Journalism portfolio of Alistair Welch

Month: August, 2012

Offshore accounts

Editorial from Energy Engineering magazine responding to two industry reports on cost reduction in offshore wind.

Substation at the Sheringham Shoal offshore wind farm. Image: Alistair Welch

“The figure of £100/MWh is widely touted as the holy grail of the offshore wind industry: reach this levelised cost by 2020 and the goal of cost competitiveness beckons. But how can the sector hope to reach this point? Where can cost reduction be achieved? Who is responsible for driving it? And is such a target feasible within the timescale?

Sheringham Shoal turbines in operation. Image: Alistair Welch

Although estimates vary, the current cost of energy from offshore wind is thought to be around £150/MWh. As it stands, the UK has 1.86GW installed offshore wind capacity. However, the government wants 18GW operational by 2020. This huge increase in capacity, to be fulfilled predominantly by the large Round 3 zones currently in very early stages of development, will only be feasible if cost reduction is taken seriously across the industry.”

Click to download full article

Links: Offshore Wind Cost Reduction Task Force (DECC), Offshore Wind Cost Reduction Pathways Study (The Crown Estate)



A recent edition of Channel 4’s investigative programme Dispatches had Michael Crick looking into the proliferation of betting shops on the country’s high streets. Viewing the show on 4OD I was struck by how closely the anxieties and prejudices voiced by Crick towards the betting industry mirrored the medieval attitudes towards gambling that were the subject of my academic research.

It would appear that mainstream society’s attitude towards gambling and gamblers (and that implied opposition in itself is worthy of interrogation) has changed little in 700 years. The compilers of medieval vernacular devotional manuals, governments (from the Parliaments of Edward IV to Gordon Brown) and Michael Crick are all similarly reluctant to denounce gambling as sinful or morally unacceptable whilst demonstrating a certain unease and distaste with regard the activity’s place in society.

Bone dice and shaker (c.14th C) from the Museum of London’s medieval collection. The gambling apparatus of choice back in the day.

No-armed bandits: ‘Evil’ FOBTs in operation

The main villain of the Channel 4 piece was the fixed-odds betting terminal or ‘FOBT’, a sort of souped-up fruit machine that anyone who has been inside a bookies recently will recognize. These machines, featuring games like roulette and blackjack, allow the punter to wager alarming sums of money in a short space of time – dubbed the ‘crack cocaine’ of gambling, FOBTs are the most lucrative, but also most controversial, element of the high street betting market.

The medieval gambling world too had its bête noire: dicing. Whilst the gentry might bet on tournaments or, in the latter 15th century, card games, it was dicing – in particular the game ‘Hazard’ – that caused the most concern. Like the FOBT, dicing was accessible, relatively easy to learn to play, and fast.

Write this off as glib if you will, but I would like to draw some parallels between the betting world of Paddy Power and that of Chaucer’s Perkyn Revelour.

One of the key planks of Crick’s case against betting shops on the high street is that they are a focus for antisocial behaviour: drunkenness, drug-use, prostitution and general loutishness are all alleged to be encouraged by the presence of a Corals or Billy Hills. To prove the point, down Deptford High Street, the camera lingered on a special-brew connoisseur slumped in a doorway and various ne-er-do-wells milling outside a Ladbrokes. Interviewed for the programme, MP David Lammy argued that in a “civilized country” betting shops ought to be thought of like lap-dancing clubs or pornographers.

Look back to 14th century London and the anxieties surrounding gambling (predominantly dice play) are similar. Dicers are often mentioned in the same breath as prostitutes and tavern-dwellers, subcultures who “spend holy days in gluttony and waste and make their church the tavern” (from a 13th C treatise on the 10 Commandments). Gamblers, effectively, are damned by association with other apparently unwholesome groups.

Confessors’ Manuals advise priests against mixing with “hasadoures” or “rotoures” [revelers] in taverns and see gambling as a step on a path towards a lifestyle of vice. Without specific proscription of gambling from higher authority, censure falls on its purveyors’ perceived promotion of anti-social behaviour.

