Political November…?

A building services engineer takes over the most powerful country in the world? Your President bottles out in the shadow of the UK political class. And the Energy Bill arrives just as DECs risk to all intents and purposes leaving. Thanks to the Counter Terrorism Acts this blog will not mention Guy Fawkes…

We Paramount Leaders
My Chinese student was conspicuously triumphalist this month. His country had changed presidents (OK Paramount Leader) and. it hadn’t cost $4billion. Indeed he noted they had actually changed the President. So a special congratulations from one President to another: to Xi Jinping in taking charge of the People’s Republic of China. I used to joke that there were more qualified engineers on the PRC Politiburo than CEng’s in DTI. The Politburo engineering count is now down to 3, but retirements taken into account, that probably still beats the Department of Business Innovation and Skills. Xi was trained as a chemical engineer, which, of course, is just a building services engineer working with constant pressure and flow rates. Chemical Engineers are not in my experience that hot (sic) on radiative heat transfer so maybe greenhouses gases will still be on the up for a while. Let’s hope not.

The US elections for all their noise never seemed to mention climate change policy at all. OK Disraeli and Palmerston didn’t ever mention the Victorian STD epidemic either, but it didn’t make the diseases go away. Give God some credit for effort. He tries washing out the Republican Primary, and then floods New York but, apart from Mayor Bloomberg, did not get much response. Back in England DCLG lobotomise the Display Energy Certificate, turning it from a management aid to a burden when trying to turn it from a burden to an aid. So, on cue God floods south west England. The Supreme Hon FCIBSE in the sky must be getting frustrated, though making a mental note, that even after a full ten plagues the Pharaohs still did not take much notice …That’s politics for you.

So, given that the largest emitters in the world don’t seem minded to do much about emitting, and therefore the climate will carrying on changing, where did you put your last standby generator? The recent tradition seems to be somewhere where it can go under water. We had seen this in the Houston floods, New Orleans, Fukushima and now it seems in New York. It’s a weird thing. The generator is there because the power supply might fail. But nothing prompts the client brief to ask why that might have happened apart from a substation fuse.  If you think your clients need to refresh how they think about standby, have a look at last February’s Chemical Engineer Today where David Slater (ex-Environment Agency) talks through a smarter way to write risk management briefs.

Slater’s approach is food for thought in an energy uncertain world. The CIBSE Annual Lecture told the energy risk management story in spades. I am a non-executive member of the Ofgem Authority. Its Group Chief Executive suffers my monthly nagging but turned out a star performance that might prompt us to have more than a single paragraph on standby plant in the Guides. Try this out…

In 2010 Ofgem had raised the prospect that environmental rule deadlines would rapidly close old oil gas and coal plant. Since then investors had held back from coming forward. On National Grid’s modelling we now faced zero (yes zero) remaining installed capacity margin in the next few years. Wind and nuclear has simply not progressed as originally expected. May be gas might get squeeze in provide some margin. But UK gas fields were declining very rapidly (as gas fields do) so that would be imports from Norway, may be some from Russia via the continent and LNG. But hold on, just as wind and nuclear had not materialised so pipelines planned a few years ago had disappeared. Germany and Japan were so out of nuclear and into gas it was not true. And where were those LNG tankers sailing in this unstable world…?

I thank Andy Eastwell for a chance to re-run this argument at the BSRIA Briefing held at the Brewery. It is really strange that the Supply Side dominate Whitehall thinking so much. If we really did have brown outs it’s a serious damage to our investment image. But energy suppliers seem disconnected from offering tariffs deals that would help the massive transferable loads in commercial buildings get sight of the capacity payments that could be on offer soon to generators.

Group Lunching/Thinking
I hate to say it, but the real star turn at the Brewery was Andrew Neil. He gave an amusing and urbane guide for we plumbers and venters to the world of politics. Part of his brief was to scope ahead the prospective world changes. That was insightful too, in the sense that it was all recognisable stuff shared amongst the extended political class. It didn’t seem that real to me. President Elect George who had come straight from Hong Kong to the BSRIA Briefing was supposed to ask ‘When will you have anyone on your TV programmes who actually knows about the real world?’ but due to a mix up (entirely my fault) he had used his slot to ask me a smart question in the morning on research.  Faced with Neil in full flow I trembled at the prospect of a skilled riposte, so never asked the question either. A good day by BSRIA ended peacefully.

However, it is a dangerous world when the groupthink of the political class and the groupthink of journalists merging into the Mother of All Group Think-Tank-Thinking. This was the month when allegedly the public lost trust in BBC news coverage. Things might be more cheerful if the BBC Trust (‘the Great and the Good and Useless’ as one commentator called it) could manage to pose the right questions. It was not whether Newsnight dropped an inquiry because a ‘tribute’ was to be run, it was why the ‘tribute’ still ran knowing there was a police inquiry. Indeed the guns seem unfairly focussed on when the BBC tries to meet serious journalism standards not for its slipshod News team daily junk. Plumbers and venters would have taken note of the BBC’s coverage of the new Energy Bill whose impact we are one day going to have to explain to clients. It was a totally incomprehensible collage of talking heads expensive graphics and nonsense numbers. Try Charlie Booker at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtGSXMuWMR4 and you’ll see the point. Hilarious if it wasn’t so true of ‘news channels’.

My upbeat ending comes from the Barclays Skyscraper Index. Barclays have been running a skyscraper index of financial ruin for a while. It’s a better predictor of financial collapses than anything the Office of Budget Responsibility had yet concocted. It is simple. If your property market puts up the tallest building ever you’ll have a crash. There is even a respectable theory behind it. As any services engineer knows, much over 20 stories and diseconomies of height set in, so anything taller is only held up there by the wobbly arms of realtor propaganda. The Shard for a while had cast this dark predictive shadow over London Bridge. Now, with some relief, Moscow Tower has now easily overtaken it as Europe’s tallest building. Then as soon as that happened we had a new smart Governor of the Bank of England. Barclays, that is amazing. So it’s now Russia for the Chop? But wait a minute where did Alistair Buchanan say the Germans got their gas from?


  1. David,

    Some 12 years ago as UKCS gas peaked, I reckoned that Peak Oil would manifest itself as several phases – moving from the chaotic phase, to the crisis phase, to the solutions phase – although the solutions are fairly painful, especially for growth-based industries like finance. In all that I read – even here - about policymaking, the UK is somewhere between chaos and crisis. But because the world at large takes a household view of economics it finds it difficult to understand the relationship between energy and growth – energy is regarded as just another commodity, subject to price variations, neatly disregarding energy profits (ERoEI) because the invisible hand of the market will solve all the problems. That might have been true in a world of relatively expanding resources, but not any more. Until policymakers and businesses depart from the neoliberal economic agenda of the last 30 years, all of the above will have to wait until a crisis occurs.


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