Let me get this straight

So the government wants to end subsidies to wind farms. This is despite the fact, as I’ve pointed out on my energy blog, that onshore wind represents the cheapest form of low carbon energy available. It also means ignoring the fact that the historical subsidies paid out to fossil fuels and nuclear have exceeded those paid out to renewables, by some significant margin.

Yet at the same time the government is willing to throw yet more subsidies at the fossil fuel lobby in an effort to promote fracking. And while they are promising to extend the rights to allow the landed gentry to object to wind farms within visual range of homes, they are going to remove people’s rights to object to fracking. Even if a company wants to frack underneath homes, they won’t having to apply for planning permission.

It has been suggested that being near a wind farm might impact on property prices by an average of 2-5%, or perhaps even 12% in the worse case scenario. Although another study suggests no significant correlation (my take on this is it probably depends, if there’s lots of property available, a buyers market, house prices might be effected as buyers are more choosy, but if the reverse is the case, as it often is in the UK, there’s no effect). However if someone fracks under your home, forget about selling it…..ever! Already some near fracking operations are complaining of this very thing.

And there is significant doubt as to whether the shale gas reserves of the UK are even economically viable, particularly given events in the US, where shale gas operators are loosing their shirts. Already its speculated that US shale gas output might well peak by the end of decade. The Tories are in effect committing the UK to an energy policy in the form of a new dash for gas, but in the blind.

And of course we are supposed to be taking action on climate change. This amounts to a complete U-turn on last 25 years of UK energy policy, one which was launched with little warning, which will probably send the signal (as I speculated in a prior post) to the power industry to halt all investment in energy….keeping in mind that all the fracking in the world will be little use without power plants to burn it in. What the energy industry needs is not some get rich quick scheme, but a long term energy plan for them to work around. These proposals offer no such promises.

Cameron all at sea over Calais migrants

Cameron is angry about events in Calais. He wants the Europeans to come up with a coherent and comprehensive policy on migrant to get around the current patch work of policies, whereby EU states seem to treat migrants in the same way a home owner treats a dead squirrel he found in his garden (picking it up with a shovel and tossing it into the neighbours garden).

However, he’s obviously got some short term memory issues, the EU was working on just such a policy, which he objected too. Why? Because it would see the UK agreeing to accepting a quota of migrants….as opposed to having thousands simply sneak in anyway…..which apparently is better.

This would of course put him at logger head with the UKIP bigot brigade, who were Inevitably foaming at the mouth over this story, wanting to nuke Calais. And of course they claim this proves (as it would seem everything seems to do) why the UK should get out of Europe. Actually its the other way around. The problems at Calais are a result of a lack of EU co-operation on this issue, not too much of it. The UK leaving the EU would simply make the situation worse. What little incentive the French police would have to intercept migrants would cease altogether in such a situation.

The engineer’s view

I was catching up on the latest views from the engineering realm over the last few weeks and I thought it would be useful to reflect on some recent developments.

Perovskite Solar cells
Despite being a £120 billion worldwide business, renewables received very little coverage over the election. And what coverage it did receive involved promises from the Tories to cut subsidies…and give an even bigger subsidy to the nuclear industry! And let’s not even get started on subsidies to the fossil fuel industry which vastly exceed anything ever given to renewables.

Well one innovation getting some recent attention is that of solar cells relying on Perovskite rather than silicon, with a British firm, Oxford PV, at the forefront of developments….well until the Tories run them out of town (you know how pro-business they are!).

What is interesting about the Perovskite panels is that they offer the opportunity for significantly enhanced efficiencies, particularly if used in tandem with a layer of silicon based panels. Also they offer a much lower environmental impact. The environmental impact of solar panels is often exaggerated by critics, who often ignore the fact that far more heavy metals are emitted by fossil fuel plants. That said, there is certainly a desire to cut those numbers further, particularly if the result offers yet another opportunity for major cuts in production costs.

The downside? Most of the world’s Persoviskite is sourced from Russia!

Bladeless Wind turbines
Another innovative idea is bladeless wind turbines. These rely on the principle of resonance to keep the turbines turning, without the need for any blades. This offers the possibility of lower visual impact, greater efficiency and lower costs.

