Science in Society Archive

Faith Hope and Chaos

Alan Simpson MP provides a brilliant conceptual and practical roadmap for shifting hearts, minds, and actions towards an energy revolution that will set the world on fire.


Thank you for the document that you are launching today. I mentioned Green Energies to those in Government who are less enthusiastic than I am and they said “That’s a bunch of crazies that you are associating with.”  And it just reminded me of a song by Billy Joel that had the lines which said “You may be right, I may be crazy. But it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for.”  You’re my sort of lunatics and I’m really pleased to be here as part of this.  I’m going to begin with the chaos and then move on to the faith and the hope. The chaos is going to come out of Copenhagen and Copenhagen deserves to be the failure that I suspect it will be.  Because maybe we need failure more than the charade of success. Because where we need to be is definitely not a continuum of where we are now and where we’re trying to head. I think we need to be unafraid to embrace the notion that things have to break down in order to get to somewhere else. 

As politicians we need to be more honest with ourselves and say that I can see all the points on sustainability that Mae-Wan has outlined, but I can see those points getting further out of the reach of the global summits; not because they try to set a different goal, but because they try to move the goal posts to pretend that we are getting closer when we’re not. Moving the goal posts is just not going to affect the outcome of the game.  We are going to be faced with some of the more challenging scenarios that climate scientists have been warning about; not least the warning from Professor Corinne Le Quéré (University of East Anglia Global Carbon Project) that we could be heading for a six degree centigrade climate change this century. If that is the case we are in to climate chaos.

I think we can avoid the chaos, but we have to do so by weathering the crises and coming through them in a different way.  It involves breaking from a whole series of acts of self deception and being honest about some of the frauds.  I begin with my own example on tariffs. When the Energy Bill was going through Parliament I organised a parliamentary coup by having snapped up more votes, on a cross-party basis, in support of feed-in tariffs than the Government could muster for the ‘no’ lobby.  The Government conceded and introduced the feed-in tariffs. Ministers then said: “what about you being our special advisor on the new feed-in tariffs, just to drive this situation into reality?”  I said yes, and it has been an intriguing experience. Since that acceptance, about seven or eight months ago, I have been amused and bemused that Government officials announced a boycott on attending any meeting I’m involved in. It is a badge I wear with some pride.

So we have this block on the desire to shift.  Why that boycott?  I think it’s because my role is to expose the fibs that big energy has been feeding to our policy advisors and ministers.  So I just tell the ministers where the fibs are and where they’re coming from. This seems to be anathema for those who are locked into the fibs.


However, the really good news is society’s desire and ability to be somewhere else.  The experience I had in the transformation of my own home (into an ecohouse) moved on quite rapidly when I started to take it round some of the schools in the community I represent. It was the kids who really stopped me in my tracks by saying. One said “That’s great Mister. Can my house be like that?” It was such a naïve and obvious question that it made me recognise that individual examples of house transformation are no solution to the challenges that climate change brings.  We either transform the prospects of life for everyone or for none at all.

So, for the last three years, we have set up and been working on establishing a community Energy Services Company. The community is about to announce a long term partnership with an energy sector partner, and the deal is that this transformation has to begin from the poor. The long-term contract agreement we are entering into is that the energy generating systems will be given away.  They will be free as part of the ten year agreement.  The company, the household and the community will share the income stream.  It will be that income stream that pays off the housing transformation. This will give us energy security. It will give a degree of genuine stakeholding within the community that people have never had. And it will be sustainable. This really is the energy revolution that the poor have been waiting for. 

We hear a lot about NIMBYism (Not in my back yard) in the UK and the frustrations about not being able to get proposals through the planning process. As an anecdote I just want to mention this community in the Meadows - an inner-city, multi racial poor, community that wants its own wind turbine. We did wind surveys and three sites were identified: one was on the embankment of the Meadows on our side of the River Trent. One was across the River in West Bridgford, a much more affluent area. And one further site was north of the city, also a more affluent area.  We they had to decide on which site it was going to be.  A big public meeting was called to decide which one and we were all prepared for exactly this NIMBYism argument. We couldn’t have got it more wrong.

The first contribution from the audience, after the presentations, was an old guy who stood up and said, “Just let me get this straight. That wind turbine will turn around and be generating electricity. That electricity will be coming into my house, and it’ll be coming off my bill. And for any surplus I’ll get paid extra. That’s how it is?” We said, “Sort of. It’s not just your house, it’s for the community as a whole”  “Yeah, Yeah,” he said, but it’s for us isn’t it?” Someone pointed out that we had got to work out where it was going to be sited, “and that’s the difficult choice.”  The old fella turned round and said, “No. That’s a no brainer. It’s got to be here. Think about this just for one minute. When have the rich ever passed money across to the poor?  If this is on the other side of the river, in an area where only the wealthy live, how much is going to come back our way?  If we want the cash, we’ll have the bloody wind turbine here.” 

He was right and everyone knew it. When the motion went to the planning committee there was not a single objection from within the community. It was greeted with huge overwhelming enthusiasm. Why?  Because this wasn’t so much about an energy revolution, it was about a power revolution.  It was about the democratization of the energy agenda, to make the poor stakeholders and co-owners in their own sustainable future. 

