planet. And of course, why bother coming to this system in the first place, when they are plenty of nearby systems with similar (or even greater) resources.

Its often assumed that aliens would hide their presence from us (the so-called “zoo hypothesis”). But as North Sentinel shows, we don’t hide our presence from them. They’ve encountered helicopters and have probably seen the contrails of passing airliners. And ships have been wrecked on the Island often enough that, while I doubt the Islanders have access to twitter, they are almost certainly aware of the outside world and that we can make these large metally things…..course they’re probably wondering how we power them and hoping we’re using some sort of sustainable resource to do so (whose the more advanced species? Us or them, a future energy supply crunch might say otherwise).

But either way, the same is true for any alien species. They have no reason to hide themselves. And frankly it would be very difficult for them to try. Likely we’d have been first detected centuries ago by long range instruments, not too dissimilar to instruments we are now ourselves developing and deploying. So its difficult to see how an advanced alien species can hide themselves. Plus, as our unfortunate god boy shows, someone in any society will break the rules and would have let the cat out of the bag already.

Would they not be fearful of attack by us? Ya and how are we going to do that? They live hundreds (or more probably thousands) of light years away. Even if they had a ship in orbit and even if Trump fired off ICBM’s at them, these are sub-orbital missiles designed to hit a large static target (city sized!) on the ground, while a space ship is going to be moving at orbital velocities (or higher!), which will have little difficulty seeing a missile coming towards it and just manoeuvre out of the way. And that’s assuming it lacks some sort of active defence system (e.g. some sort of CIWS, or who knows laser-blasters and deflector shields).

Trying to attack such a craft with our primitive weaponry would make about as much sense as, well the North Sentinelese firing arrows at a hovering helicopter. And for the record, it would be a bad idea to shoot at them, given the consequences if they decide to shoot back. Space warfare, distinctly favours the species who holds the high ground of space. Quite apart from the fact that they have the option of simply leaving and coming back later with an even larger force.

So long as our aliens don’t do something incredibly stupid, such as land in Texas walk up to some MAGA hat wearing red neck and ask if they can make out with his prize steer, they are pretty safe. Which raises the other question, would they want to talk to us? This is a common trope in sci-fi, aliens land on the white house lawn to open up dialogue. But, even when we ignore the language barrier (you think North Sentinel Island is bad? Try talking to an alien…assuming that actually “talk” at all!) what would there be to discuss? We have nothing of value for them, why would they want to trade with us or have diplomatic relations?

And why they want to give us access to their technology? That’s likely to end two ways, either we figure out how it works and use it against them. Or, given the mess we’re making down here with the technology we’ve got, it blows up in our faces. Furthermore its reasonable to assume that the technology of any advanced interstellar species (who has access to the resources of not just one planet but multiple ones across multiple star systems) will be fairly resource hungry, probably beyond out abilities to operate. After all, ships have been wrecked on North Sentinel Island, and while the locals have scavenged the metal, they certainly aren’t trying to reverse engineer this technology and built a metal hulled diesel power ship of their own.

So any such encounters would be a lose-lose from the aliens point of view, with the added bonus of running the risk of someone shooting them. Certainly some of their scientists might want to study human culture, but given that we’re broadcasting that out into space 24/7 there’s no real need to pay a visit. Hell, they could be reading this blog post right now (which is why I for one welcome our new alien overlords). And of course there is, like North Sentinel Island, the risks of cross contamination to content with. They don’t want our nasty diseases, nor do we wish to be exposed to theirs, against which we will have no immunity.

Given that, as far as we know, we’ve never seen aliens yet, this leads us to the conclusion that aliens haven’t visited because they are either too far away and/or that making long distance space flights (between stars) is just incredibly difficult and borders on the impossible. Although, as I discussed before while this makes any contact unlikely, it doesn’t rule it completely. But it also does, as this vlog post from a sci-fi author discusses, raise a number of unsettling possibilities (that virtual reality technology gives little incentive for space flight, AI’s and Von Neumann‘s running amok, the great filter, etc).

As Arthur Clarke once said “we are either alone in the universe, or we’re not, both are equally terrifying“.

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Japan and the whale: A case study in how ideology wrecks ecosystems

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Seeing a government pursue bad policies is bad enough, but what is worse is when they do so for no good reason. Just pure ideology and pigheaded unwillingness of politicians to admit they might be wrong. Issues such as gun control in the US or climate change denial are good examples, as is brexit in the UK. However, there is perhaps no greater example of this sort of behaviour than Japan’s obsession with wanting to hunt whales. So much so, they’ve just announced their intention to resume whale hunting.