An unlucky dicer looks like he has lost the cloak off his back (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley, 264, f.64r)

The second prong of Crick’s case was that bookmakers targeted less-affluent (i.e. poor) areas where unemployment was high and, as evidence, compared the number of betting shops in a crappy chav town (shit loads) and a limestone Cotswolds high street (one).

A couple of issues are in play here. Firstly, as was amply demonstrated by Crick’s tone of disapproval throughout, is the idea that frequenting betting shops is something an underclass of dole-munchers does and is not the activity of a decent chap. This anxiety is mirrored in several medieval conduct poems (How the Wise Man Taughte his Sonne, for example) that warn aspirant members of the mercantile middle class against falling in with dicers lest it besmirch their reputation.

Furthermore, we have the notion that gambling is a negative activity from an economic perspective. The Channel 4 documentary talks about betting shops draining money from local economies and sees the patronage of the unemployed as particularly pernicious. ‘Twas ever thus. One of the main findings of my research into the social function of medieval gambling was that dicing’s operation as a rival system of exchange to mercantile capitalism was a major source of the social anxiety surrounding the activity.

The antihero of Chaucer’s Cook’s Tale, Perkyn Revelour, is an avid dicer and is said to much prefer the company of his posse in the tavern to that of his master in his workshop. Dicing not only wastes time that the apprentice ought to spend working for his master, but also, in using a system of monetary exchange based on chance (rather than work or produce), represents a more wholesale challenge to the precepts of a mercantile economy.

Finally, as for the nice middle class kid who described how the escalation of his gambling habit led to him funneling thousands into FOBTs, I recommend he read The Tale of Beryn, an anonymous addition to The Canterbury Tales, in which a prodigal son loses everything pursuing his obsession with dicing.

Whether it be Dispatches or Piers Plowman, gambling is the site of significant social anxiety; the interesting thing is to probe, without prior prejudice, the nature of this anxiety.

Gambling has always had a whiff of the transgressive, afterall, that’s a central part of its appeal.

Old Warwickians vs Denstone Wanderers (Cricketer Trophy Final)

(N.b. I stopped taking photos halfway through our innings as I noticed there was a correlation between my snapping and our losing wickets; apologies if there are no photos of you, but you should probably be grateful!)

The scene at Charterhouse

A battling 47 from Tom Williams and three wickets from seamer Dan Wood helped Old Warwickians claim the Cricketer Trophy with victory over Denstone Wanderers in the picturesque surroundings of Charterhouse School.

Openers Crockert and Cumberland stride out

In a topsy-turvy game, in which both top orders struggled on an ostensibly flat surface, momentum shifted frequently between the two sides. However, the OWs were able to hold their nerve and win by 28 runs, dismissing Denstone for 176 in the 48th over.

Tony lets one go

With skipper Gareth Roots having won the toss and elected to bat on a gleaming pitch, it was a surprise to the OWs when early wickets tumbled and the score in the 13th over stood at 38 for 5.

Cumberland defends

Crockert, Cumberland and Roots all fell to an impressive opening spell from Denstone’s Burnett; the captain somewhat unlucky to be bowled playing-on off his gloves. When Dan Wood and Ben Howard swiftly followed to the pavilion the OW’s innings was in disarray and even reaching 100 looked an uphill task.

Howard about to edge behind

However, Williams and Byrd stopped the rot and following the arrival of the change bowlers began to build a significant partnership. When Byrd was out for 39, an innings that included a crunching six over midwicket, 82 runs had been added for the 6th wicket and although Williams fell soon after, smashing one of the Denstone’s captain’s loopy spinners to cover, the OWs were back in the game.

Williams drives as the OWs accelerate

The lower-middle order continued to flourish with an important contribution from Andy Harris (19) and an impressive 33 not out from Mark Banham. Chris Kroeger hit the last ball of the innings for six down the ground allowing the OWs to move past 200, finishing the 50 over innings on 204 for 9 – a score that had, frankly, seemed unlikely after an hour’s play.

