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Why Britain desperately needs a big freeze

The UK government’s version of a green new deal is very likely to go the same way as its strategy for responding to a pandemic… and mostly for the same reason.  Rather like the pandemic plan, it looks good on paper, so long as nobody gets into the fine detail or highlights the obvious flaws.

As with everything else that governments do, the UK’s green 10-point plan is as much a public relations exercise as a serious attempt to resolve our Earth limits predicament.  It will add to the growing marginalisation of protest groups like Extinction Rebellion, since the government will be able to claim that they are already doing what XR calls for; albeit on a slightly longer timescale than XR claim is necessary.  For the wider public, though, the government will be seen to be making a far more concerted effort to address climate change than previous governments have.  Indeed, on paper the Johnson plan is not too far removed from the policies set out in Corbyn’s manifesto last year.

As with the pandemic plan, the opposition is also on the wrong side of the 10-point plan.  Rather than doing what oppositions are supposed to do – ask awkward questions and get into the fine detail – they urge the government to commit to even more radical change.  As Roger Harrabin at the BBC reports:

“Shadow business secretary Ed Miliband criticised the plan, saying that the funding ‘in this long-awaited’ announcement does not ‘remotely meet the scale of what is needed’ to tackle unemployment and the climate emergency.”

In terms of what would have to be done to reverse the impact of nearly 300 years of industrial activity, of course, Miliband is correct.  The Johnson plan is but a tiny drop in a vast ocean of what would be required.  But in terms of what is actually possible and sustainable, the Johnson plan is simply not grounded in reality.

The expansion of offshore wind is the largest part of the plan.  According to Harrabin, the aim is to:

“Produce enough offshore wind to power every home in the UK, quadrupling how much it produces to 40 gigawatts by 2030, and supporting up to 60,000 jobs.”

It sounds good on paper until you remember that the UK has already suffered widespread blackouts because of the instability that too high a percentage of wind power introduces to the system.  The sudden loss of a high-inertia fossil fuel plant at a time when there is too much wind can cause a dangerous drop in frequency.  This leaves the grid operators with the choice between frying electrical appliances and components across the country or cutting the power.  Faced with this choice last August, grid operators chose to plunge half of the UK into darkness.

In the course of the last twenty years, the UK has become a world leader in wind power – not entirely surprising given its location in the Northeast Atlantic, directly in the path of the Gulf Stream.  During that period, the main aim was to curb the volume of coal burned to generate electricity.  It was a success.  Most of the UK’s coal power stations have closed early ahead of the 2025 deadline for ending coal generation entirely.  In the course of the last decade though, wind generation has also eaten into the gas generation that provides flexible back-up power in the absence of a viable storage option.

One response to this is the proposal to:

“Have five gigawatts of ‘low carbon’ hydrogen production capacity by 2030 – for industry, transport, power and homes – and develop the first town heated by the gas by the end of the decade.”

This use of compressed hydrogen gas as a storage medium is, to be polite, ambitious.  There are currently two versions of “low-carbon” hydrogen.  The first is the same process as currently used to strip the hydrogen out of natural gas.  But unlike the current process, which simply releases the remaining carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, this version uses yet-to-be-invented carbon capture and storage technology to dispose of the leftover CO2.  The second option is the far more energy-intensive use of electrolysis to break the electron bonds in water to produce hydrogen and oxygen.  This involves a big loss of energy both in breaking the electron bonds and then in compressing the hydrogen into a storable liquid state.

The broader problem with hydrogen is similar to that experienced with biofuels.  When biofuels were no more than a waste product, using them to generate electricity was sensible.  But as biofuel power plants began to proliferate, so the supply of genuine bio-waste was outstripped.  The result has been forests being decimated to provide the fuel for giant power plants such as Drax on the east coast of England.  In the same way, it is one thing to build a handful of electrolysis plants to capture some of the energy from excess wind, but it is a different matter if the intention is to scale up to a national hydrogen infrastructure (including hydrogen replacing natural gas for cooking and home heating).  Simply replacing the electricity we currently get from fossil fuels would no longer be enough; in effect we would have to create two grids – one for direct to consumer electricity and the other for powering the hydrogen grid.

