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An object lesson in greenwashing

The same mainstream media that told us last month that we had a “climate emergency” that required urgent action seems determined to lull us back to sleep with a large dose of Bright Green hopium today.  That, at least is the only conclusion one can reasonably arrive at when Jeremy Hodges at Bloomberg informs us that:

“The U.K. will generate more energy from low-carbon sources than from fossil fuels this year for the first time since the Industrial Revolution.

“Wind, solar, hydro and nuclear plants provided 48% of the nation’s electricity in the first five months of 2019, according to the U.K. network operator National Grid Plc. Coal, which made up more than 30% of the mix a decade ago, fed just 2.5% at the end of May.

“Britain has led major economies in decarbonizing its power systems as it exits burning coal for power by 2025 and has installed more offshore wind turbines than anyone else. So far this year, the country has gone without burning coal for around 1,900 hours, the equivalent of 80 days. That included a record-breaking run of 18 full days without the dirtiest fossil fuel.”

Nor is Bloomberg the only cheerleader for the green energy industry.  The BBC’s Roger Harrabin also reports on this apparent feat of green new dealism:

“National Grid says that in the past decade, coal generation will have plunged from 30% to 3%.

“Meanwhile, wind power has shot up from 1% to 19%.

“Mini-milestones have been passed along the way. In May, for instance, Britain clocked up its first coal-free fortnight and generated record levels of solar power for two consecutive days.”

After informing us that this is really important because we need to lower our greenhouse gas emissions, Harrabin repeats the unfounded belief that electric vehicles will take the place of fossil fuels in balancing supply and demand on the basis of the unlikely claim that as a result of yet-to-be-proven “smart technologies” their owners will be happy for the electricity companies to drain electricity from their batteries while the cars are supposed to be charging.

Harrabin, gives the lie to this greenwash in a chart he reproduces from National Grid:

This shows that it is gas rather than renewables that is the dominant energy source in the UK; and is likely to be for many years to come (not least because a large part of Britain’s nuclear power is at the end of its lifespan).  There is also the unasked question as to where “biomass” fits.  A small amount of UK biomass comes from anaerobic digesters which separate methane from manure and decaying vegetation.  The large part, however, comes from the Drax converted coal power station, whose voracious appetite for wood is devastating North American forests, and whose greenhouse gas emissions are higher than the coal plants it is meant to replace.  Put UK biomass in its correct place alongside coal and gas and you falsify the story; carbon-emitting generation continues – albeit by the smallest margin – to outstrip low-carbon alternatives.

In fairness, Harrabin does concede that ‘the electricity sector was seen as the easiest place to start’.  But even this observation may obscure more than it clarifies.  As with everything else energy-related, the deployment of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies has proceeded on a lowest hanging fruit basis.  The combination of state subsidies and business investment, together with the transfer of manufacturing to Asia helped drive the price of the technologies (but not the necessary infrastructure) well below the cost of fossil fuels (which continue to be essential in balancing loads).  At levels of penetration now seen in several European countries, however, the cost of overcoming the weaknesses inherent in wind and solar power is beginning to accelerate.

Worse still, as the rest of the world seeks to follow the UK’s lead, and as developing states seek to jump straight to non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies; there is growing competition for the planet’s fast-depleting mineral resources.  As Prof Richard Herrington, Head of Earth Sciences at the Natural History Museum warns:

“Over the next few decades, global supply of raw materials must drastically change to accommodate not just the UK’s transformation to a low carbon economy, but the whole world’s. Our role as scientists is to provide the evidence for how best to move towards a zero-carbon economy – society needs to understand that there is a raw material cost of going green and that both new research and investment is urgently needed for us to evaluate new ways to source these. This may include potentially considering sources much closer to where the metals are to be used.”

Herrington is particularly scathing about the assumption that we can simply switch to electric cars over the next couple of decades:

“To replace all UK-based vehicles today with electric vehicles (not including the LGV and HGV fleets), assuming they use the most resource-frugal next-generation NMC 811 batteries, would take 207,900 tonnes cobalt, 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate (LCE), at least 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium, in addition to 2,362,500 tonnes copper. This represents, just under two times the total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production during 2018. Even ensuring the annual supply of electric vehicles only, from 2035 as pledged, will require the UK to annually import the equivalent of the entire annual cobalt needs of European industry…

“There are serious implications for the electrical power generation in the UK needed to recharge these vehicles. Using figures published for current EVs (Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe), driving 252.5 billion miles uses at least 63 TWh of power. This will demand a 20% increase in UK generated electricity… If wind farms are chosen to generate the power for the projected two billion cars at UK average usage, this requires the equivalent of a further years’ worth of total global copper supply and 10 years’ worth of global neodymium and dysprosium production to build the windfarms.

