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When green gets real

The great thing about life in the decades after the signing of the Kyoto protocol was that nothing really changed.  Sure, politicians talked up targets for getting to “net zero” at some point in the future.  But besides that, we all kept consuming; and as our demand for goods and services grew, so the oil industry kept pumping and the mineral industries kept extracting.  We were able to signal our virtue by recycling – although it turned out that our “recycling” waste was merely shipped to China to be burned or dumped.  We also benefited to some extent from the development of energy-efficient home appliances – although the energy companies increased their prices to claw back the savings.  Government subsidies encouraged the deployment of wind turbines and solar panels – for the price of higher utility bills – to replace coal power stations.  Some biofuels were added to petrol and diesel; making older cars more expensive to drive.  And big biofuel power stations began consuming entire American forests in order to replace the electricity from coal, but at a cost of higher carbon emissions.

For the ordinary Joe Public though, business as usual continued more or less unchanged.  Workers still drove cars into the city centres for work.  Householders still cranked up the heating when the weather got cold.  A few even complained about the phasing out of old fashioned lightbulbs.  But even after the 2008 crash and the years of Tory austerity, government policies for tackling climate change came at little direct cost.

One consequence of this is that even the Tory Party has been able to cover itself in a green veneer.  Taking some of the steam out of the Extinction Rebellion movement, the Tories declared the “climate emergency” and established the “citizens’ assemblies” to inform climate policy.  They also introduced the ban on new internal combustion engine cars from 2030 and the ban on new household gas installation from 2025.  And in advance of the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, they are going full steam toward the electrification of Britain’s transport.

Here though, is where the troubles begin.  Where climate policy used to be cost-free, it is about to become eye-wateringly expensive.  And at the heart of the problem is Britain’s historic failure to plan for known energy shortages over the past four decades.  As with the privatised water industry, the electricity supply companies were designed solely as vehicles for extracting profit from businesses and householders.  Meanwhile, the regulator’s sole remit was to maintain the lowest possible prices for consumers.  Nobody within the system was charged with ensuring that the lights remain on in the future as, for example, Britain’s aging fleet of nuclear power stations came to the end of their working lives.

The subsidy schemes resulted in a massive deployment of offshore wind farms – something that makes sense for a country located in the northeast Atlantic in the path of the Gulf Stream.  But wind – and the small amount of UK solar – was only intended as a replacement for coal power stations which were built half a century ago and would have needed replacing soon enough anyway.  Despite lurid media headlines implying that Britain was capable of running entirely on renewables, the reality is that Britain is still dependent upon fossil fuels to keep the lights on.  The only difference is that coal has been replaced with gas as the main balancing fuel in the energy mix.  As data from the National Grid shows, in not one month in the last year has wind come close to overtaking gas as the primary source of our electricity.  In the best month for wind – February 2021 – wind accounted for 26 percent of our electricity while gas accounted for 36 percent.  In the worst month for wind – April 2021 – wind accounted for just 15 percent while gas provided 45 percent.  August and September 2020 saw the highest gas use – 46 percent of our electricity in both months compared to just 17 percent from wind.

The 3.2GW Hinkley Point C nuclear power station is expected to make up some of the electricity from the closure of older nuclear plants when it comes on line in the mid-2020s.  A similar sized plant at Sizewell C will also help to fill the gap if it goes ahead and if it comes in on time in 2031.  However, other nuclear projects such as Wylfa on Anglesey, have proved too expensive for investors.  Moreover, the set price for electricity from the Hinkley Point and Sizewell plants must inevitably lead to higher electricity bills from the middle of the decade.

The UK is also experimenting with several fourth generation nuclear plants, including factory-built small modular reactors, liquid lead and liquid sodium reactors and a molten salt reactor (these latter three having the potential advantage of being able to run on existing nuclear waste).  The UK is also vying to be the first country to deploy a commercial nuclear fusion reactor.  The problem though, is that even if these new reactor designs prove viable, they are unlikely to be built up to Grid scale until well into the 2040s.

