No Dash For Gas: We climbed those chimneys to kick-start protest and debate

EDF, the power company, was denounced last week for attacking the right to protest, after it launched a damages claim for £5 million against 21 activists. The claim followed a sit-in at its West Burton power station, organised by No Dash For Gas, that forced it to shut down for a week in October-November last year. The campaigners no-dash-for-gas_tent-up-chimneyhope not only that people will pile pressure on EDF to drop the claim, but also that their action will help create a broad movement against the “dash for gas” specifically and fossil-fuel-driven energy policy generally. The context is that energy needs to be reclaimed as a common good, Ewa Jasiewicz, one of the activists who has been sued, says in this interview.

Gabriel Levy. For people wish to support the campaign demanding that EDF drop the civil case, there is a list of very do-able things, such as signing petitions and tweeting, on the No Dash for Gas web site. But what more might people do? How would you hope the campaign might elevate?

Ewa Jasiewicz. People can get involved in organising action. They can also take direct action at various facilities and target various companies that are part of the big six [EDF, British Gas, Eon, Npower, Scottish Power and Southern & Scottish Energy, who dominate the UK power market]. They can take the initiative in doing that, as other activists have done already and did do even before our occupation and shutdown at West Burton.

There is the 1st May action, which people should all go to. It will be really pivotal, a subversion of EDF’s event, which is designed to bring energy into a corporate, private sphere and eliminate public participation and public decision making – at a time when public opinion is overwhelmingly in support of renewables over fossil fuels.

The event has been renamed “Let’s talk about people power”, to bring it back to questions of public interest and public democratic participation on energy policy. We don’t have that participation in this country. 1st May is going to be a really bold way of kicking off that debate, to put it on the map.

Another important type of engagement is to get fossil fuel companies out of sponsorship of the arts and education. Students and  artists and people with an interest in the cultural life of this country have a role to play in stopping “greenwash” by companies like EDF, that are active in sponsoring things in universities. There was an action on Monday in Oxford, for example, where a recruitment event organised by EDF was disrupted by activists.

Other bigger oil and gas companies, such as BP and Shell, are also very active in sponsorship, and organisations such as Platform challenging them.

GL. You are talking about the 1st May event kicking off a debate. Presumably this debate will look at finding a way from slogans to broader perspectives. “No dash for gas” is a very clear slogan, but we need to say more … providing people with energy is a complicated business.

EJ. Yes, providing people with energy is complicated. And we are not scientists or engineers – or rather, we are not all scientists and engineers, although some of us are! – and the question is, we need to meet the two degrees target, to limit global warming to below two degrees [i.e. to limit carbon dioxide emissions, in the way that scientists advocate, so that the increase in global average temperature does not exceed 2° centigrade]. We need to stop global warming from going past that point. Can that be done by burning more fossil fuels? No, it can not.

And this isn’t a problem or challenge that can be fixed by technology alone, this is a social and political issue, just like every economic issue is social and political.

So the point of departure has to be: bringing down those [carbon dioxide] emissions and making the transition to alternatives – which require imagination, require investment, require political decisions. Our role is to expose that potential, that possibility. There are others better placed than me to talk about exactly how that can be done.

GL. Let me play devil’s advocate, and ask you: why get after EDF? This is a political, government issue. It’s the government that sets the framework for investment, and then capitalist companies come along and do what capitalists do, i.e. try to make money.

EJ. EDF and other energy companies have staff seconded into the Department of Energy and Climate Change. So they are actually involved in writing government policy on energy and climate. So it is very important that that disproportionate lobbying power is exposed and challenged.

We are limited in how we can challenge the government in a physical way, in a political way.  How often can people occupy a government department or stand outside with placards and banners? These companies are part and parcel of government policy-making. It’s not a revolving door, it’s an open two-way street. That’s why we’re targeting them. They are responsible.

GL. What about the constituencies to whom you are appealing? What about the labour movement? Is there a parallel here with the Taff Vale judgment of 1901, that made trade unions liable for civil damages cases from companies where their members had gone on strike? That decision led to the formation of the Labour Party. [Trade unions saw parliamentary representation as a way to change the law on strikes, to change the law, starting with strikers’ immunity from such civil damages cases.]

