One of the advantages of being a rocky island in the northeast Atlantic, right underneath the Gulf Stream is that you get to deploy record amounts of offshore wind turbines to delay the day when your economy grinds to a halt. This is the reality of modern Britain – a country that built an empire with coal; but which now produces less coal than it did at the heart of the 1984-85 miners’ strike. The handful of open cast pits that remain provide coal for a declining steel industry rather than for the remainder of the fleet of coal power stations that used to keep the UK’s lights on.
Right up to the 1950s, Britain was powered by local coal plants based within the towns and cities they supplied; coal also providing the “town gas” that people used for cooking and lighting. The “pea-soup” fogs of the 1950s put an end to that arrangement, however, as a new generation of much larger coal plants were constructed well outside the towns they supplied. The last of these was built in the 1970s. And as a result of the structure of the privatised electricity industry from the mid-1980s, together with the rising cost of imported coal, there has been no commercial incentive for energy supply companies to make the massive investment required to build more new coal plants.
One result of this was that it offered the incoming New Labour government in 1997 the opportunity to virtue signal its green credentials without actually having to do anything. Indicating that Britain would begin to phase out its coal power plants was little more than putting a green gloss on commercial decisions that had already been taken as the coal plants came to the end of their lives.
At various times since, governments have looked to some combination of nuclear, wind, wood-burning and solar to keep the lights on in future. At every turn, however, they have been obliged to turn to gas as the only means of powering the economy after coal. It is in this – rather than the usual greenwashed – context that we should treat media stories last month.
As early as 8 May, Jeremy Hodges at Bloomberg gave us the largely fake news that:
“U.K.’s Coal-Free Week Shows How Cleaner Energy Is Taking Over…
“Great Britain has quickly moved away from using coal as one of its main power sources by shutting plants and installing more offshore wind turbines than any other country. The fuel’s share in the energy mix has dropped to just 5 percent from 40 percent six years ago. This year has already seen more than 1,000 coal-free hours, or about a third of the total.”
By the end of the month the BBC was amplifying the narrative after Britain had gone for two weeks without using coal to generate electricity:
“Britain has not used coal to generate electricity for two weeks – the longest period since the 1880s… The longest period without coal before now ended on 9 May, when Britain lasted just over a week.”
Since the government announced that all coal power stations will be forced to close by 2025, the generating companies have had even less incentive even to maintain the fleet, still less build any more. But the winner from this is not wind and solar, but gas, which now supplies the bulk of Britain’s electricity. Even so, the stipulation that supply companies must purchase wind and solar power ahead of gas and nuclear means that generators have not invested in sufficient gas capacity either. Moreover, with wind and solar reaching the point where it is causing grid engineers difficulty in balancing supply and frequency, the lack of investment leaves the UK dangerously reliant on imports from the continent to make up for any shortfall in domestic production.
The potential for serious disruption was witnessed the winter before last when the so-called “Beast from the East” resulted in a big spike in demand for heat and power just at the point when Britain was experiencing shortages of imported gas. It was only the ability to ramp up the electricity generated by the remaining coal plants, along with the shutdown of large industrial power users, which kept (most of) the lights on and prevented a largescale loss of life.
With each year that passes, Britain’s ability to withstand what was, in reality, a small and short-lived cold snap is diminished. Gas capacity has not increased; and the collapse of the fracking mirage has finally brought home to anyone who is paying attention that Britain will be dependent on imported gas for decades to come. New nuclear might ease the burden, but only one of the three proposed new plants is being built; and is unlikely to be online in time to fill the gap left by the closing coal plants. Meanwhile, the deployment of wind and solar has slowed, leaving the UK increasingly dependent upon imported electricity from Holland and France to fill the gap. Unfortunately, this is the same French and Dutch electricity that Germany will be using to fill the gap left by its insane decision to phase out nuclear instead of coal.
The irony in all this is that the closure of the coal plants is not even much of a victory for the environment; whose real problem is that there are at least 6.5bn too many humans consuming what remains of the planet in an unstoppable orgy of destruction. The degree of reduction – and denial – that is required here is staggering:
- The entire human impact is reduced solely to climate change
- Climate change is reduced to greenhouse gases
- Greenhouse gases are reduced to carbon dioxide
- Carbon dioxide is reduced to just that proportion produced by generating electricity
- Electricity-related carbon emissions are reduced to just those caused by burning coal
- And then, when none of our primary energy is generated from coal, we can portray this as a victory in the battle to save our environment.
Note, by the way, that most of our secondary energy – embodied in the goods that we buy – is consumed in China; the world’s biggest coal user. The big deception is that we have weaned ourselves off coal; when in reality we have just exported our coal burning to someone else’s country. Meanwhile, all of the other anti-environmental activities we engage in – like commercial flight, driving cars, keeping large pets, eating processed food and (worst of all) having additional children – continue to grow unchallenged.
The real story behind Britain’s coal-free fortnight is that the day is coming when we will no longer be able to balance supply and demand. It will begin with power outages, but will spread to the gas supply and the currently taken for granted supply of fuel at the filling stations. In this, Britain is merely leading the way that the rest of Europe and eventually the rest of the world will have to follow. Not because we will have switched to some bright green future of unlimited “clean” energy; but because Mother Earth will have obliged us to do that which we declined when we were warned half a century ago… to stop trying to have infinite economic growth on a finite planet. As the gas, coal and oil imports dry up – because what remains is too expensive to dig out of the ground – so the “renewable” energy technologies – which depend upon fossil fuels at every step in their manufacture, deployment and maintenance – will go away too.
The renewable energy future that we are going to end up with is far from the techno-utopian nirvana offered in the various Green New Deals that will most likely be industrial civilisation’s last shake of the dice; but something that is at best akin to the pre-industrial societies of medieval Europe.
As you made it to the end…
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