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Britain has more than enough hot air

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Critics of the UK government were quick to point out that the promised £160m to kick start Britain’s transition to 100% renewable electricity was woefully inadequate.  For example:

“Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green Party, said: ‘For decades, Greens have been arguing that the UK is ideally placed to become a world leader in onshore and offshore wind power… However, the level of investment proposed by the prime minister is nowhere near matching his rhetoric. The £160m for wind power due to be announced today falls far short of the £48bn that analysts say is necessary’.”

Friends of the government will no doubt object that the £160m is intended “to upgrade ports and infrastructure across communities like in Teesside and Humber in Northern England, Scotland and Wales to hugely increase our offshore wind capacity…”  The bulk of the proposed investment will have to come from the energy generating companies and will ultimately be paid by consumers rather than taxpayers (i.e. it will disproportionately impact those who are least able to pay).

This is not the biggest problem with a government announcement which, one suspects, has more to do with earning a few green points ahead of the postponed UN climate change conference in Glasgow.  A larger problem can be found in the government’s press release, which explains that:

“…offshore wind will produce more than enough electricity to power every home in the country by 2030, based on current electricity usage…” (My emphasis).

This would be fine if the aim was for everyone to carry on driving petroleum-powered vehicles, cooking on gas hobs and heating their homes with gas central heating.  But, of course, that is not the plan.  Rather, through some yet-to-be-explained process, everyone in the currently collapsing UK economy is to switch to electric vehicles, cookers and boilers.  This means that even the ambitious government targets fall well short of the capacity that is expected to be needed by 2030 and beyond.

By far the biggest issue though, is hidden in the technical details of how Britain’s future suite of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies is to be funded via something called “Contracts for Difference” – an auctioning process through which energy companies bid against one another to deliver the most cost-effective electricity generation.

In theory, this auctioning process ought to result in energy companies developing a new electricity system which can deliver “firm” 24/7/365 electricity.  However, as Ross Clark at the Telegraph reported last month:

“The Government is trying to solve the [intermittency] problem of a lack of energy storage through what is calls “capacity auctions”. The bids for batteries, however, are losing out to something called Demand Side Response.”

While the establishment media were distracted with the surge in people testing positive for Covid-19, government ministers and regulators were quietly considering how a future demand-side response might operate in practice.  As Sarah Davidson at This is Money reports:

“The Government is considering giving energy networks the power to switch off a household’s energy supply without warning or compensation for those affected.

“A series of ‘modifications’ to the Smart Energy Code have been proposed by officials and look set to pass into law by next spring.

“These include giving networks the right to decide when they consider the grid to be in a state of ’emergency’ and the power to switch off high usage electrical devices  such as electric vehicle chargers and central heating systems in British homes.”

In short, according to Ross Clark:

“… the electricity industry has worked out that it is going to be cheaper not to bother building batteries but instead to cut us off when the sun isn’t shining and wind isn’t blowing. As far as the Government’s capacity market is concerned, a kilowatt-hour of energy saved is the equivalent of a kilowatt-hour stored.”

This isn’t going to happen overnight, as it relies on the rollout of third generation smart meters.  It does, however, add force to the warnings that critics of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies – myself included – have been issuing for years.  The bright green future that green energy enthusiasts have been promising is not going to be the future they hoped for.  We are not simply going to continue with business as usual while swapping fossil fuels for solar and wind.  Instead we are going to undergo a socio-economic revolution in which every aspect of our lives will have to adapt to energy shortages. 

The weather forecast is going to become essential information.  Whereas today, weather forecasts affect relatively trivial matters such as whether to wear a raincoat or carry an umbrella, in the future that awaits us, they will determine whether we can work, shop, bank, drive and avoid shivering in the dark during the winter.

What the UK desperately needs is massive state investment (because it won’t come from the private sector) in storage capacity.  But here’s the kicker: no such storage capacity exists.  Batteries are inadequate for balancing more than short-term intermittency.  They cannot balance supply across a month; still less a year (think of the difference in energy needs between summer and winter).  But the biggest drawback of all is that there is not enough left of planet Earth in the way of extractable minerals to build the battery infrastructure in the event that anyone were foolish enough to attempt it.

The future will have to be one in which people do less and economies shrink and relocalise… and thus far, nobody knows how to do that painlessly.

As you made it to the end…

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