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Barnacle goose chicks, the energy market, and the failures of state planning

By Guy Newey Wednesday 17 December 2014

In this article, I am going to talk about Edwin Plowden, a powerful civil servant in the 1960s, and barnacle goose chicks. I am going to try and argue that these two phenomena hold crucial lesson for the current Energy and Climate Select Committee inquiry into the future of UK energy policy. Bear with me.

Plowden was a classic mandarin. He led several important agencies and committees during the 1950s to 1970s. This includes chairmanship of the Atomic Energy Authority. This agency, to no-one’s great surprise, was in favour of expanding nuclear power in the UK. He was also chair of a committee reviewing the structure of state-owned electricity businesses. After careful consideration of the future of UK energy policy, it concluded, as the people who run these kind of committees often say, that the industry need to speak ‘with a single voice’. The industry duly centralised decision-making even further and decided to step up a huge programme of new AGR nuclear reactors. This was a catastrophic decision. When the electricity system was privatised in the 1990s, the extent of the nuclear money-wasting was finally revealed: “If the CEGB had been a commercial company the write-off [on nuclear power programme] would have represented by far the largest loss made by any company, anywhere, in business history,” the economist John Kay wrote.

Barnacle goose chicks are extraordinary creatures, and have become famous since starring in David Attenborough’s recent Life on Earth series. The tiny chicks hatch in a precarious nest balancing at the top of a cliff edge to avoid predators. But there is not enough food at the top of the cliff, so the young chicks have to get down to a lower altitude to avoid starving. But they are too young to fly. So they jump. They jump 400 feet and hope, yes hope, they don’t smash into too many rocks on the way down to meet their parents. In an apparent miracle, around a third of the chicks survive. It turns out that evolution discovered this perilous early life is better for the species’ long-term survival than taking their chances in a less vertiginous location.

While watching this wonder of evolution, I asked myself how improbable it would be to think of that miracle jump as the right answer to the problem of improving survival rates. If some Jurassic-era Lord Plowden had been appointed as chair of the Parliamentary Investigation into Improving the Life Chances of Barnacle Goose chicks and had collected the best and the brightest of his time to join him (or at least some of his old chums), what would they have come up with? They would have mandated a better nest-building training programme. 

They might have suggested sharper beaks to ward off predators. Perhaps a subsidised culling programme of their predators. I find it extremely unlikely that they would have recommended that the best way of improving survival rates was to locate the nests hundreds of feet above the birds’ key food source and then ordered them to jump to get down without giving them the power of flight. And even if they did recommend it, they would have been ridiculed into obscurity by the Jurassic Bugler, or whatever was the scaremongering tabloid paper of the day.

So what does this mean for the Select Committee inquiry into the UK energy system beyond 2030? The inquiry is certainly the right one to hold. The question of what a post-2030 energy system should look like is of crucial importance to the future of the UK’s economy and the environment. But the lesson of Lord Plowden and the barnacle goose chicks is that the answer is essentially unknowable. Would a similar committee in the US in 2005 have predicted the shale boom? Would a similar body of experts in 2008 have predicted the collapsing price of solar? These phenomena took most experts by surprise. This fact it took them by surprise should be surprising.

So what to do when faced with this radical uncertainty? Well think like an evolutionary biologist, of course. Government’s job is to create the conditions for small-scale experimentation and feedback and unleash creativity. It is not to predict the future and make centralised decisions that will inevitably go wrong, just like the AGR programme.

What do we know about what we want a low carbon system to look like in 2030 and beyond? We know that we want a low carbon energy system. There are amazing energy innovations happening all the time in everything from radical demand reduction to fourth generation nuclear, from distributed battery systems to carbon capture and storage. I have no idea which ones will work and which ones will fail.

Government should be part of that experimentation, funding lots of research. But it should be limited and not stifle the greater innovation that will come from wider society trying things out and learning what works and what does not. Remembering that Lord Plowden would not have come up with barnacle goose chicks nesting habits is the first step.