EJ. I don’t think that analogy works. There is no ambition to create a political party out of this movement.

GL. I wasn’t really thinking of that: I don’t want a Labour Party #2 either! I was thinking about how it looks from the other side’s viewpoint. In 1901 they felt threatened by industrial action; they responded with civil damages claims, and the labour movement pushed back against that. Is there not an analogy in the way that they now feel threatened by a wider range of social protest, of which your action was part?

EJ. There is definitely a crackdown on protest in this country, that’s for sure: increasing use of injunctions and civil actions by corporations to prevent people from gathering and protesting and taking action at particular sites or directed at particular companies. There are restraining orders used to prevent activists coming anywhere near these culprits – who need to be challenged. The law is not on our side – and it’s about to get even worse, with the cuts to legal aid, including legal aid for industrial tribunals.

In terms of class power, of workers taking action, that’s definitely part of this. Workers at these sites, working for these companies, should have a voice, a role in steering these companies in a more sustainable direction, and engaging with the idea of community-controlled energy generation – that is, much more decentralised forms of energy generation, as well as the centralised forms.

And it’s not just about workers helping to determine policy in a democratic way. It’s also about how they are treated, how they are placed in, and how they take part in, the process of energy generation. We are asking: can this happen in a non-hierarchical way, can this happen in a cooperative, decentralised participatory way, where people are not exploited, where they are treated fairly and earn good wages?

It is not only about workers getting good wages. It is about: can they, and all of us, actually own cooperatively the sources and means of energy production and infrastructure?

GL. Another constituency is people who consume energy. No Dash for Gas is talking about a movement that involves not only energy industry workers but also the people who consume energy – who, at the moment, pay very high prices for it.

EJ. Yes! We are talking about that – about people starting to take “ownership”, that is, to reclaim energy as a commons; to start to think of energy, of the climate and the atmosphere, and the land, as a commons. We shouldn’t normalise the situation where big companies have a monopoly over what is a shared interest, a shared need – something that should be considered a right.

In some countries, there are struggles on these issues that have been successful, around water privatisation and land privatisation, for example. So there are examples – and also examples of the energy industry being socialised, such as in Venezuela. So there are alternative ways of making things happen.

GL. You are talking about the commons, about big questions and big changes that we aspire to. But we are starting with small things. Your action at West Burton was much bigger and more impressive than the actions that many people are involved in, but still, in the big scheme of things, it was only one step. So what if somebody who wants to change the world, and is trying to work out how, comes to you and says: “how the hell are we going to get from these first steps to where we want to go?” 

EJ. Well, you have to stick a flag in the ground and point, and say: ““Here’s a problem, and there are solutions and there are alternatives and we all have a role in making them happen. We need to stop the expansion of gas-fired power generation in this country.” You do that by taking a dramatic and high-profile action – to intervene, to expose what’s happening and start a discussion about it. No amount of lobbying, petitioning or email writing could possibly have got the amount of attention that we finally did get with this action … although in fact it was EDF that brought us that attention by suing us. We didn’t actually get that much attention at the actual time of the action itself!

Our action, by itself, was by no means the way to achieve the goal of stopping gas – but it was a way of showing what needs doing. And we do want future actions to be much more participatory, much more collective, less hierarchical in the way they are executed. Our action was necessarily secret in the way it was planned.

A friend said to me, using the metaphor of how it all looked when we were up the chimneys at West Burton: “You just want to be a hero, sitting at the top of that chimney, with everyone below you. What are you going to do to bring those people up to that level of consciousness?!” I agreed with him – not that I want to be a hero, but that the way to go is to find ways to make people conscious of things. And, in order to do that, sometimes you have to climb up and point and say “look, this is a problem” – and then you will bring people with you, because then people will start to tune in and think about it. We are only at the beginning of defeating gas in this country. We wanted to controversialise it, and I think we have done.

Links

No Dash For Gas

Information on 1 May event, “Let’s Talk About People Power”

Climate Justice Collective

Petition to EDF launched by an activist’s parents

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12 Responses to No Dash For Gas: We climbed those chimneys to kick-start protest and debate

  1. EJ: that you have backed your beliefs with action does you credit – not many have the guts to do that. But I have a concern.