Downsides? Well the technology isn’t very mature and it may prove difficult to scale up these turbines to the levels seen with HAWT’s. But its good to see this sort of research with people thinking outside of the box. However it also shows why subsidies are necessary, at least so long as we are effectively subsidising other energy sources such as fossil fuels and nuclear.

Scrapping the bottom of the railway barrel
Recently Scotrail was rather controversially taken over by the Dutch company, Abellio,….which sounds like a type of stomach complaint you’d get after eating too many Amsterdam space cakes! 😳

Anyway, one of the things that Abellio did was to promise that they’d buy in new trains. However the IMECHE magazine has suggested, as has the Scottish Herald, that quite a few of these will be refurbished Intercity 125’s, a type of British rail era train set. So it would seem a “new” train to the Dutch is to slap a coat of paint on something you’ve pulled out of railway bone yard. Dressing up mutton as lamb doesn’t quite cut it, this is dressing up haggis and calling it caviar!

The IMECHE is of course strongly behind HS2. However in recent additions, they’ve been recognising that there is still scepticism from large sections of the public. However they do point out that the major question critics fail to answer is, if not HS2 what else? The UK has an antiquated and inefficient railway system that most Eastern European countries would be ashamed of.

Continuing the current policy of sticky plasters on a leaky dam isn’t going to cut it. New lines have to be built to ease overcrowding, as well a long delayed completion of countrywide electrification (yes less than half of the UK’s railway network is electrified!). New trains need to be bought in to increase speeds, relieve overcrowding and provide greater comfort. Stations need to be upgraded, after all we’re still using an infrastructure largely designed by the Victorians when the population was a fraction of today’s.

In short, its time for some difficult and ultimately expensive spending decisions to be made. Or we’ll be still being trucked around on creaky overcrowded railway carriages older than the majority of the people sitting in them.

Brexit may mean bis-exit
And of course the general view of the engineering community to Brexit would be something along the lines of “have the rest of you gone mad or what?”. EU membership is crucial to trade. While it is true that the head of JCB did back Brexit, this was taken by many of his colleagues as a sign that he’s slightly out of touch.

The pro-exit camp are often deluded into thinking that the UK is so important to the EU that we can drive a hard bargain and get a better deal with the EU (and other countries) outside the union, for example pointing to the large amounts of cross channel trade, about 50% of UK overseas trade is with the EU, about £11.8 bn in exports and £19.7 bn in imports.

However this has to put in the context of the EU’s total trade of 1.7 trillion euro’s and imports of 1.6 trillion. Yes UK trade with the EU might be worth 50% of our trade, but its just 1% of the EU’s total trade!

In the event of a break down in negotiations post Brexit, who do you think will blink first? the British delegation worried about losing 50% of trade, or the EU worried about losing 1%? The UK will be over a barrel in such negotiations, as they will also find themselves when negotiating with the US or China. Merkel could force Cameron to endure some sort of bush-tucker trial and he’d happily eat frogs legs or snails, perhaps get him to drink that awful Berliner Kindl beer, and yet he’d still sign anything they put in front of him. He’d have no choice.

Already there are signs that businesses are positioning themselves for Brexit. In the back pages of the engineering mag’s you’ll hear all sorts of stories, for example that Jaguar is building new factories, not in the UK (while the Castle Bromwich site is full, they’ve plenty of space at other sites) but overseas in Asia, Turkey or the EU. And this is by no means a one off, what’s left of UK automotive manufacturing would be in dire straits in the event of Brexit. Rolls Royce and Airbus, have not been quiet about their views on Brexit and its again worth noting that they seem to be either holding off on key investment decisions or have already decided to build new factories overseas. Even today’s announcements regarding HSBC had a Brexit angle.

The danger of course being, that all of these move will leave major corporations with essentially one foot already out of the UK, making it very easy for them to simply move completely out of the UK if (as predicted) there are major issues post an EU referendum.

Back to 1992
Cameron was elected Tory leader on the promise that he would stop the party “banging on about Europe”.

Well at this week’s G8…..or is it now the G7 again…. world leaders were busy discussing the crises in Ukraine, Libya and Syria, the refugee crises that has resulted, the possibility of Grexit, the great sand wall of China and climate change. Meanwhile Cameron spent much of the G7 leaving the room to argue with his own MP’s over Europe. And Farage, perhaps feeling left out, decided to have a go at the Americans (Obama has made it clear that US/UK relations will suffer if the UK leaves the EU, something Farage has more or less helped to confirm).