The Japanese will claim that whale hunting is a vital part of their culture and whale meat has long been a part of the Japanese diet. Neither is entirely true. While a handful of coastal communities in Japan have historically hunted whales, they did so only occasionally and usually opportunistically (e.g. if sick whales came close to land and often focusing on the smaller whale species rather than those in the deep ocean).

Large scale whale hunting by the Japanese only really started in the late 19th century, becoming a major industry only in the post-war period (ironically it was initiated by the Americans who were then occupying Japan at the time), until whale hunting was effectively banned some decades later by the IWC. So its a “tradition” with a relatively short and recent history, related to a period when the country was under military occupation.

Furthermore, it doesn’t make a lot of money, nor did it ever. Its heavily subsidised by the state, to the tune of tens of millions per year. And for the record, Japan never really stopped whale hunting. After the ban they took to hunting whales for the purposes of “scientific research”….which has concluded, after extensive research (again, funded by the state), that firing exploding harpoon’s into whales does in fact kill them.

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And whale consumption in Japan is tiny and has been in decline for some time now. Only a tiny fraction of Japan’s meat consumption is whale meat, less that 30g per person per year in fact (about 0.2% of average meat consumption per year….in a country where meat consumption is relatively low). Large amounts of it are actually left unsold.

Most whale meat in fact ends up being served to school kids….who don’t eat it! Either because they don’t like it, or they (or their parents) are aware how unhealthy it is, given that its loaded with mercury, pesticide residues, micro-plastics, and all sorts of other nasties. So in short, Japan is spending a lot of money, causing significant environmental damage and wrecking ecosystems just to feed kids toxic chemicals and fill lots of waste bins with discarded whale meat that nobody wants to eat (and probably shouldn’t be eating).

In short its a policy that makes no logical sense, beyond flag waving nationalism (celebrating the time they were under US occupation!). But, as is so often the case with politicians, whale hunting has become a totem for the Japanese, a blood-lust they must satisfy, regardless of the cost, be it to the environment, the government, or the health of their children.

Posted in environment, Global warming denial, history, Japan, news, sustainability | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Corbyn the brexiteer unmasked

daryanblog

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So some labour supporters were shocked to learn last week that Saint Jeremy Corbyn, the lord and saviour, was actually a brexiteer, who has no intention of reversing or stopping brexit. Indeed, even if he gets his early election, he wants labour to campaign on a leave platform. Needless to say this is at odds with what was agreed at the party conference. And the fact that 90% of labour supporters voted remain and 86% of whom want another referendum.

Of course this is only news to those who never googled “corbyn” and “eu”. Or those willing to ignore the fact that he’s voted against every piece of pro-EU legislation that has ever come up. So it should only come as a shock to aliens recently arrived from outer Glaphobia. And the polls now show labour’s lead slipping, even despite the chaos…

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Christmas news

daryanblog

Panto politics

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Christmas time is panto season in the UK and that was on full display. Corbyn might (or might not) have called May “a stupid woman” (I could call her much worse things!…and he’s a fu*king moron since we’re talking about it) prompting the Tories to waste an entire day of parliamentary time playing “oh yes you did, oh no I didn’t” arguing. And recall May recently had an argument with Junker because he called her policy “nebulous” (again I could come up with worse descriptions, fu*king retarded for starters).

I mean seriously, one of the most important decisions in the UK’s recent history and they are wasting time because of  playground name calling. Are they grown adults or kids in a school yard?

In part this has to be blamed I’d argue on the UK’s broken political system. The first past the…

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An elephant whiter than Hinkley looms on the horizon

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Much has been said over the last few years about the Hinkley C project, very little of it positive. It was ill-conceived from the start, the CfD system used to fund it isn’t going to work and by all accounts its likely to become the whitest of white elephants. However, there is another nuclear energy project in the UK, Hitachi’s plans to build a power plant, consisting of two ABMR’s (Advanced Boiling Water Reactors) at Wylfa in North Wales on the Island of Anglesey. Based on the s the site of an old Magnox plant, it will have a peak power output of 2.9 GW’s.