Byrd on his way to 39

In a mirror image of the OW’s innings, Denstone’s top order also struggled as the chasing team stumbled to 29 for 5. There were three wickets for Andy Harris and two for Dan Wood in their sharp opening spells.

However, just like the OWs, Denstone were able to consolidate and then begin to mount a challenge to the target. With the required run-rate never rising much above a run a ball, wickets were the key and as the Denstone seven and eight began to build a partnership nerves began to jangle.

A chance was dropped behind the stumps and with 10 overs remaining and 60 runs required Denstone looked the marginal favourites. However, Harris held a good catch in the outfield to dismiss Burnett (28) and when McAloon (a strong innings of 55) was bowled by a superb delivery from Wood that nipped back off a length to clip the bails, the OWs breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Wood disappointed with the bat but redeemed himself with the ball

Byrd finished the job trapping the Denstone number ten leg-before to complete a 28 run victory for the Old Warwickians and claim some well-deserved silverware in the process.

Full scorecard courtesy of Richard Grover

Green is good

Editorial leader from the latest issue of Energy Engineering magazine:

In the 1987 film Wall Street the financier Gordon Gekko’s famous motto was “greed is good”. Now, as far as business is concerned, the message is that green is good.

A recent report, The Colour of Growth: Maximising the potential of green business, compiled and published by the CBI, the voice of British business, has reiterated the case for pursuing a low carbon economy. Turbulent economic conditions have prompted some to question the priority of the green agenda, but the report reasserts that commitment to low carbon policy is fundamentally good for growth and is more important now than ever before.

Introducing the report, CBI director-general John Cridland argued that ‘green’ and ‘growth’ went hand in hand. “In finding a new growth path for the British economy, I am convinced that green is a central part of it,” he said. “Everybody needs to look at decarbonizing their products and services.”

Concluding that adopting a “smarter green policy approach” could boost the UK’s economy by nearly £20 billion by 2015, the report argued that whilst the low carbon economy could be a “real engine of growth” in the UK, there is a danger that the potential might not be realized. Amongst ten recommendations for government were a call to reassert the country’s ambition in pursuing low carbon policy and, more specifically, a proposal that the Green Investment Bank should be given the power to raise funds from capital markets as soon as possible.

“The Government aims to be the greenest government ever and it has certainly got the passion. I think that the challenge for the Government is that is has many different departments and many different initiatives. From a business point-of-view, not all these initiatives add up,” said Cridland.

So far, so laudable, if somewhat predictable. However, it is clear that the outlook of the CBI is not shared by the whole of the business and political communities. Days after the report was published, a letter to The Daily Telegraph co-signed by the directors of the Centre for Policy Studies and the Institute for Economic Affairs called on the Government to adopt an energy policy based on fossil-fuels and to “stop building wind farms”.

Evidence, if it were needed, that we must never take for granted that the case for development of renewable energy and low carbon practice is universally accepted. Far from it: opponents of our industry argue against us with a vociferous religiosity. It is incumbent on us to continue to show that pursuing a low carbon agenda is not ‘greenwash’ but is beneficial in the long term to both the economy and the environment.

The CBI report is absolutely right to establish that whilst the Government’s green rhetoric is admirable, the policy framework supporting low carbon growth needs to be addressed. John Cridland again: “In this report we end the myth that there is a choice between being green and growing. We can have green growth, but it is not a given that we achieve it. We need a coherent strategy and we need government to have a strategy that recognizes that green growth isn’t always going to be easy.”

Wind turbines and solar PV panels are visible symbols of the development of our green economy. However, the CBI’s message is broader: integrating low carbon practice into a business, wherever it is appropriate, will improve the competitiveness of British industry and help us, as a nation, to meet the energy and carbon targets prescribed by government.