I recall warning anyone who voted Tory (or UKIP) that you better like Europe because you’re going to be hearing about it alot for the next five years and not a lot else. Its like 1992 all over again. If this is what the next few years are going to be like perhaps Cameron should just resign and we can have John Major back!

We of the tiny house
One environmental movement that has been growing in recent years has been the push for greener and more energy efficient homes. The UK’s building account for 42% of the country’s energy consumption, thus anything that cuts the carbon footprint of houses is going to have a dramatic impact. German or Scandinavian style “passivhaus” buildings offer dramatic energy savings, with a house that potentially needs no central heating system, yet is still comfortable and warm in winter.

And some are going further from zero carbon homes, to houses that actually generate energy or homes build from low impact recycled materials. Its a concept started off by the so-called “earthship” movement of the 1970’s, which is now starting to go mainstream.

Another more recent development is the Tiny house movement. These seek to build very small and compact homes. By building a house small you are obviously greatly reducing the home’s environmental footprint. While not everyone’s cup of tea (I won’t mind one, but I’d use it as a weekend cottage up in the Highlands), they do come with the advantage of much shorter lead times, lower costs and that they can be built on much smaller sites and literally squeezed into places you couldn’t normally fit a house. A documentary internet film discusses the movement and its ideas here.

However in the US and Canada, the authorities have taken a dim view of these environmental movements, no doubt convinced “green home” means hippies growing BC bud, while Tiny house means “trailer trash“. They’ve been cracking down on such building projects and blocking planning. Of course green buildings have been here before, the Earth ship movement faced similar difficulties in the 70’s.

But so much for the land of the free! And whatever you do, don’t park a Tesla outside that Tiny house (they’ve been banned too!), they’d probably waterboard you! Clearly this just shows that Republicans are the biggest hypocrites on the planet. Perhaps the tiny house people should just put a gun rack on the roof, mount the home on wheels and call it an SUV. They’d probably get a subsidy for that in texas!

Sodom and Houston
Speaking of which, in addition to banning Tesla’s for being too good to the environment and stopping the climate change that isn’t happening. But if it is, its caused not be greenhouse gases, but by Sodomy. A piece from Texas radio in which some bible thumping hick blames recent flooding in Houston on “sodomy”.

Seriously? I assume in this context “Sodomy” means them city folk with their fancy mobile phones, “rock and roll”, that thing called “the internet” and “DVD’s”. Careful now and down with that sort of thing!

Why an EU Referendum would be a very bad idea

The Tories of course have promised a referendum on the EU, although I’m suspicious as to whether they will actually commit to this course once it becomes obvious its not going to go the way they’d like it too.

While inevitably some will point to the election result as proof that we need to have a referendum (the argument being that a majority of people want it….although I seem to recall the Tories only winning 37% of the vote…a good bit short of a majority!). However the point of government is to make responsible decisions, not pander to the whims of the mob. As a consequence there are many good legal and practical reasons for this referendum not to be held.

A British Constitution
So why is it that the British haven’t had a referendum on Europe since the 70’s, yet some countries like Ireland have had more than we can count? Or indeed how is it we got to have a vote on gay marriage and the UK didn’t?

Well because in Ireland we, like almost every other civilised democracy, have a constitution, which can only be altered by popular vote of the people. Thus any time a new EU treaty comes up, we get to have a vote on it. UK citizens don’t get to vote on such matters, because you don’t have a constitution. Hence if there’s any referendum we should be having in Britain in 2017 its one on a UK constitution.

This would, in the first instance, guarantee not one EU referendum but multiple ones whenever the EU brings out a major treaty change. The current referendum plan offers no such guarantees. Furthermore, as I discussed previously in a prior post, many of the very things that are seen as causing friction with between the UK and Brussels, the conflict between the European Courts for example, would largely be resolved through a UK constitution, negating the need for any sort of renegotiation.

Should you be wondering if all I say is true, why isn’t every politician in the country signing up for a UK constitution? Well because, a constitution by its very nature puts a limit on government power. It blocks politicians from passing certain legislation without first getting the consent of the people. Courts are also constrained, as the constitution tend to decide how laws should be interpreted, not judges. Which is bad news if you’re one of the landed gentry used to buying the court rulings you want (such as those super injunctions!). Certainly, as events in the US prove, its still possible for the rich to buy the outcomes they want, but a constitution makes it a whole lot harder.