When you empower people the most astonishing transformation takes place. I spent quite a bit of time going around Germany, which is much better at it than we are. I discovered in every area that I went to talk to, people are no better than you or me in defining or describing what a tonne of carbon looks like. But they can half recognise a cheque when it drops through their letter box. And so can we. That is the key. 

In Germany we often ended up with some long discussions about ecological virtues. Finally, I would ask the question about finance. They all smiled and said of course the cash makes a big difference. It makes a difference because they are part of an income stream which is part of the energy revolution: this is why big energy companies in the UK don’t want it to happen. Big energy likes a system that has relied on large subsidies from central government given to them by tax payers, to get them to do the things the government wants them to do. They also like delivering large bills to the public for running an energy cartel. This works very well for energy companies, but it’s a crap deal for us. Companies really don’t like a reversal of the process, where they have to start to be sending you money.  One way or another the energy company will have to understand that their future is going to be found in shifting to decentralized energy systems. Households and communities will be their real partners and stakeholders; not shareholders strewn across the world. In future, the dividends will go back to local communities.  The truth about this revolution is that this is where we started from. 

Our first energy company was born in 1817 at the corner of Water Street, Manchester.  It was founded by a clearly Trotskyist organization, known as the Manchester Police Commissioners. They put a gas lamp outside the police station on the corner of Water Street.  People came from miles around to look at this flickering lamp.  People would gaze up at it and say, “It’s marvellous, marvellous, but it’ll never catch on.”  Within ten years this had become the Manchester Gas and Water Company.  It was at the beginning of an era, from 1817 to 1890, when across the land, you saw towns and cities developed their own municipal gas, water and electricity companies. 

Within ten years, Manchester’s had become the source of energy security and water security for the whole of the city.  Over the following 50 years, the proceeds of the company built parks, libraries, swimming pools and museums as part of the social dividend that went along with energy and water security.

What we forget is that these companies were driven by us and funded by local bonds; municipal bonds into which people put their pensions and savings, because they were a secure savings pot along with a ‘quality of life’ bonus that came every year. 

We have become so mesmerised by today’s global casino economy. We are still being told that this is the only way that we can give ourselves secure pension prospects; throwing our pension contributions into precisely the same casino that squandered most of them over the past decade. What we have to do is make the intellectual break to give ourselves a different future. It is absolutely true that all of this is within our reach.


I went over to Germany a couple of weeks ago to look at some of theie national training programmes. They take existing technologies and train kids how to build, install and service them. Actually they roll the kit together, looking at the interface between today’s renewable technologies.  While I was there I asked them about Germany’s 2050 target.  I said I know you’re looking forward, but isn’t 100% renewables by 2050 just a bit ambitious?  They looked at me and replied “Well I suppose it depends on whether you want to survive.” Yes well, that’s the common ground that we all share. But can we get there? 

For a start, do you know how much of Germany’s total energy supply comes from wind and PV right now? 20%?  30 %? In fact, well a couple of weeks ago 90% of Germany’s weekend electricity supply came from wind and PV.  The German’s were very proud of this, even though it was a bit of a problem on the Monday morning when industry kicked back into action. But this is where Germany is now.  For them the transformation is just an engineering issue. Engineers take care of the problems as long as they have clear objectives.  The Germans know where they want to be. They also know they have to think differently about they get there. That’s what we have to do too.

This morning I’ve been talking to people trying to set up 100 000 biogas combined heat and power units in people’s homes in Hamburg.  These will be installed, insured and serviced for free. The purchase cost will be 5,000 Euros per installation and then 20 Euros a month to lease.  The company then pays for the heat and power that you generate. In all, the system will deliver two gigawatts of electricity for that whole area of Hamburg. Two gigawatts is two power stations.  A coal or nuclear power station is one gigawatt. 

The great thing about this is that the compliment the wind turbines outside Hamburg where there is an intermittency of supply issue, but soon they will have a smart grid that will be in place where a 100 000 homes will become their own dispersed power station.  Energy needs will be remotely monitored and interfaced with the wind turbines. An integrated local energy network will deliver complete energy security and it will deliver this within 10 years.  All this requires is one big step. It is about vision.  It’s about the willingness to be brave and transformational. 

At the moment we have huge battles going on inside the British Government about the ambition level for renewables.  The scam is a very simple one. Energy companies hated the democratic shift into renewables and the feed-in tariff framework.  They wanted to persuade the Treasury to adopt a towering lack of ambition in the schemes they will introduce; so they persuaded them to work backwards from 2020, arguing that just 2% of renewable energy should come from Feed-in Tariffs. So tariff rates have been worked backwards. If we only want a little bit of ambition then we only have to provide a little a bit of an incentive.

It is a very expensive way of doing very little.  What if, instead of 2 percent, we wanted 6 percent?  How much would it cost?  If we wanted 10 through a ‘launch’ programme to 2013, it would cost you an extra £2.10 on your energy bill per year (above what the government already proposed). That’s what it would cost to go from low ambition to bold transformation. 

