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A little knowledge is a terrible thing

One reason why nationalist populists like Trump are able to get away with calling mainstream media “enemies of the people” is that those outlets all too often fabricate stories.  This has more to do with falling advertising revenues and increased competition for people’s attention than with grand conspiracy (although that, too, frames some political coverage).  Evidence of this is to be found in seemingly uncontentious subject matter such as developments in energy.  As an example, consider Paul Brown’s entirely fabricated Guardian comment on UK nuclear power:

“Ministers, journalists and pro-nuclear politicians of all stripes keep repeating the mantra that baseload power is needed to keep the lights on when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine.

“In 2020 this statement is no longer true and excess baseload power is becoming an embarrassment. Nuclear power, so inflexible that it cannot be turned down or off, is surplus to requirements when large quantities of cheaper renewable energy are available…

“The problem of intermittency has not been completely cracked because the grid and technology needs updating to cope with the occasional shortfalls of renewables but batteries, pump storage, biogas turbines and other engineering tricks are rapidly solving the problem.”

This will no doubt come as news to the engineers charged with upgrading the UK electricity grid to meet the government target of zero carbon emissions by 2050.  It will also come as something of a surprise to the Grid controllers who spent most of last week desperately attempting to keep Britain’s lights on as a result of massive shortages of wind.  On Tuesday of last week, grid data showed a combination of nuclear, coal and gas providing 78.74% of the UK’s electricity.  Wind contributed a puny 4.45%; with imports from the continent providing most of the remainder:

If Brown – and presumably the Guardian – had their way, Britain would have been subject to rolling blackouts throughout last week as a result of the high pressure weather system that settled over the country.  And last week was hardly extreme (other than in the pressure) by comparison to high pressure cold snaps.  During the winter of 1981-82, for example, temperatures fell below minus 20 centigrade.  Last week the temperature across most of the UK remained just above freezing.

The problem facing the UK in the 2020s is not that it has too much nuclear power, but because almost all of its nuclear power stations – along with all of the remaining coal – is going to be shut down by the end of the decade.  Brown’s fabled batteries currently provide a mere 500MW of storage capacity, and nobody is in a hurry to spend the trillions of pounds needed to hollow out Scottish and Welsh mountains to provide anything like the scale of pumped storage needed to bridge the gap.

Gas is what bridges most of the gap when the wind stops blowing and the sun is too low on the horizon to make a difference.  Take away nuclear and coal – as the UK is committed to doing – and there is simply no way that gas can bridge the gap.  Worse still, imports – both of electricity and gas – are threatened as a result of the UK leaving the European Union.  As Euractive reports:

“Britain depends on the European Union for much of its electricity supply.  Its own generation fell in 2018 by 1.6%, according to the latest available statistics. This reduction stems from the gradual shutdown of coal-fired power plants, which is yet to be fully compensated by a rise in wind power.

“Imports of electricity and gas have increased in response, predominantly from France, the Netherlands and Ireland, which now account for almost 40% of Britain’s energy consumption… [this figure is misleading, imports are around 10% of UK electricity consumption; while Norwegian (non-EU) gas makes up most of the UK gas imports – TW]

“British industry regulator Ofgem has said ‘alternative trading arrangements will need to be developed’, without giving further details. It insists that whatever deal is struck, it does not ‘expect Brexit to interrupt the flows of electricity and gas’.  But at times of peak demand, Britain may find itself at the back of the line for electricity.  ‘EU countries could get preference,’ Weijie Mak, of research company Aurora, told AFP.

The same issue was raised in the UK government’s Yellowhammer Brexit contingency planning document; so we should not dismiss it solely as negotiating pressure from the EU.  Britain is close to the end of the European gas pipeline, and so cannot take the additional supply for granted in the event of a (far from unusual) cold snap impacting most of northwest Europe.  Nor should UK grid operators assume that European grid operators will disconnect French, Dutch or German industries in order to keep Britain’s lights on.