Nuclear power is also to be developed:

“Pushing nuclear power as a clean energy source and including provision for a large nuclear plant, as well as for advanced small nuclear reactors, which could support 10,000 jobs.”

While it is true that the UK’s carbon reduction targets cannot be met without nuclear, and while nuclear is unquestionably safer, cleaner and even less radioactive than coal, it is far from clear how the UK is going to expand its capacity.  Although the new 3.2GW Hinkley Point C is due to come online in the 2020s, most of Britain’s older nuclear plants are being retired.  Rather than providing new low-carbon electricity, Hinkley will not even replace the capacity that is due to be lost.  And Hinkley is unique in being the only plant to actually be constructed.  Two others – Wylfa and Sizewell – have been plagued by cost issues; with investors only prepared to go ahead if the government guarantees an eye-wateringly high price for the electricity eventually generated… a price that will be far too high for most consumers.

Like carbon capture and storage, small nuclear reactors are at best over-the-horizon technologies.  Prototype conventional small reactors have been built and several countries around the world have expressed an interest.  The key benefit being that these reactors can be built and maintained in a factory; dramatically lowering the cost compared to purpose built large reactors.  The UK government has also been experimenting with a range of liquid salt and liquid metal reactors which can – theoretically – use existing nuclear waste as a fuel.  The problem is that even if these technologies prove viable, it is doubtful that they could be deployed in anything like the time that the government is aiming for.

As with the response to the pandemic, the 10-point plan simply assumes that the UK economy is in good enough shape (highly unlikely in the aftermath of the deepest recession in modern times) and that there are enough suitably qualified and experienced technical specialists to deliver (again, fanciful given the response to the pandemic).  These are merely the easy questions that a competent opposition ought to be raising.  But there are deeper potential show-stoppers.

Energy is itself a problem.  The additional economic activity envisaged has to be powered at every stage.  But Britain became a net importer of oil and gas in 2005; the North Sea now producing 60 percent less than at its peak in 1999.  Worse still, global peak oil happened in 2018.  Increased demand for fuel may bring some of the remaining reserves into production, but these are the expensive deposits that can only operate at a high price.  Post-pandemic Britain may simply lack the foreign currency reserves to import the fuel that is needed to carry out the plan.

Electricity is an even bigger issue.  In effect, the government needs the additional energy envisaged by the 10-point plan in order to build the 10-point plan infrastructure.  The alternative is to reopen mothballed coal power stations, extend the lives of aging nuclear plants and build additional gas plants in the interim.  As with liquid fuels, though, Britain simply cannot afford it.  As the government’s energy policy reviewer Dieter Helm reported two years ago:

“It is not particularly difficult to set out what an efficient energy system might look like which meets the twin objectives of the climate change targets and security of supply. There would, however, remain a binding constraint: the willingness and ability to pay for it. There have to be sufficient resources available, and there has in a democracy to be a majority who are both willing to pay and willing to force the population as a whole to pay. This constraint featured prominently in the last three general elections, and it has not gone away.” (My emphasis)

Resources are an even bigger show stopper.  Economists, journalists and politicians might believe in the myth of infinite substitutability, but more grounded natural scientists understand that there is a limit to the accessible raw materials required to transition to a low-carbon economy.  Natural History Museum Head of Earth Sciences Prof Richard Herrington et al, for example, have warned the UK Committee on Climate Change that:

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 of cobalt, 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate (LCE), at least 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium, in addition to 2,362,500 tonnes of copper. This represents, just under two times the total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters of 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.

“Challenges of using ‘green energy’ to power electric cars: 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.

“Both these wind turbine and solar generation options for the added electrical power generation capacity have substantial demands for steel, aluminium, cement and glass.”

We must also bear in mind that the rest of the world is not going to continue burning fossil fuels in order to give Britain first access to the remaining resources.  The European Union, for example, has its own plans for becoming carbon-free.  And as Simon Michaux from the Finnish Geological Survey pointed out in a recent presentation, there are simply not enough remaining resources to enable that transition either.  That was before China announced its intention to be zero carbon by 2060.

Back in the real world, Britain’s problem is an increasing gap between the electricity it generates and the electricity it consumes.  That gap is papered over to an extent by the electricity that it imports from continental Europe.  But as the European Union follows its own path away from fossil fuels, and particularly as French nuclear plants come to the end of their working lives, imported electricity may simply not be available on the days when we need it most.