No matter what the energy companies may say, none of this is unaffordable. Any costs of transforming to a sustainable energy future can be paid for by ceasing to fund the failure of the past.  At the moment even OfGem recognise that the cartel of the big six energy companies cost householders something in excess of £100 per year, just for the existence of the cartel. It is the price of forcing competitors out of the existing energy distribution market. Add to this the costs of carbon trading or the £3 bn per year for managing the disposal of nuclear waste; and another £3bn for the four pilot projects on carbon capture and storage (which will not work) and you have a lot of cash to take us into a different energy era. 

Energy companies were asked by the Environmental Audit Committee about the free carbon credits that they had been given under the scheme. These amounted to something over £9 bn.  The answer MPs were given was simply that the money had gone; these are big ‘gone missings!’ The other, and most obvious, ‘gone missing’ is the 9.6GW of constructed wind energy that is not connected to the grid. Some of it is being given a connection time of ten years ahead.  So we could actually avert the costs of ten conventional power stations just by connecting into the system what we already have constructed.  

To answer the question ‘can we make this transformation?’ the answer is simple. Do what the Germans, what the Spanish, what the Italians, and what the Dutch are already doing.  It’s not just about the technology. Priority must also be given to connection, access to system and a duty to purchase. As soon as you put that in place for renewable energy, the system has to work differently.  What you start to do is to step down the polluting sources of non-renewable energies and replace them with the non-polluting sources that are also income earners for households. This is what is currently within reach. 

I am always inspired by scientists that have something on or just beyond the horizon that I fail to understand. This is because I’m not a scientist and it may be that we need another set of ‘get out of jail’ cards. But what really excites me however, is knowing that what we have now is sufficient to get us all out of jail. 

We have to have the courage to make the structural shift to do things differently. Empowering ourselves would mean that we could do for the 21st Century what our forebears did at the beginning of the 19th Century.  We could be the drivers of a new energy revolution.  All we have to do is find the courage to make that leap and wrap it in a willingness to share.  I’m not asking for Utopian solutions.  I’m just asking for lots of solutions. There are things we need to try. Some may fail but others will far exceed our expectations.

So my rallying cry to you would be some lines from Leonard Cohen: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering.  There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” We are living in a system that is so cracked that if we only had the courage to shine our lights we will be astonished at how much light gets in.  That’s what I see this Green Energies report as being about. It is the ability to shine lights at a system that is so flawed and fractured that we just need a little courage to see the space that lies beyond it.  I hope we are brave enough to do so.

Transcribed by Sam Burcher at the I-SIS Green Energies Meeting at the Jubilee Room, Westminster 25th November 2009; edited by Sam Burcher and Dr Mae-Wan Ho.

Article first published 07/12/09

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There are 7 comments on this article so far. Add your comment above.

wildflower Comment left 8th December 2009 09:09:14
I think we have to do alot of therapy on the "mind of society" before any changes are really made. This is an inside job. I believe that society is "mentally ill" and until this illness is cured, we can do nothing to transform humanity and save the beauty that we love.

George Wade Comment left 23rd September 2010 22:10:16
One of the ways that therapy is working best on disabled children; whose parents and teachers have recognised, already, that they need help getting cured: is by combining Applied Behavioural Analysis with bio - medical care. Eg. chelation of heavy metals is one of the top scoring treatments. One therapy alone is only 'Half as effective' in round numbers. I don't know how you get a whole society to change its MIND, though: besides collapsing first. Possibly by communicating with everybody who has coherent quantum jazz consciousness? We should experiment with meditation; energy therapies, perhaps EFT; YouTube Video.

susan rigali Comment left 8th December 2009 04:04:12
Well we do have similar music and poetry preference. The job at hand though would take all of media to confuse or convince the public. I say it's possible because I saw it with the sale of two wars to our citizenry. Now imagine a war where there is no real enemy (kind of like the war on terror)instead it is the planet we inhabit where we choose to exist or fight for existence. I see the latter as our leaders and media failing humanity which emasculates any endeavor to innovate.

sharon kramer Comment left 8th December 2009 18:06:03
People do not realize that there is a science that impacts their lives everyday and in every way. The "media" does not just happen to put out false info consistant with industry on the issue de jour. THE SCIENCE OF MARKETING BY Pros has its fingers in every pie out there.

Margaret Powell-Joss Comment left 9th December 2009 02:02:12
At last someone who has pulled together some positive information. I want the UK/Scottish governments to emulate what's been happening on the Continent, especially in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden. Because I'd like this planet to be a livable place for my niece and nephews, and for their kids and then for a few generations more!

Antonio Pinto Comment left 9th December 2009 02:02:09
"90% of Germany’s electricity supply came from wind and PV." What?! I think it is more around 9% !! Please correct the above numbers in Simpson's othwerwise excellente report.

Seph Brown Comment left 9th December 2009 03:03:13
As Alan Simpson's reseacher I can assure you that the 90% figure is correct. What isn't necessarily clear in the speech is that Alan was referring to Germany's weekend consumption at that time, without the full weight of commercial and industrial demand. Hence his following line "though it was a bit of a problem Monday morning..." I hope this clears it up. Kind regards!