Far from rapidly solving the problems posed by a government (largely made up of lawyers, accountants and economists) policy that struggles to conform to the laws of physics, grid engineers are being driven to an early grave by the stress created by pulling the main supports out from beneath a grid that was designed to run on fossil fuels.  As an example of the scale of the challenge that Brown and the Guardian glibly dismiss, Sky News reports that:

“A mass recruitment drive involving hundreds of thousands of people is needed by the energy sector if the UK’s 2050 target for zero net emissions is to be met, a new report claims.

“The National Grid says 400,000 skilled tradespeople, engineers and other specialists are required across the industry, with at least 117,000 of them needed in the next 10 years.

“However the report says the sector is facing stiff competition for staff from other areas such as tech and finance, while a looming retirement crunch and not enough young people choosing to study science, technology, engineering and maths, are making matters worse.”

An energy transition which requires this number of new skilled workers is simply not going to happen.  Nor is the UK in a position to easily afford the £3.75bn per year additional wage bill (based on the average electrical engineer salary) for the 117,000 new workers in the 2020s; still less the £12.8bn annual wage bill in the 2030s and 2040s.  In the event that government continues adding the cost of upgrading the energy grid onto household bills, this amounts to an annual increase of £667 for every household in the UK.  At a time when household purchasing power – still lower in real terms than in 2008 – has fallen to the point that tens of thousands of retail jobs are being lost, it is doubtful that the economy can afford the additional cost without being plunged into recession.

It is far from clear why outlets like the Guardian, which are supposedly pro-green energy, go out of their way to trivialise the scale of the task facing any state/economy that wishes/has to wean itself off fossil fuels.  Possibly the piece is a side swipe at Rolls Royce for developing and promising to deploy a new generation of small modular reactors in the 2030s.  For the moment, though, these are as experimental as most of Brown’s mythical storage technologies.  More level-headed commentators liken the task ahead of us of us to the effort required to fight World War Two or to landing men on the moon.  However, as Mark P. Mills put it in an article for Forbes last year:

“This popular rhetorical analogy is in fact another profound category error. Transforming the energy economy is not like putting a dozen people on the moon a handful of times. It is like putting all of humanity on the moon —permanently. To do the latter would require science and engineering that doesn’t exist today.”

Or as Tad Patzek points out:

“To compare the WWII industrial effort with the global dislocation necessary to ameliorate some of the effects of climate change is surprisingly naive and proves that the three professors got Ds in their history electives, if they had any.  This comparison also neglects to account for the human population that has almost quadrupled between the 1940s and now, and the resource consumption that has increased almost 10-fold.  The world today cannot grow its industrial production the way we did during WWII.  There is simply not enough of the planet Earth left to be devoured.”

In other words, the effort needed to switch to some barely comfortable alternative economy which can run solely on renewable energy demands that we halt all non-transitional activity immediately in order to harness what few fuels and resources remain accessible to us.  There is simply no means by which most of us can continue with our current activities – including writing and reading blog posts – if we are to have a serious coordinated energy transition.  Fossil fuels are a finite resource; and we have already burned our way through the cheap and easy deposits.  And to be clear here; this is not something we have a choice about.  The energy cost of extracting the remaining fossil fuels keeps increasing; with the result that ever more of our energy (and resources) will have to be used to secure energy, leaving ever less for operating the wider economy.  New technologies can maintain – and even temporarily increase – the rate of production; but only at an increased energy cost.

If all we faced was a climate crisis we might, perhaps, tolerate Guardian propaganda pieces aimed at exaggerating UK progress ahead of the COP 2020 conference in Glasgow later this year.  The fundamental crisis before us, however, is an energy crisis.  If, in some mystical alternate universe, humanity had access to an energy source far more energy-dense than oil, we could perform feats that are beyond us today.  We could refine fuel and minerals from sea water, recycle almost everything we consume, suck greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, return vast tracts of land to currently endangered species, etc.  But no such energy source exists on planet Earth today; and renewable energy is orders of magnitude less energy-dense than oil. 

The sad reality is that the zero-carbon economy of the future is more likely to look like medieval England – and with a similarly small population – than the Star Trek future that so many green energy enthusiasts fantasise about.  And until we are prepared to acknowledge this, no serious efforts will be made to spare us the worst of the combined energy, environmental and economic catastrophe that awaits us.

As you made it to the end…

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