The election of an independent mayor in Bristol offers opportunities for truly creative policy-making. In this guest post Chris Cook, a former market regulator in futures and petroleum markets and now senior research fellow at UCL, suggests a novel financing mechanism for funding a rapid expansion of Bristol’s renewable infrastructure as one step on the road to what he calls a ‘natural grid’.
One of the key objectives of any 21st century political administration – and Bristol is no different - is how to achieve energy independence and energy security by becoming as self sufficient in energy as possible. Energy independence for Bristol can be achieved in two ways: firstly by investment in Bristol renewable energy, and secondly, by massive investment in energy efficiency. 21st Century problems cannot be solved with 20th century solutions, but the irony is that the radical funding solutions leading to energy independence may be found prior to the advent of modern banking in1694.
It has been long forgotten, but for many hundreds of years British sovereigns financed their expenditure though issuing undated IOUs – at a discount enabling a profit - to creditors who provided value in exchange. These IOUs were returnable in payment for taxes and that part of the wooden 'tally stick' record issued to a creditor as a token of the IOU was known as the 'stock'.
Interestingly, the phrase 'rate of return' describes the rate at which the creditor could generate his profit by returning his IOU/stock to the Exchequer for cancellation. The more tax he was due to pay, the quicker was the rate of return of the stock.
Now, while the idea that the mayor's administration might fund itself by issuing prepaid rates 'stock' at a discount in this way is a fascinating one, it happens to be illegal, and this proposal is rather more pragmatic, being achievable immediately, with no change in any law.
Both renewable energy and energy efficiency are free. Clearly, if renewable energy or energy savings can be packaged and sold to investors at the right price, then necessary capital investment can be funded. But there are several problems with conventional sterling (£) funding of renewable energy.
Firstly, compound interest on bank borrowings: a debt doubles in 10 years at 7% compound interest. Secondly, electricity is sold at a low price to a wholesaler, who makes as much profit as the regulator permits when selling to retail customers. Thirdly, the high rates of return demanded by investors in respect of shares in Victorian vintage 'Joint Stock' Limited Liability Companies.
Then, to add insult to injury, because most renewable energy development is by foreign owned companies, most of these fat profits from UK renewable energy are hoovered out of the UK. So, let's put renewable energy investment to one side for the moment and look at the low-hanging fruit: massive investment in energy efficiency – or a Bristol Green Deal.
The Gas Pool
The Gas Pool will be a fund, administered by an ethical and competent provider of financial services such as Triodos Bank. The proposition for Investors is that they may buy units in the Pool, and that these units will be denominated, like their gas bill, in MMbtu's of heat energy. So investors may invest directly in the value of natural gas. However, in addition to only being able to sell units conventionally (or unconventionally) to other investors they will also have the 'stock' choice of returning their units in payment for gas bills.
Note here that in the US there are billions of dollars invested in natural gas and other energy funds by investors who observe zero% interest on Treasury Bill investment, while the Federal Reserve Bank prints new dollars massively. These risk averse 'inflation hedger' investors do not seek a return on their capital: they simply seek a return of their capital.
The Bristol Gas Pool will invest – alongside the existing Green Deal and complementary to it – in 'micro' level energy saving investments in homes and the resulting 'Gas Loans' will be repaid as occupiers buy back units in the Gas Pool at the gas market £ price via their gas bill.
The conventional bank debt funded Green Deal suffers from two flaws: firstly, compound interest at perhaps 7%, and secondly, the behavioural problem that even though people may save £ there is no guarantee they will save energy. However, with Gas Loans, there is firstly no compound interest, since the return to investors is in the energy value of gas, and secondly unless occupiers use less energy then they will not save £. With the right legal and financial structure, such a Bristol Green Deal could be introduced tomorrow.
A Natural Grid
But of course, investment in homes addresses only part of the problem. The UK needs a least energy cost 'Natural Grid' which is complementary to the 'least £ cost' National Grid currently festooning the country's beauty spots with pylons. Denmark leads the way here, both with retrofitting 'macro' infrastructure (eg Copenhagen's 150km hot water grid) and with massive 'bottom up' investment in community level heat infrastructure, such as combined heat and power, and heat storage.
Such macro and 'meso' level investment in Bristol – such as a network of community level modular Combined Heat & Power installations- may be funded using similar techniques. But exactly how that works would be - like resolution of unsustainable Bristol property debt using similar investment techniques – for another radical Bristol policy story.