Book review: Electricity Supply, The British Experiment, by David Porter

Are ‘good intentions’ on energy enough?

David Porter’s inside history of the privatisation and marketisation of the UK energy industry is required reading for anyone who has been in the industry over the years or who has a stake in it now.
Over 20 years Porter worked with independent producers and then major companies, often fighting battles that are still being fought today. So much so, that it is easy to forget Porter is speaking about the past, until the reader is abruptly reminded – by the problems of introducing utilities to the use of e-mail, for example (they were slow). Can we really still be discussing managing constraints, or connection arrangements, while email, the internet, and social media have arisen and changed the world?
A clear vision for the industry turns out to be a pipe dream, as Porter’s downbeat subheading – “The intentions were good” suggests. Using the industry to deliver both social change at one end, and global climate change, at the other, present a policy challenge that defeats most of the politicians – too many for Porter to keep a tally – who try to deliver it.
Nor does it aid competition. At one point the industry appears to be failing on all three metrics of supply security, affordability and low-carbon.
Is the industry, Porter wonders, far from being too important to be in private ownership, really “far too important to be in the hands of politicians”?  Its complexity is such that it is hard for the industry even to work out how best it can be served by its own associations, as their continued evolution throughout the book shows.

On government: “too much is attempted and too much is done badly”

Even back in the industry’s early days, when Porter is helping launch the Association of Independent Power Producers, it’s clear the task is nor really for newbies. Alongside family-owned small projects is considerable energy expertise -   Richard Cooper from British Coal, George Rufford with 40 years experience in electricity. At the same time the “small” companies have some big backers, as Porter makes clear -  “Few would have known that behind the renewable energy company that Jeremy Sainsbury, from Scotland, represented … was shipping magnate Fred Olsen”, and  Lakeland Power is backed by equipment supplier ABB. What’s more, they are politically well-connected – Porter says, for example, that Slough Heat and Power is a subsidiary of the FTSE100 company Slough Estates, whose chairman is “sufficiently well-connected to be able to pick up the phone and speak to the prime minister”.
That’s not to play down the task facing the AIEP and Porter: quite the reverse.  Cracking open the energy industry was, and continues to be, extremely hard even for organisations who can call on well-connected and expert members and many of the recent new companies rely just as much on industry experience.
If – as stated so often – any government seriously wants to progress the “British Experiment” in the direction of more community and local ownership, with “smart” consumers taking part, it will not just happen. It will need serious government push.

On the electorate: it “may or may not be skeptical about climate change, but [it] is certainly skeptical about politicians and energy companies”

Electricity Supply, the British Experiment – the intentions were good

by David Porter, £12.95 from Mereo Books. Call +44 (0)1285 640485 or order online