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Not so renewable Britain

Read the headlines and you could be forgiven for laughing in the face of climate change and resource depletion.  Renewable energy, it seems, will win the day.  Take this example by Ian Johnston in the Independent:

“Renewable energy is a mainstream technology, which is cheaper and more advanced than ever.

“Renewable energy generated a record amount of electricity in the first three months of this year, making up more than 26 per cent of the total produced in the UK, according to new government figures.”

With good news like this, we can look forward to being fossil fuel free by 2030.  Except, of course, that it isn’t really good news at all.  Indeed, it is more like so many frightened children whistling in the dark to quell their nightmares.

Go to the government data behind the story and we see a very different picture.  Far from “technology more advanced than ever,” it turns out that the vast bulk of Britain’s renewable electricity (just 27 percent of the total) comes from two of the oldest energy technologies known to humanity – wood burning (9 percent) and wind (14 percent). Hydroelectric and solar pv account for 4 percent.  Tidal, wave and geothermal generation make up the remainder.  It is worth noting that biomass (wood burning) is at best semi-renewable – the more it is scaled up the more it relies on consuming wood faster than it can be grown.

Meanwhile, fossil fuels continue to dominate Britain’s electricity generation with coal (11 percent) gas (40 percent) and oil (3 percent) accounting for double the output from renewables.  Nuclear power makes up the remaining 19 percent of Britain’s electricity.

Even more worrying though, is that electricity generation accounts for a small fraction of the total energy that our economy, transport, industry, agriculture and households consume.  Government data on fossil fuel dependency shows that 82 percent of our energy comes from fossil fuels.  The only notable switch between fuels in the last year involved a rise in gas consumption offsetting a fall in oil and coal use.

Johnston reports this (frankly catastrophic) data as complacently as is possible:

“The UK has been doing relatively well in switching to low-carbon electricity, but has performed less well in the domestic heating and transport sectors.”

With climate scientists warning that we may have just three years within which to decarbonise our way of life if we are to meet our Paris Agreement targets, and with growing concern that the oil and gas industry is rapidly approaching maximum output, net energy importing countries like the UK are in serious trouble.  The debate we desperately need is about the kind of economy and society we will be able to have as the energy available to us diminishes.  This, however, is too bitter a problem for politicians and mainstream journalists to contemplate.  Instead we are treated to the green energy equivalent of virtue signalling and the promise of yet to be invented technologies that will be powered by unicorn tears.

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