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The Overton window will leave us cold

Listeners to the BBC Today programme this morning will have heard the interview with Ralf Speth, CEO of Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), about the company’s plans to introduce several new lines of electric and electric hybrid cars.  In the course of the interview, Speth dropped three bombshells that threaten to destroy the UK government’s plan to ban internal combustion engine cars by 2050:

  • Britain’s lack of electricity generating capacity
  • The need to upgrade the National Grid
  • The need for a new recharging infrastructure.

Without these, Speth made clear, the internal combustion engine will continue to be manufactured for the foreseeable future.

The issues raised by Speth are familiar to those of us with an interest in energy and resource depletion, but are largely unknown to the wider public and almost never discussed in mainstream media.  For this reason, we might have expected the BBC interviewer to follow up with some secondary questions just to establish how big an obstacle these problems are to the widely held techno-utopian belief that we can simply swap from fossil fuels to ‘clean’ electricity and then continue with business as usual.

The BBC, unfortunately, has a different agenda; what is often referred to as its ‘Overton Window.’  Named after Joseph P. Overton, former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the Overton Window:

“Is an approach to identifying which ideas define the domain of acceptability within a democracy’s possible governmental policies. Proponents of policies outside the window seek to persuade or educate the public in order to move and/or expand the window. Proponents of current policies, or similar ones, within the window seek to convince people that policies outside it should be deemed unacceptable.

Increasingly, the BBC’s range of acceptable ideas and issues must concern or be linked in some way to the increasingly chaotic Brexit process.  As a result, rather than deviate from the approved script to ask the CEO of a major car manufacture if he is saying that without major infrastructure investment, electric cars are a non-starter, the interviewer moved straight on to questions around Brexit.

Brexit matters of course.  Speth pointed out that 40 percent of JLR components are imported from the EU; which will remain JTR’s most important market after Brexit is complete.  Clearly if the CEOs of Britain’s manufacturing export industries are concerned that the UK government is making a dog’s breakfast of the Brexit negotiations, that is a potential show-stopper to the supposed electric car future too.  However, compared to the three issues that went unquestioned by the BBC, Brexit is a mere sideshow.  In pure energy (rather than electricity) terms, renewable energy generation barely scratches the surface.  Britain has only been able to phase out coal generation by ramping up gas and by importing electricity from Europe.  Without the imports, the UK would have already experienced supply problems.  Even with imports, in future, capacity will be even more vulnerable.  While additional wind turbines, solar panels and tidal turbines can mitigate the problem to a small degree, Speth was correct in signalling that we would need a massive investment in new generating capacity if we intend using electricity to power all of the things that currently run on fossil fuels.  Nor would this be sufficient to get us out of the woods.  The National Grid – one of the most complex machines ever built – needs a radical upgrade if it is to handle the increased burden that will inevitably follow from switching vehicles and industrial processes that currently operate on fossil fuels to run on electricity in future.

As for the electric cars themselves, Speth is correct to point out that:

“The internal combustion engine is state of the art. We will see this internal combustion engine, petrol and diesels, for many years to come.”

My disagreement with Speth is that with less than 10 year’s oil production left in the North Sea (most of it in small and expensive to recover pockets) there is going to come a point where Britain will no longer be able to import all of the oil that we need to operate our vehicle fleet, transport systems, industry and our agriculture.  The likely impact of this is more complicated than most economists assume, since it is more likely to result in unemployment and wage cuts as production costs increase than directly into higher fuel prices.  That is, oil shortages are more likely to destroy demand than to increase prices.  Nevertheless, the issues that he raised – and that the BBC ignored – really are show-stoppers.  Britain is already running out of power.  All hopes now rest on some combination of shale gas and nuclear that in all likelihood will never materialise; nuclear is too expensive and profitable shale gas does not exist in the UK.  And, of course, there is no Plan-B.

It is possible that BBC editors understand this, and prefer not to alarm the populace by discussing it.  It is more likely, though, that they are as invested as everybody else in the dream of a ‘knowledge economy’ based around self-driving electric cars, 3-d printers and ‘the internet of things,’ all powered by renewable unicorn tears.  Far better to stick to the immediate issue inside the Overton Window than to peer outside for a moment and stare into the stony face of a near future in which we try to operate our economy with insufficient energy (of any kind).

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