I’ve not talked much about Wylfa for sometime because I’d assumed that this was an entirely paper project that would never go anywhere. Hitachi’s decision to pick up the project (the Horizon project, after the other party’s pulled out back in 2012) was something of a shotgun wedding. Given the virtual halt to nuclear projects in Japan, Hitachi was desperate for someone to sell reactors too. And given the Tories obsession with nuclear (and hatred of renewables), they were anxious for further nuclear energy projects.

Well anyway we seem to be getting mixed signals as to whether or not the plant is actually going to go ahead. Word is that Hitachi is thinking of pulling the plug, much as Moorside was recently cancelled by rival firm Toshiba (some work on site has apparently been halted). But I’m also hearing noises from my sources suggesting that actually it might be going ahead regardless. Which presents something of a problem. Because if you think Hinkley C was crap sandwich, Wylfa is much worse.

Firstly the choice of reactors, Boiling water reactors are a type which has never before been built in the UK. So its going to be slow process in terms of getting them certified, built and commissioned. Also BWR’s are considered to be slightly less safe than PWR’s (or gas cooled reactors) as well as costlier per installed kW.

Now its a minor difference in safety, but you try telling that to the Irish, whose capital (Dublin) is the opposite side of the Irish sea. The Irish could make life very difficult for the British (recall that they’ll need to negotiate a trade deal with the EU post-brexit, which the Irish can veto). So it will be crucial that all safety concerns are addressed without any corners cut. This will naturally delay the project.

Then there’s the more serious issue with the ABWR reactor. To be blunt, they don’t work properly. They’ve shown very poor reliability in service, with capacity factors ranging from 40-70%. As I mentioned in a previous post nuclear is very sensitive to cost increases per MWh if the capacity factor of the plant falls below 90% (which thus rules out using nuclear for anything other than baseload). At 70% the cost per MWh is 25% higher. At 60% its 50% higher and at 50% its 74% higher (ouch!). So this low reliability of the ABWR would make the power from Wylfa cripplingly expensive.

Which is why I’d assumed it would never get built. The UK government’s strike price for nuclear energy is deeply flawed. Largely because it was based on the assumption that renewables such as offshore wind and solar would be significantly more expensive than the strike price and that fossil fuel prices would rise. Neither has turned out to be true. Oh and here’s the kicker, even at the time of peak demand when the price of electricity exceeds the strike price, they have to refund that money to offset the higher price they are normally charging for power.

Hence its possible Hinkley C will lose money on every kWh it generates. Now given that it will be operated by EDF and build by Areva, both state owned companies which the French government sees as basically a jobs program, this isn’t such a big deal. Assuming it is able to achieve a decent enough capacity factor, the losses should be reasonable. And in any event, all EDF UK has to do is go bankrupt once or twice and they can offset those losses (British Energy, who operated the UK’s nuclear reactors before EDF came along, were in and out of the bankrupt courts so often they were practically on first names basis with the judges).

However, for Wylfa this would be crippling. And I mean the investors could easily lose more than their original investment under a similar strike price. Which, again is why I’d assumed it would never go ahead. However, it now turns out the UK government has quietly agreed to put £5 billion worth of taxpayers money into the project.

What’s wrong with that? Well firstly, this represent a significant U-turn, both by the government and the nuclear industry. For years we were told that the nuclear industry didn’t want a subsidy and that none would be provided. Now, have run out of ways to discreetly slip the nuclear industry a few bob, we’ve gone full circle.

And don’t for one minute fool yourself into thinking this subsidy will be limited to £5 billion. In fact, the word coming out of Hitachi (article here in Japanese on this) suggests that they will almost certainly need more money from the UK government (the article even seems to imply 2/3’s of the cost of the plant will be picked up by the UK tax payer) as they are struggling to raise private capital.

Secondly, there has been a lack of debate on this issue. Direct subsidies for one industry over another is blatant favouritism (and would be subject to a possible trade dispute under WTO rules, which recall becomes a big deal if the UK is operating under them alone post-brexit). A similar amount could go a lot further if invested into renewables or energy storage. But with brexit consuming all attention, this one is passing under the radar with no awkward questions asked.

Thirdly, what effectively the Tory government is doing here is privatising profits while socialising risk. The plant will still be owned by a private firm who can charge whatever they like for the electricity (the saving grace for French nuclear plants is that a state own utility owns them, who can be leaned on by ministers to keep electricity prices low). And if the plant ends up a financial failure (which given the reliability issues and likely delays I mentioned is a distinct possibly), its the government who will be out of pocket. How can anyone whose even vaguely familiar with how free markets work (or nuclear power) be in favour of this! But such is the Tories deluded fantasies as regards nuclear.

