Anyone who has examined renewable energy in any depth is forced to conclude that it simply will not work. This is not because we lack the knowledge or the technical know-how to run a modern global economy without burning fossil carbon. Rather, it is because we have left it far too late. Had we begun to deploy renewables in the 1970s, when a series of oil shocks focused attention on the problem of reliable energy supplies, we might have managed it. Indeed, had we made the change then, the additional investment in research and development would have brought technologies that we are only developing today into being several decades ago. Sadly, we chose not to.
The predicament that faces us today is that our remaining fossil carbon fuels are far too expensive – obliging us to spend more and more of our energy and resources on recovering them – while climate change means that even if we can afford to recover fossil carbon, we dare not burn it for much longer. However, we lack the means to deploy the alternative low carbon technologies in the time remaining.
The Green Movement, quite understandably, has lobbied – often successfully – for the rapid deployment of renewable energy technology as the best response to our predicament. They have, however, usually overstated our ability to switch from fossil carbon to renewables, while seriously understating the economic, social and political consequences of attempting to do so. To put it simply, we cannot operate our just-in-time global economy – which depends on liquid fuels for more than 90 percent of its transportation – on anything other than oil. Shifting perhaps a quarter of our electricity consumption from coal to renewables does nothing to change this.
Before his untimely death last year, genial British physicist David MacKay set out the gargantuan scale of the problem of switching away from fossil carbon fuels. Even with the addition of new nuclear, MacKay’s model is difficult to achieve. In practice, with the economy still on life-support eight years after the 2008 crash, we simply lack the capital, resources and skilled labour force required to realise the vision of a low-carbon (i.e electric-powered) economy in the time we have before fossil carbon shortages kill the global economy.
In recent years, Britain’s margin of energy supply over demand has shrunk alarmingly. On several occasions the National Grid has been forced to switch off high-energy consuming industrial customers in order to keep household lights on. As energy shortages and the “energy death spiral” deepen, we will soon experience unpredictably intermittent electricity supply. As Peter Dominiczak in the Telegraph warns:
“Britain’s increasing reliance on ‘intermittent’ renewable energy means that the country is facing an unprecedented supply crisis.”
It is the unpredictability of intermittent supply that makes it particularly difficult to live with. Unlike the “three-day-week” policy in 1974, in which businesses and households were given advance notice of power cuts, in the near future we can expect random power outages that will add considerably to the cost of doing business, and make routine household activities like shopping, cooking and cleaning increasingly difficult.
As we have documented, our current energy predicament is the product of poor decision-making by successive governments since 1979. But it is unlikely to be seen that way today. Dominiczak is just one of a growing number of right-wing commentators to point the finger of blame at environmental policy:
“Britain has lost fuel capacity because of the closure of coal mines, there is now ‘much less flexibility’ for suppliers.”
In this way, the coming shortage of affordable fossil carbon fuels is disguised by an attack on environmentalists for promoting climate policies that appear to choose renewables over coal. What Dominiczak fails to note is that British coal production peaked way back in 1913! The need for coal in two world wars, together with a post-war desire to maintain full-employment helped to keep the mining industry open into the 1980s. And while we may take issue with the ruthless means by which the Thatcher government brought UK coal mining to a conclusion (the last deep mine limped on until 2015) the fact is that most of Britain’s remaining coal – outside a handful of open cast sites – is too expensive to recover. Irrespective of climate change, the failure to plan for the day when UK coal extraction came to an end will go down as gross negligence on the part of governments of all parties.
It is likely that when the lights go out, anti-fracking campaigners will face similar accusations. Although fracking on any serious scale is an unaffordable pipe dream, rather than understand that its failure is due to Britain’s tortured geology and the unaffordable cost of extracting what little gas is technically recoverable, the energy companies will want to blame protestors for standing in the way of the fracking industry.
The dilemma for environmental campaigners is that avoiding blame for the energy crisis involves letting go of the fiction that we can switch to green energy in the timeframe required. Only by acknowledging that we messed up several decades ago can we hope to place blame where it correctly belongs – on the corporate interests, deluded economists and craven politicians who were negligent enough to believe that “leaving it to market forces” was a credible long-term energy policy.