    Given that an aim of your action is to “kick-start” debate and that you want to “controversialise” the issue, I’d be most interested to know your view on something that I believe should be debated – and which, I suspect, could be very controversial. It’s this: I fear that, if NDfG is successful in its campaign, it could well – albeit unwittingly – damage many of the most vulnerable people in the community. I’ll explain.

    The UK is aiming, by 2020, to generate about 30% of its electricity from renewables and to close much of its older coal-fired and nuclear plant. This process has started. The plan is that, as old generating capacity is progressively lost, that loss will be offset by the build-up of new capacity, essentially from wind turbines. So an old “dirty” technology goes and a new “clean” technology takes its place. Problem solved?

    Sadly not. Unlike the old technology, the new is unreliable: wind power is intermittent. It may one day produce that 30% (about 15GW); indeed, when conditions are favourable, it should produce far more. But, when the wind doesn’t blow, it will produce essentially nothing. It’s not uncommon, particularly on very cold days with high atmospheric pressure, for there to be almost no wind throughout the UK, onshore and offshore. It happened, for example, for several days last month. Possible solutions, such as a European “super-grid” and new means of storing electricity, have been suggested – but there’s no possibility of their being available before 2020.

    So here’s the problem: as wind turbines sometimes produce little or no power, they cannot alone compensate for the loss of old conventional plant. The result could be major power outages. And, as a modern advanced economy is utterly dependent on a reliable electricity supply, major power outages would be a disaster. Consider healthcare, transport, water supplies, food, sewerage, telecommunications, streetlights, electronic support services, industrial plant, emergency services … etc. – all depend upon electricity. Outages would be especially damaging to the most vulnerable: the young, the sick, the disabled, the old and the otherwise disadvantaged.

    Fortunately there’s a solution: the provision of reliable electric supply from gas-fired power plant. Yet it’s this solution that NDfG is determined to stop. I suggest that’s a serious misjudgement – one that risks tragic consequences. Is that a risk that you’re willing to take? And, if so, why?

  2. James says:

    This is such a muddled article it’s hard to see where to start with it.
    You don’t have to climb a chimney to start a debate.
    And climbing a chimney is nothing to do with “helping to determine policy in a democratic way”.

  3. Ewa Jasiewicz / Gabriel Levy:

    I’ve spelled out why it’s likely that, without gas-fired power, people – and especially the most vulnerable – will be damaged. I’ve asked a simple question: Is that a risk that you’re willing to take?

    But no answer – are you frightened?

  4. Gabriel Levy says:

    In response to Robin Guenier. Wind power is intermittent, but not “unreliable”, as you suggest. As people who know about power supply from an engineering viewpoint will tell you, (1) wind power will need to be combined with other types of generation that can be brought on when the wind isn’t blowing, of which gas is obviously one, for the time being, (2) the grid has to be developed to increase its flexibility and (3) new technology at the consumption end, e.g. batteries that charge up at night when the wind is blowing but people don’t need so much electricity, can further address the intermittency problem.

    Robin says that if No Dash For Gas was successful, the UK would be over-reliant on wind turbines and “the result could be major power outages” that would “damage many of the most vulnerable people in the community”. That scenario is so unlikely that it’s ridiculous and embarrassing to spend time discussing it. It’s the sort of irrelevance beloved of people who think that energy policy should not aim at reducing the level of carbon dioxide emissions.

    The real, immediate dilemma for UK energy policy, in my view, is nothing to do with your absurd and invented scenario, but a choice between (a) conceding to the energy companies’ demands for an investment framework that effectively guarantees a return for their shareholders on the sale of fossil-fuel-generated energy in the UK for decades to come, and leaving wind power as a poor relation (which seems to be the government’s approach, insofar as it has one) – which will leave the UK even further than it will be otherwise from meeting its commitments to reduce carbon dioxide emissions – or (b) “properly supported investment in renewables”, as advocated by No Dash For Gas and others.