So by all appearances it looks likely Wylfa will be started, but it will turn into a complete fiasco. With long delays (as it stands it was supposed to be finished and generating power by now!), cost overruns and reactors that when finished will likely prove to be unreliable. And given the falling costs of renewables, its questionable if there will be any market for the power it generates when it comes online in the 2030’s.

Wylfa is a shining example of everything that’s wrong with nuclear energy projects, pushed through by greedy corporate sharks and deluded, ill informed politicians. And neither will ultimately be paying the bill and won’t be living near the mess that they are creating.

Posted in energy, environment, nuclear, power, technology | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

The impact of brexit on the UK’s energy supplies

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Figure 1: Brexit presents many challenges to the energy industry [FP, 2017]

With brexit negotiations more or less complete and the post-brexit landscape a little clearer (well as clear as its going to get anyway!), it might a good time to review the likely impact of brexit on the UK’s energy supplies. In a nutshell, the UK, assuming May’s deal stands, will be leaving the single market for energy, ending freedom of movement and leaving Euroatom. No deal essentially means the same but with no negotiated replacement and the UK at odds with Brussels over unpaid bills.

In the short term the UK may face various challenges. For example balancing the grid in the event that say, we are cut off from European energy supplies (due to a no-deal brexit, or because of a disagreement over the UK’s exit bill). Longer term there is the issue of not just meeting the UK’s rising energy demand, but also meeting the commitments it is legally bound by under the terms the Paris climate accords.

No Deal, No Gas?

The government does not expect gas supplies to be interrupted post-brexit even in a no deal scenario. Although their logic seems to be more based on the assumption that the EU will honour existing agreements (in a scenario where the UK might not be, worth reading the EU’s preparedness notices on energy on this point as that doesn’t seem to match what the UK is saying).

That said, if gas supplies were interrupted there’s not a lot that can be done anyway. The UK imports 56% of its gas, 47% of it via the EU or from Norway. Recall Norway is a member of the EEA (and a contributor to the EU’s budget and thus will be caught up in events if the UK refuses to pay its exit bill) and has already made clear they what to preserve the integrity of the single market.

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Figure 2: UK gas imports and production [British Gas, 2017]

What about reserves? The UK used to hold 4.3 bcm (billion cubic meters) of gas in reserve (equal to about 14 days supplied at winter demand). However, the decision to close the Rough facility last year, cuts this back to roughly 1.3 bcm, only enough to meet a few days supply.

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Figure 3: The closure of the Rough facility has cut the UK’s gas reserves to some of the lowest in the EU…you somehow they need us more than we need them!

Therefore, any supply interruption, particularly if it occurs in winter, will have an impact relatively quickly. And recall, even in the event of the UK getting a good deal from Brussels, there are other things that can cause supply interruptions (e.g. a certain Mr Putin, putting the boot in). A UK that is not part of the EU club will find its gas needs put at the back end of priorities in the event of any supply interruptions. The UK’s will be a third party at the end of the pipeline, we’ll get what’s left when everyone else has had their share.

And its worth remembering that only does gas supply much of the UK’s winter heating but also 30% of its electricity. And that 30% is crucial to balancing the grid and supplying peaking power in winter, particularly in the south of the country.

As regards electricity, brexit could see disruption to interconnectors with Europe, with Northern Ireland being the worse effected. The government has talked about masses of diesel generators as a solution (in a no deal scenario), but the sheer scale of the problem means that this would be a drop in the ocean. The UK regularly draws 3 GW of power directly from the European grid via undersea cables in the South east of the country.

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Figure 4: UK interconnectors [UK Parliament, 2014]

This is not to say that power cuts (or gas shortages) are a certainty. They will only occur if there is an interruption to supplies and either a sudden jump in demand (e.g. a late winter cold snap) or a large power station unexpectedly goes offline. While I would personally rate the odds of any blackouts as medium to low, the trouble is that if they do occur, there is no short-term solution.

We are looking at a scenario where the country will just have to cope with rolling blackouts for days or even months. Which needless to say would be massively disruptive to the economy (oh and the worse effected part of the country will be the south east…as in London…where the financial markets are based!). Hence why, regardless of the risk, its a good reason to worry about it and take some measures to mitigate it (such building more energy storage…or maybe cancel this brexit business entirely!).