Of course this is the whole point of a constitution, a redistribution of power downwards…hence why even UKIP are against it!

A dangerous precedence
And to those who say, but we never got a vote on the EU, we want one now, well yes and did you get a vote on the privatisation of public services? Nor do I recall any vote on Trident, nor its retention. And the current Tory plans for the NHS, which seems to be to let it wither on the vine and then privatise it, well you ain’t getting a vote on that either!

A constitution would resolve these issues for future legislation. But the idea of having a retrospective referendum, as is proposed on the EU, is an unprecedented act in any democracy. It suggests that legislation passed by a previous government can simply be undone if you hold a referendum. Governments, either through referendum or otherwise, going back on legislation like this is a very rare event. About the only example I can think of is the repeal of prohibition in the 1930’s.

This sets a very dangerous legal precedence. For if ever a future hard left government were to come to power (and any economic downturn that were to follow an EU exit is exactly the sort of situation that could lead to that, just look at Greece!) they now have the perfect method to undo the legacy of Thatcher, Blair and practically every post-war Tory government in one parliamentary term. All they need to do is hold a few referendums.

The first one presumably to renationalise all public services (and opinion polls say such a policy would almost certainly go through), another to get rid of Trident, perhaps another one ends non-dom status and the property rights of the landowners (and puts a 75% tax on anyone educated in a private school I assume!), etc. Its the political equivalent of a military firing squad, seven rifles, one blank, nobody’s guilty.

In effect the Tories may one day curse they day they held this referendum as they watch everything they’ve fought for since the war dismantled in the blink of an eye.

The Issues
There are many good economic and political reasons to be euroskeptic (again I’m not suggesting the EU is perfect!). The original founder of UKIP, Alan Sked outlines a few, as does this libertarian blogger (although he eventually concludes that leaving rather than reforming the EU would be throwing the baby out with the bath water).

However my fear is that the referendum won’t be fought on such issues. Instead it will be fought on the terms of the tabloids, which means immigration and how darkies are here to steal you’re jobs, clog up motorways, claim benefits and commit crime or terrorism in whatever limited free time this busy schedule allows.

Migration is a legitimate political topic, but as I’ve discussed before, many of the things migrants are blamed for are largely untrue. And more importantly, its questionable to suggest that leaving the EU will allow the UK better control over immigration. Consider that Norway and Switzerland are both non-EU countries yet they still have serious immigration problems (per capita both receive more migrants than any EU country). The Swiss are actually a minority in their own country in certain cities (although admittedly the majority of said foreigners would be Germans, Italians, accountants for Mexican drug cartel’s, exiled dictators, megalomanic heads of world football ;D etc. not the sort of migrants that come to the UK!).

And the Norwegian foreign minster has been very clear that he thinks the UK is better off in the EU than out. The Japanese and have warned of likely job losses if the UK were to leave. And the Americans have made clear that the UK’s relationship with the US will be damaged by leaving the EU.

However such “facts” will not be part of the debate, as that have not featured in any debate on immigration recently. The question asked will be do you hate the French? The idea that the UK will leave the EU for entirely false reasons built on a tissue of lies and racist xenophobia would drastically undermine the democracy and the character of the UK. This will inevitably have far reaching cultural and economic consequences.

My two votes
Indeed another curve ball we need to consider is that by holding a referendum, the UK may hand its fate over to other states. Recall what I said about Ireland, and a number of other EU countries, and how they handle EU treaty changes. If Cameron continues to insist (as he is) that anything he gets out of the EU is incorporated into changes to past EU treaties this could very well provoke further referendums in multiple EU countries (including Ireland).

Keep in mind here that the government in Ireland (and other EU states) doesn’t always get to decide whether or not there should be a referendum – the supreme court often determines that. And in the past they have caught the government trying to sneak things through without a constitutional amendment and forced them to either drop the legislation, or hold a referendum before it can become law.

Thus we could see the situation where the UK votes to stay in, Ireland and say France, then vote to reject it, throwing the UK’s membership of the EU into chaos and uncertainty.