    You don’t have to be a campaigning environmentalist like Ewa Jasiewicz to think that the government could do far more on renewables than it is. Look for example at the Renewable Energy Review, published in May 2011 by the Committee on Climate Change, the independent statutory body chaired by Lord Adair Turner. Or at the book Renewable Energy Without the Hot Air by David Mackay, who is now the chief scientific advisor to the Department for Energy and Climate Change.

    Such people, and many more who have spent huge amounts of time, energy and research capacity studying this issue, believe that much, more wind power could be introduced much, much more quickly, if a political decision was made to do so. They are all confident, as I am, that competent engineers will be able to increase the role of wind power and decrease that of fossil fuels without messing up the system.

    Robin says possible solutions to backing up intermittent wind power can not possibly be available before 2020. I don’t think No Dash For Gas or anyone else is claiming that they will be. But Turner’s committee reckons that by 2030, 65% of electricity could be generated by renewables (World Wildlife Fund believes it’s 88%). As you can see from their published research, they have all consulted the relevant engineers.

    PS. I approve comments that meet the normal standards of reasonable discussion. Please remember that silly questions like “are you frightened?” are borderline.

  5. Gabriel Levy says:

    Again in response to Robin Guenier, who says there is “no possibility” of solutions to wind intermittency being available before 2020. A study conducted by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in 2011 showed that the current energy systems of the British Isles (i.e. the UK and Ireland together) have the technical capability to balance as much as 31% of total electricity demand produced from variable renewable energy (VRE, i.e. wind, solar, wave and tidal).

    The authors stress that this figure is based on “conservative” assumptions about the system’s technical requirements, all of which tend to depress the present VRE penetration potential (PVP) figure. In other words, they consider the 31% figure, if anything, to be too low. The figure does not take account of non-technical issues, e.g. corporate relationships, which may constrain the actual availability of balancing resources.

    Note also (1) that this figure refers to the energy system as currently constituted, and says nothing about the potential of the type of investment proposed by No Dash For Gas and many, many other people; and (2) that the IEA are hardly a bunch of radical environmentalists.

    As if to anticipate claims such as Robin’s, the IEA report’s authors state in their executive summary: “Those who assert that large shares of variable supply represent an insurmountable, additional challenge to power-system operation may be looking with too narrow a gaze. Variability and uncertainty are not new challenges: power systems have long taken them into account.”

    Of course the team of technical specialists employed by the IEA may have their numbers wrong. But they have put considerable effort into surveying a number of power systems, including those of the UK and Ireland, and consulted specialist literature by other engineers.

    I invite anyone who wants to argue that without new gas-fired power stations the UK faces power outages to start by explaining where the IEA researchers got their analysis wrong. Their report, Harnessing Variable Renewables: A Guide to the Balancing Challenge, is free to download from the IEA web site.

  6. Gabriel:

    Thanks for your detailed response – plainly you’re not, as I put it, frightened of answering me, so I apologise for suggesting otherwise. And I’m pleased to note that you agree with my essential position. You say, “Wind power will need to be combined with other types of generation that can be brought on when the wind isn’t blowing, of which gas is obviously one, for the time being”. That’s precisely my point.

    But my question (see my original post) was addressed to Ewa – assuming that, as seems likely, she supports the No Dash for Gas objectives. I’ve checked their website again and I see nothing there that indicates that they agree with us about the need now for “other types of generation … of which gas is obviously one”. I’m concerned specifically with the period up to 2020, during which the UK will close much of its coal-fired generating capacity and increase renewable generation (mainly wind) to about 30% of our power needs. (Incidentally, wind is hardly the “poor relation” you describe. 30% a hugely ambitious target: today’s 4,300 turbines generate on average less than 5% of our needs and coal about 40%.) So the outlook is much less power from fossil fuels and much more from wind, exacerbating the intermittency problem. We must do something to overcome that. And, apart from coal, gas is the only “other type of generation” that can do so in the time required. Without it, we face power outages and a risk of disaster**. Yet – unless I’ve completely misunderstood them – NDfG believes gas should not be an option.

    Therefore my question to Ewa stands: is the risk of disaster a risk you are prepared to take?

    I’m familiar with the Renewable Energy Review, I have a copy of David Mackay’s book and I’ve read the WWF report. This morning I’ve looked at them all again. None offers a (non-gas) solution to the intermittency challenge facing the UK over the next few years.