“Solar power is also problematic – it is also resource hungry; all the photovoltaic systems currently on the market are reliant on one or more raw materials classed as “critical” or “near critical” by the EU and/ or US Department of Energy (high purity silicon, indium, tellurium, gallium) because of their natural scarcity or their recovery as minor-by-products of other commodities. With a capacity factor of only ~10%, the UK would require ~72GW of photovoltaic input to fuel the EV fleet; over five times the current installed capacity. If CdTe-type photovoltaic power is used, that would consume over thirty years of current annual tellurium supply.”

As demand for these critical minerals increases – especially if, as expected, western governments adopt some variant of a green new deal to offset the gathering economic storm – so too will their price.  This is not lost on science advisors who advise government ministers behind closed doors.  For example, a New Zealand committee established to examine plans for decarbonising the economy has concluded that further decarbonisation of the electricity system is counterproductive.  In a report leaked to Stuff magazine they note that:

“High electricity prices would slow the decarbonisation of the wider economy, making it more difficult for New Zealand to meet its target under the Paris Agreement to cut greenhouse emissions…

“Instead of focusing on 100 per cent renewable electricity generation, the committee urged the Government consider New Zealand’s energy use as a whole, with industrial heat and the transport sectors generating far more in terms of carbon emissions than electricity.”

This problem arises for both households and industry.  Money that has to be spent on the higher electricity bills that have been common around the world is money that cannot be invested to lower consumption.  A household whose electricity bills eat away their disposable income is not in a position to install double glazing, insulate walls and ceilings or swap gas central heating for an electric heat pump system.  In the same way, a business whose profit margins are eaten up with increased electricity bills is not about to invest in expensive energy saving technologies; still less swapping its internal combustion engine vehicles for electric ones.

In this sense, the continued installation of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies exacerbates an economic trend that is already taking its toll in the UK.  The electricity industry business model is based upon the belief that our demand for energy will continue to grow.  As a consequence of general inflation, wage stagnation and austerity policies, however, Britons are finding it increasingly difficult to pay for electricity.  This has led to a two-fold response.  On the one hand – and celebrated by the bright green lobby – households and businesses have turned to the low hanging (and low-cost) fruit of energy efficiency (installing LED lightbulbs, turning down thermostats, wearing an extra layer, etc.)  On the other hand, and especially among the millions of households experiencing “energy poverty,” people have simply been disconnecting themselves – perhaps not entirely shivering in the dark; but only using that electricity that is considered essential.

One result of this declining energy use has been that the brave new world of open competition envisaged by the UK government has fallen flat on its face.  As a new report from Citizens’ Advice warns:

“British energy customers are facing a potential bill of £172 million from the collapse of 11 suppliers since January 2018. On top of this, thousands of people who owed money to failed suppliers lost out on consumer protections and faced aggressive debt collection as a result…”

New entrants to the market had offered too low a price based on the assumption that their customers would use the saving as a reason to consume more electricity when, in practice, they used the saving to fund shortfalls elsewhere in their budgets.  Meanwhile, the “big six” suppliers – whose near monopoly position was supposed to be broken by the new competitors – are increasingly subsidising their domestic electricity business out of profits from industrial users and from the proceeds of investment in the fossil fuel sector.

There is also a political dimension that it is becoming difficult to ignore.  This was raised by some of the participants of a recent energy discussion reported by Christopher Snowden at the Spectator:

“Phil Graham said that switching gas boilers to zero-carbon alternatives, such as hydrogen, is going to require more money. Charlie Ogilvie (Special Adviser to Claire Perry MP) noted that the government’s goal of getting all homes up to Band C by 2035 will cost between £35 billion and £65 billion. While the lower cost of electrified transport could make up for it, this is still a hard sell. Ultimately, said Andrew Neil, the costs of decarbonisation will be met by ordinary people through higher taxation or higher prices. He named several political parties, including the Australian Labor Party and Macron’s En Marche, that have lost public support in recent months as a result of green policies. With all this top-down planning, could there be a democratic deficit?

“But what about the political backlash? Will there be anger at shareholders getting rich while people pay more? Will there be a call for state ownership?”

Perhaps the biggest problem of all, however, is that for all of the deployment of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies around the world, our greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase; with only the prospect of a new recession on the horizon to provide temporary relief.  If eye-watering domestic energy prices are a hard sell in their own right to a population whose discretionary income has collapsed since 2008; they are even more so as it becomes clear that they are failing to dent the environmental problem for which they are proffered as the best solution.

Greenwash this any way you like, but the growing difficulties emerging in the UK and Europe as non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies account for a greater proportion of electricity generation can only get worse from now on.  And in the end, the leaked report of the New Zealand Interim Climate Change Committee is far more honest than the green energy lobby in stating what ought to be patently obvious – if our intention is to stop pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, then we need to stop doing all of the things – including economic growth and having babies – that cause greenhouse gas emissions.  We cannot grow our way out of the consequences of growth; but it is easier to brush over this inconvenient truth in bright green paint than it is to take the hard decisions that are now essential.

As you made it to the end…

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