By Jody Harrison, The Herald.
Let’s call it the CitiGroup Baton.
It was unsheathed on Tuesday to take a swing at the Scottish Government’s ambitious plans to become the renewable energy powerhouse of Europe. The baton was a finance sector research note put out for institutional investors by Citigroup’s head of european utility research, Peter Atherton.
“Bills for residential consumers could rise by £875 per annum,” Atherton predicted. The analyst calculated that in a post-independent Scotland money to support the fledgling renewable energy sector, which currently comes from a levy on all UK domestic and business energy bills, would have to be met by a much smaller pool of consumers.
The problem with the report is that it makes no assessment of the likely revenue available to a newly independent Scotland. It assumes that the transition to independence would be revenue neutral, that there would be no revenue boost from Scotland’s oil and gas resources.
The Atherton report also assumes any future independent Scottish Government would be happy to retain the flat-rate levy on consumers which pays for our electricity infrastructure. In fact, it is far from certain the levy would be retained.
If Finance Secretary John Swinney takes the keys of the Scottish Treasury, one of the first tasks he and his civil servants would face would be to review the tax system inherited from Westminster.
Under the current system, energy watchdog Ofgem calculates that environmental costs account for 4% of gas bills and 10% of electricity bills. With the average household spending £424 on electricity per year the levy amounts to £42 for every household annually.
These environmental costs are levied on domestic energy bills without any assessment of a consumer’s ability to pay. Rich or poor the levy is the same. The reality is that most people use about the same amount of electricity each day. Those with relatively high consumption tend to be in poor housing with low-energy efficiency or the unemployed, in short the most vulnerable in our society.
Were this levy to rise by £875, as Atherton predicts, it would be seen for what it is: a regressive tax. In effect, a poll tax. To borrow a phrase from the Occupy Wall Street movement, it favours the 1%-ers.
An independent Scotland would also be free to take new money-raising measures, free of the devolution settlement that stops it from borrowing. That would open up alternative models, such as new municipal infrastructure bonds supported by future revenue streams or directly from Government coffers.
There are other flaws in Atherton’s report. He suggests, for instance, that England and Wales may eschew electricity exports from an independent Scotland, preferring instead to develop a new generation of nuclear power.
Yet Atherton has repeatedly warned off investors from getting involved in any newbuild nuclear plants in the UK. In a note from 2009 entitled “New Nuclear – The Economics Say No”, Atherton says the “risks can be classed as corporate killers”.
His view of the investment landscape in nuclear has not moderated with a change of UK Government. “We think [nuclear] is ‘uninvestable’ for public equity markets,” he said in July of this year.
Atherton also claims Scotland’s dream of exporting power south of the Border could be scuppered by the development of a bountiful supply of shale gas in England.
Shale gas is drawn from rock by a process called fracking. Atherton ignores the controversy in the US over the environmental impact of fracking, which includes pollution of water tables, and that shale-gas development in the US took decades. He also ignores data emerging from the US showing that, since many more wells have to be sunk, the cost of this gas is substantially higher than gas from traditional sources.
He assumes the cost of wind power will remain at current high levels. But with major turbine manufacturers Siemens, Gamesa and Doosan Babcock currently evaluating sites to take advantage of offshore wind and many major players in the North Sea oil and gas sector currently diversifying into renewables, it is fair to expect the costs of wind power will drop. Indeed current trends suggest that is happening already.
The challenge is to repeat the success story that birthed the oil industry in Scotland – to marshall the skills of the shipbuilding industry, and the maritime fleet as well as the engineering expertise housed in our universities.
Atherton claims independence will impede the realisation of renewables dream. But the prospect of alternative funding models from a more enthusiastic, committed and financially-supportive Government is more likely to be welcomed by the investment community.