    ** The risk of disaster, Gabriel, is – most unfortunately – not “ridiculous”, nor is it “embarrassing”, “absurd” or “invented”. It’s real. See this: http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/02/28/column-kemp-britain-powercuts-idUSL6N0BSAHN20130228. Its conclusion:

    “If the lights and the heating go off in the middle of winter, while nearly 20 oil and coal-fired power plants dot the landscape dark and unused, and the windmills are not turning because the weather is still, Britain will face not just an energy crisis but a political crisis that will rock both the government and the utilities to their foundations.”

  7. Gabriel Levy says:

    I think Robin is wilfully misrepresenting the policy of No Dash For Gas. They are arguing that energy policy should be directed towards heavier investment in renewables (as they put it prominently on their web site, “increasing our reliance on gas at this stage would be economically and environmentally disastrous”). They hope to act as a counterweight to the sort of political arm-twisting by Sam Laidlaw of Centrica, so approvingly quoted in the pro-fossil-fuels article Robin refers to. (The fact that Laidlaw, and a columnist who quotes him, circulate scare stories about the lights going off does not make those stories accurate.) Robin’s allegation that NDFG want to shut down current gas-fired generation capacity so that vulnerable people suffer is baseless. It’s not true, and it’s not a rational argument. Robin’s repeated question about whether NDFG wants to risk turning everybody’s power off is the ultimate “are you still beating your wife?” type question. It sounds like the sort of deranged accusations against environmentalists you hear from the loonies in the US coal lobby.

  8. Gabriel:

    I’m truly worried about the problem I’ve outlined above – I’m not posturing or making some oblique point about global warming. So, when you cited the IEA report “Harnessing Variable Renewables”, I thought that here perhaps was a solution I hadn’t considered. But, having read it, I’m if anything even more concerned. I’ll explain – I’ll keep it short, although I’ll provide a more detailed view if you wish.

    We are, as I’ve explained, facing an urgent problem: a solution is needed now. The IEA guide is based on various problematic assumptions – few of which can be overcome within the next two or three years. Moreover, what it does is present decision-makers with a tool set or road map; it doesn’t offer these as a quick fix. Yet we need a quick fix.

    One assumption, for example, is that the “British Isles” (a concept that’s itself a problem) will have available a mix of variables: wind (on and off shore), tidal, wave and solar. But only wind can make more than a token contribution to our immediate needs. It’s not possible for tidal, wave or solar projects to make a substantial contribution to our needs in the near term: carrying out feasibility studies, securing funding, investigating, finding and purchasing the sites, proving the system, overcoming local and national (often environmental) opposition, getting planning consents, etc. All take years (for example, it took me nearly three years to get planning consent for a locally supported community garden) – and that’s before construction can even begin. Yet nothing of substance has even started. That, Gabriel, is my point: I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with NDFG’s wish for heavier investment in renewables – simply that it’s not a solution for the short term.

    And BTW I most certainly have not even suggested that “NDFG want to shut down current gas-fired generation capacity so that vulnerable people suffer”. That’s an unpleasant and unworthy accusation. I’m quite sure they don’t want that: see the second paragraph of my first post above, “I fear that, if NDfG is successful in its campaign, it could well – albeit unwittingly – damage many of the most vulnerable people in the community.” (And I’ll try to ignore your use of words like “deranged” and “loonies”.)

    Another IEA assumption is about the variability and uncertainty data: it admits their effect “is captured only approximately”. Various other matters are equally vague – not inspiring confidence in their conclusion. And the conclusion is that “some 31% penetration of VRE … could be balanced by existing flexible resources” – no mention of the uncomfortable fact that a large proportion of our existing flexible resources is being decommissioned**.

    And that conclusion (inapplicable to the short term) is exactly the same as the Government’s current target – to be achieved by 2020. Do you think the DECC’s advisers know something the IEA researchers don’t? I rather doubt it. That’s why I’m even more concerned than I was before. (You may note incidentally that 31% is nowhere near good enough to meet the government’s longer term targets.)