Every autumn in the UK there is a tradition in which the Daily Express leads with a sensationalist story that Britain faces a big freeze in the coming winter.  It isn’t intended to be taken seriously.  The same Gulf Stream that makes Britain an ideal location for offshore wind turbines also makes for temperate winters.  Nevertheless, it can happen; although the changing climate means that true cold snaps are less frequent, less intense and less prolonged these days. 

Increasingly, though, there is a less welcome annual tradition – the engineers at the National Grid issuing warnings about limited generating capacity.  So far we have been lucky.  The last serious weather event – “the Beast from the East” – in March 2018 only lasted a couple of days, and occurred at a time when mothballed coal power stations could be brought back into service.  Unlike the host of happy-clappy newspaper headlines proclaiming days, weeks and even the occasional month when Britain’s electricity mix is entirely coal free, the establishment media was notably silent about the UK depending upon coal power stations that were already earmarked for demolition.

The reason the March 2018 cold weather event was short-lived was because the wind kept blowing throughout.  That does not always happen.  In the severe snow events of 1982, 1963 and 1947, the initial snowfall caused by warm and wet low pressure air blowing into freezing high pressure air, was followed by prolonged periods of entirely still freeze, as high pressure air settled over the country.  Rather than the three days in March 2018, those events lasted several weeks.  We experienced a brief – and again largely unreported – taste of how this kind of weather system can mess with our electricity in January this year:

“The temperature underneath the high pressure system has dropped below freezing even in temperate western coastal regions.  And while nothing like the severe weather in Canada last week, it is enough to cause Brits to ramp up the heating over and above the already high winter levels.  Nor is there an early end to the weather pattern in sight – high pressure systems of this kind can remain over the UK for several weeks; although this one is expected to shift by the weekend.  Crucially, though, while this kind of system is associated with cold weather in winter, it is also characterised by its lack of wind…

“Just after midday today – when electricity consumption is at its lowest (although still uncomfortably high) – gas power stations were providing over half (50.36%) of the UK’s electricity.  Coal – which will be gone by 2025 – provided 7.73%, while nuclear – much of which will also be decommissioned in the 2020s – provided 14.19%.  Wind, in stark contrast to the usual cheerleading media headlines had fallen to just 12.54% of electricity supply; biomass (largely wood burning) and solar provided another nine percent. The remaining five percent came from hydro and imports from Europe and Ireland.”

By disconnecting – and compensating – heavy industrial consumers, National Grid was able to prevent widespread power cuts to domestic consumers.  But this was not a particularly severe freeze.  The cause of the problem was not so much the lack of wind itself, but the UK’s increasing dependence upon wind turbines as our second biggest – and soon to be biggest, if government has its way – source of electricity.  A brief spell of still high pressure air is now sufficient to throw the system into turmoil.

It is for this reason – and despite the likely personal hardship – that I am hoping that for once the Daily Express prediction of a Big Freeze comes true.  As we found out during the pandemic, we – the public, media and politicians – only take crises seriously when we have to cope with them for real.  Simply issuing warnings and running table-top emergency planning exercises are not enough.  And so, with the UK now dangerously over-dependent upon wind power, only a 1982 type of cold snap in which temperatures plunge below zero for several weeks as the cold air above the country refuses to budge, will bring home to the proponents of the race to green Never Never Land just how many technical problems have to be resolved before we can even begin to implement the transition away from fossil fuels.

Perhaps, after we have collectively shivered in the dark (maintaining strict social distancing, of course) for a couple of weeks, with intermittent access to everything from television and the internet through to food and… dare I say it… toilet paper, we can at least have a debate about the feasibility of green growth, and whether we might need to do far more to shrink our energy dependence and de-grow a large part of our economy.

It’s a vain hope.  As I said, climate change has more or less ended the prospect of the kind of winter that was common a lifetime ago.  Wishing for a prolonged cold snap is likely to be about as fruitful as wishing for politicians brave enough to tell the public uncomfortable truths about the unsustainability of our current way of life.  Nevertheless, sooner or later the lights will indeed be going out across Europe.  And unlike a century ago, they may not come back on again.

As you made it to the end…

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