This leaves the UK with a big hole in its electricity mix in the 2020s even if the sole aim of the policy is just to replace coal.  Throughout the last year, the UK has imported electricity via undersea cables in every month.  In the best month – July 2020 – just two percent of our electricity was imported.  In the worst month – June 2021 – 13 percent of our electricity was imported.  As coal plants close and older nuclear plants are decommissioned, the demand for imported electricity is expected to rise.  Although whether that electricity will be available is a moot point given that France and Belgium are also decommissioning nuclear power plants and most of continental Europe is switching to intermittent renewable energy.

Just the increased price of electricity required by the switch away from coal is likely to result in the politicisation of energy in the near future.  As the government’s 2017 energy reviewer, Dieter Helm cautioned:

“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)

In the aftermath of a pandemic which has seen businesses decimated and hundreds of thousands of workers left unemployed, it will be a brave government which persists with environmental policies which result in even higher energy bills.  Nevertheless, current government policy includes an eventual ban on domestic gas supplies; with electric heat pumps – at £10,000 a time – replacing gas central heating systems or with theoretical and more expensive “green” hydrogen replacing natural gas.  The government is also committed to the role out of electric cars despite the Grid lacking the capacity for these to be anything more than a rich man’s toy.  As an editorial in Engineering and Technology this week explains:

“The charging requirements from millions of new electric vehicles expected to enter British roads in the near future risk causing blackouts to parts of the country as the electricity grid strains under the demand…”

So-called “smart charging” has emerged as the preferred response to electricity shortages – in effect, draining the batteries of electric vehicles to make up for shortfalls in electricity supply.  This is unlikely to please drivers who wake up on cold winter mornings to find that their batteries have been drained overnight.  Nor is it a serious response to an electricity grid which lacks the capacity to deliver any of the additional “green” policies over and above simply decarbonising existing generation itself.

Banning household gas while 40 percent of electricity is generated in gas power stations is simply insane.  At least gas burned in the home is converted to heat efficiently.  The same cannot be said for burning gas at a power station to generate electricity which is transmitted over hundreds of miles before being reconverted to heat in an electric heater or cooker.  Meanwhile, current transport electrification proposals are straight out of a Disney fairy story.  A government that couldn’t manage to electrify the five mile stretch of railway line between Bristol Parkway and Bristol Temple Meads, is throwing public money at a scheme to erect overhead catenaries above a stretch of motorway to see if this might be (it won’t) a means of making electric trucks viable.  Road freight is, of course, every “green energy” fanboy’s nightmare because unless some technological fix can be found to replace diesel trucks, the whole of western civilisation falls apart.  And so a technological solution – no matter how implausible – simply has to be made to exist… even if it defies the laws of physics.

The UK is a world-leader when it comes to decarbonising its economy.  Nevertheless, it is still wholly dependent upon fossil fuels for electricity generation, transport, agriculture, industry and heating.  The low-carbon electricity generation it has introduced so far has come at a modest cost in additional utility bills.  But the changes it is now proposing are widely unaffordable to the bottom half of earners.  These additional costs may prove to be politically impossible to bear in and of themselves.  But if further costs are added to pay for luxuries – like charging the rich man’s electric car – for disconnecting household gas while relying on gas for electricity, or for hare-brained fantasy transport schemes, then energy policy may well trigger a revolt.

The reality for the UK is that we have a shortage of energy which is widening with every passing day.  Before we can have electric cars or even fully electrified railways, we must build sufficient electricity generation capacity; including solving the storage issues to balance intermittent renewable energy.  But crucially in an economy which is grossly unequal, we must find a means of doing it at little additional cost to those who can’t afford it.  The unpalatable – but more realistic – alternative is that we learn to live within our means: consuming less stuff, making do and mending, and travelling far fewer miles than was the case prior to the pandemic.  Whether either approach can be sold to an unprepared public is moot.  Whichever way the politicians choose to go, I predict a riot!

As you made it to the end…

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