    ** It’s this loss of resources that’s the basic problem. Yet, in the final paragraph of your March 18 8:21 AM post, you appear to claim that, without new gas-fired power stations, the UK doesn’t face power outages. How do you come to that view? I wish it were true.

  9. SandyS says:

    Gabriel Levy,
    No one has answered this question for me. Perhaps you can do it in a simple way that any lay person can understand. This is the question.

    In winter the sun is below the horizon for 16 hours, therefore there is no solar power. The tide is at slack water every 12 hours 20 minutes and therefore there is no useable power for two or three hours round that time. When there is a high pressure system (a blocking high) there is no wind worthy of the name over northern Europe; this happens most winters (and summers for that matter). When there is no wind there is little or no wave energy. Therefore in the weather conditions described in this question little or no “renewable” energy will be available. As traditional “dirty” energy cannot be ramped up and down instantaneously and normally takes days or weeks, what is going to supply the electrical power in this situation?

    Bear in mind that there are many situations affected by power cuts.
    Many medical conditions are nursed at home and require electrically powered equipment to maintain the health and well being of the sufferer.Modern gas central heating requires electricity for pumps and fans so that will be off as well. As Robin says you are putting the vulnerable at risk.

  10. Gabriel Levy says:

    In response to Sandy S. It does not take “days or weeks” to ramp up or down the level of power delivered by power stations. When there are surges of electricity demand, e.g. (in hours) when a popular TV programme comes on, or (in days) when there is a cold snap, the electricity grid adjusts the level of output accordingly, and always has. Any textbook covering energy issues will include an explanation of the technologies used currently (e.g. pumped storage) and in prospect (electric cars, flywheels, supercapacitors, etc).

    For an engineer’s explanation to the lay person of the application of these techniques in conjunction with large-scale generation from renewables, see David MacKay, Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air, chapter 26. As far as I know, this is downloadable from the internet. The technical issues are dealt with further in reports by bodies such as the International Energy Agency (mentioned in a previous contribution to this discussion) or the EU’s European Wind Integration Study, supported by the transmission system operators (i.e. the companies who actually do this stuff).

    I am still learning how to deal with comments on this site. Your statement that I am “putting the vulnerable at risk”, simply because I share the concerns of No Dash For Gas and many other people about the wisdom of committing big investments to gas rather than renewables, is so slanderous and so bereft of any supporting logic that I really should not have approved your comment. In future I will exercise less tolerance towards such egregiously offensive statements.

  11. tomo says:

    There seems to be a problem of basic numeracy and technical literacy here.

    The undeniable fact that “renewables” will fail utterly upon occasion beyond short term (hours) is not addressed – if that is accepted then you have only one option – 100% fossil backup either on a a national or local level. The insane electricity market contrived to support renewables is already collapsing (see Germany) as the bonkers arithmetic of not paying actual costs of generation to include asset value and standby kicks in – effectively double subsidising renewables beyond the FiT premiums already extracted.

    I should add the David McKay is not an engineer and by his own volition certainly not an unbiased commentator. I personally take strong issue with his assertions about the value of CHP and GSHP.

    It is unequivocally clear that closing serviceable coal stations at this juncture leaves only one option = gas. The corollary (if the closures aren’t reversed) of that is do we have it ransomed to us by Vlad P. and his gang of grasping ex-spooks or extract our own?

    The intrusion of ill informed eco-ideologues into the electricity market both in the political and governmental spheres is proving disastrous – that much is abundantly clear.

    I say all the above as somebody who’s directly more involved than most with renewable energy.

  12. Gabriel Levy says:

    I have received a number of contributions to this discussion from people who are fanatically supportive of investment in new gas-fired generation capacity in the UK. I’ve approved some of the more measured ones, and they appear above. I have trashed others. Readers should note (i) that some contributors have a hidden agenda of climate change denial, and (ii) that some contributors have (as is their right) been comparing notes on the Bishop Hill blog (http://bishophill.squarespace.com/), which is, I think it’s fair to say, a pole of attraction for climate change denial. Just to clarify: I am not interested in conversing with climate change deniers on this site or anywhere else, and my policy on comments will reflect that. If your comment is trashed without explanation, that may be the reason.

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