And least you say this sounds unlikely, I’ve been holding a sort of straw poll of Irish and other Europeans and putting the question to them “should we make special allowances to the EU just to keep the brits in?” I’ve so far yet to find anyone, not a single person, who would be willing to support such a bill…I won’t even vote for that myself! I could well get two votes in this referendum. One in the UK, yes to stay in, then got home to Ireland and vote no to reject the very deal Cameron is now negotiating.

And while Ireland and other EU states would have a vested interest in keeping the UK in, you’re being way too rational in making the assumption that this means a yes vote (keep in mind we Irish have a nasty habit of voting no at inconvenient times!). After all the UK has an even greater incentive to stay in (as in £215 billion reasons!) and yet there’s a sizeable number who will vote no regardless!

Chaos and uncertainty
Its very difficult to escape the conclusion that the aftermath of an EU vote will, far from resolving the issue, it will instead only lead to more uncertainty and confusion. After all we had a referendum a couple of months back in Scotland and while the Nat’s have gone quiet for now, the issue has certainly not gone away.

The balance of probability is a narrow yes to stay in. But that is unlikely to placate the bigot brigade, who will instead see it more as a target of the number of people they need to get to change their minds to win another future referendum.

Of course the end result is the UK plunged into several years of will they/won’t they uncertainty that will inevitably have a very negative effect on business. Particularly if, as noted, the re-negotiated deal Cameron is trying to get blows up in his face or is rejected by other EU electorates. Such a scenario will almost certainly split the Tory party.

And any vote to actually leave of course also creates greater uncertainty, particularly if its a close no, as seem likely. This is perhaps the worst case scenario, particularly given the rather foolish (and undemocratic decision) by Cameron to exclude EU citizens (including an MSP) from voting in it. After all would it be fair if say 52% voted in favour to leave? Out of a turn out of say 60%, with 1.5m denied a vote, meaning a margin of 29% of the electorate voting for something that dramatically effects the well being of the other 71%.

Such a result will almost certainly be challenged in the courts. Not just by individual voters but by companies, who will be able to show very real and credible economic damage to their business, as well as hire lots of crafty lawyers to make sure it gets argued over for who knows how long.

Recall the major hole in the SNP’s strategy was there were gaps in their independence plan big enough to fit a bus through. However there is no plan for Brexit. The holes here are big enough to sail the Queen Mary through! It would take a good few years to negotiate the terms of the UK’s exit. And the UK would also have to renegotiate trade deals and its membership of various international bodies, all of which are conditional on the UK being an EU member.

The result will be several years of economic uncertainty. Keep in mind that if the UK wanted a quick and easy deal to exit the EU, the obvious terms would be the same as those the Swiss and Norwegians have – open borders, free trade an agreement, agreeing to keep most existing EU laws on the UK’s books and an agreement to speedily pass any future EU trade related rules.

However this immediately counters the very propaganda driving for Brexit and I can’t see how any future PM could hold a straight face and sign that! (and he sure as hell ain’t going to get it passed by another referendum!). So its likely that any exit talks will stall pretty quickly and could drag on for years.

Breakup
And obviously if you’re the nationalists in Scotland and Wales, or the Republicans in NI…or even a supporter of Cornwall’s independence for that matter, one can scarcely thing of a better time to hold a referendum and break away from the UK than an extended period of economic and constitutional anarchy in Westminster. Legally, it will be very difficult as it is for London to leave the EU, without the consent and support of the regions. So you can probably guess what they’ll be looking for in return!

About the only scenario where I can see NI and the south unifying or Wales/Scotland breaking away is a Brexit scenario, particularly if the nationalist get to steal the UK’s seat at the EU table.

Election promises
But Cameron promised I hear some say, he practically pinky swore! Yes, well this might come as a shock, but politicians have a track record of promising things at elections which they then renege on in government 88|. And in some respects they have too. Like I said their job is to ensure stable government, not act as facilitators of mob rule.

My gripe with the lib dems wasn’t that the reneged on their promises with regard to tuition fees. Its the fact that they made such a promise in the first place knowing full well they could never possibly keep it while in power with the Tories.

Similarly the Tories have made a political promise they can’t possibly keep. At least if they still want to call themselves a responsible party of government and any better than UKIP. If they follow through with this referendum it will drastically change the landscape of the UK politically and they made not survive the consequences of that.