Lasting damage

Longer term brexit will make it harder for the UK to maintain its energy security. For example, you’ll notice in figure 4 there are several new interconnectors planned. Well in order to get those built the UK would need some sort of mechanism to buy and sell the electricity with its neighbours. In the absence of a fully comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU that might prove problematic, meaning nobody is going to invest in such projects. And it seems doubtful they’ll get build (without government support anyway) until a trade deal with the EU is concluded. And its widely expected such talks will stretch well into the 2020’s.

No fracking unicorns

The UK’s oil and gas fields peaked in the late 1990’s and production has fallen by 58% since then. Fracking has been presented as one possible solution. While there is undoubtedly a large shale resource under our feet, there’s a big difference between “resources” and economically viable “reserves. Proving the viability and developing fields will take time, at least a decade or two.

However, given that the UK will be in deficit as regards its carbon commitments post-brexit, committing to fracking will essentially require the UK to renege on the Paris climate accords. One has to question the political consequences of that, both internally and externally. The country could also face legal action, from green groups and/or the private sector.

The UK has only limited experience with fracking and would therefore need to bring in thousands of experienced “roughnecks” (rig workers) from overseas. But many of these would not meet the proposed post-brexit definition of “skilled workers” (they don’t have a degree, their wages fall below the income threshold and employment is rarely fixed). And it’s worth noting that the EU country with the most recent experience in fracking is Romania.

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Figure 5: Holy fracking mules! Fracking operations in Europe (such as this operation in Romania) have been often met with protests [Greenpeace, 2014]

Its also worth considering, that rig work tends to be employed on a journeyman contract basis. They’ll get work for a few months drilling a series of wells, then spend a period either out of work or doing something else (farm work, truck driving, etc.). This doesn’t fit in with the UK’s current immigration policy, which assumes that any workers will come in, remain in one specific job and then leave as soon as its finished (Corbyn in fact wants to go further and have them stick to one particular town or region). Within this context, its hard to see how these skill shortages will be met post-brexit. Thus its unlikely the UK can frack its way to those sunny uplands the brexiters promised.

Going critical

Brexit also presents problems for the nuclear industry. Many of the UK’s nuclear power plants are scheduled to retire in the next few years, creating the twin problem of needing to bring in workers and investment to build and then operate new reactors. Again, quite a lot of these won’t automatically count as “skilled workers”. (not everyone who works at a nuclear plant it a physicist with a white lab coat!). And the UK has long had issues recruiting new talent to this ageing industry.

Furthermore, the UK’s decision to leave Euroatom exacerbates these problems. While the UK is setting up its own equivalent, a recent audit by the ONR rated the UK’s preparations as not fit for purpose in all of the 5 categories of assessment. There is concern that this might lead to shortages of nuclear fuel and isotopes for medical use.

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Figure 6: The UK nuclear industry’s preparedness for brexit, as rated by the ONR [Sky News, 2018]

A Green Brexit?

Renewables would appear to be the way forward, as they’ve grown significantly over the last few years and we don’t need to worry about fuel supplies being cut off. However, renewables is a highly integrated industry (one that basically didn’t exist prior to the emergence of the EU), dependant on parts and labour from across Europe and the wider world. Brexit will create immediate problems within these supply chains.

There is no reason why the UK cannot develop its own renewables industry. However, for sometime now, the Tories have given very mixed signals on renewables, ranging from Trumpian anti-wind rants and rolling back of subsidies, to promising a green brexit

So to get the industry on board, the government would have to signal a firm shift in policy, e.g. a moratorium on fracking, a new carbon tax (mind you, recall the consequences of that for Macron), or an energy transformation road map (similar to those in Germany or Sweden). In the absence of this, it will prove difficult to convince the renewables industry to invest in a post-brexit Britain.

All in all, brexit presents the energy sector with significant challenges, the UK’s fate may no longer be within its own hands. Whether the lights stay on or the country ends up dependant on imports. Or reliant on foreign owned, built and financed energy sources will depend on decisions made in other countries and capitals, notably in Brussels. As far as energy is concerned, the UK has opted not to take control, but to relinquish it.

Posted in clean energy, climate change, economics, energy, environment, EU, fossil fuels, news, nuclear, peak oil, politics, power, renewables, Shale Gas, Shale oil, sustainability, sustainable | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments