Yesterday the Scottish Greens disgraced themselves and let Scotland down; they voted against a publicly-owned National Energy Company. But their critics are wrong to say they have sold their souls cheap – for being a good boy Patrick Harvie is to be allowed a shot of Humza’s scooter (though he has to supply his own flunky to run behind with a clipboard).
I am absolutely cynical about the coalition deal and my suspicion that it is mainly about providing Sturgeon’s clearly failing government with impunity from real scrutiny has hardly lessened. The SNP leadership was just overwhelmingly defeated on this subject at its own party conference but the Greens have just handed them immunity.
This is difficult for me. On a personal and professional level I like and respect quite a few of the Green politicians. But actions matter and their new anti-public-energy coalition with the SNP and the Tories is not something you shrug off.
The Scottish Greens have backed a publicly-owned National Energy Company for a long time; it was only in June that Lorna Slater wrote a piece titled “Why Scotland urgently needs a public energy company”. The ease with which they U-turned is startling.
I waited to write this until I could get some grip on their justification – they spent a long time hiding in their tree hut and refusing to answer the tin-can-on-a-string Sturgeon has provided them for the purpose of communicating with the outside world. They should have kept it up because their explanation is really pitiful. Apparently by ‘urgently needs a public energy company’ they really meant ‘eventually want a load of wee, local energy companies’.
This is a complex subject but let me try to explain quickly why this response is so pitiful.
First, the motion they voted against was on the immediate energy price crisis (which is very real). Greatly simplified, the way retail gas works is that you pay upfront for a certain proportion of the gas in the gas mains which is then yours to sell on. If you buy too much gas and you can’t sell it, you make a loss. If you buy too little gas and can’t take on new customers, you can’t grow.
And this forward pricing of gas hedges costs in complicated ways – the price you buy at and the price you sell at are regulated differently so if you bought ‘too expensive’ but are forced to sell ‘too cheap’ for the remainder of the allocated period, you have to shoulder the loss.
This is why right across Britain the small energy suppliers are the ones going under – it’s because they can’t successfully hedge the risk in the way big companies do. The design of the UK market is such that small players are only viable if energy prices remain fairly steady.
The chances of any kind of shift to a healthy market of localised energy suppliers in Scotland happening over the next five years is negligible. The Greens know this.
So lots of small municipal services are fundamentally the wrong way to go (if you’re stuck in Britain at least) and so won’t happen. And if the Greens are talking about moving to renewable heating, here the fantasy accelerates.
Currently the policy on district heating is next to meaningless for anything other than new housing developments – retrofitting district heating is very expensive and cash-starved local authorities are being given next to nothing to fund this move. The Greens know this; there is no chance of local authorities being able to develop renewable heating networks for existing buildings.
So their ‘municipal’ energy companies won’t sell gas and can’t sell renewable heating. The market for electricity is very similar to that for gas and has the same problems. Let me put it like this; the chances of any kind of shift to a healthy market of localised energy suppliers in Scotland happening over the next five years is negligible. The Greens know this.
They cite Nordic countries which do have municipal energy. This is a perfect example of knowingly and deliberately misdirecting people. Sure they do, but that is after many, many decades of development of strong, well-funded local government which has always provided this service. The comparison means nothing for Scotland.
And fundamentally, a National Energy Company also needs to commission and own generating capacity. This is both how it hedges the risk in the retail market and also the only way Scotland is ever going to get renewable manufacturing jobs. Wishing there were municipal companies to fulfil this role is just wishing.
Oh, plus this is all based on a detailed proposal by Common Weal which has an entire component of it which is about decentralised local control of energy. The Greens know this because we briefed them in detail. They know all of the above. That’s what makes this so cynical.
Patrick Harvie inherited a party with seven per cent of the vote and seven politicians. After 15 years of tireless Tweeting and selfless grandstanding he managed to drag the party up to a whopping eight per cent in the polls and eight MSPs (and that was mainly down to all the world’s climate scientists, a Swedish school girl and tactically-minded independence supporters).
I think the smart money now must be for him to pull off the full Nick Clegg and destroy the party he failed to build. Seriously, what now is the difference between a Green backbencher and an SNP backbencher?
I absolutely knew they’d start selling out, that they’d have no option but to sell out. But so soon? So completely? So cravenly? I hope Patrick’s shot on Humza’s scooter is worth it.