Monday , July 22 2024
Home / Energy / A balancing act of sorts

A balancing act of sorts

The greying corpse of a fag end parliament is dotted with political announcements which should be taken with a large pinch of salt.  Why, after all, should anyone believe that a government is going to deliver in weeks that which it has failed to deliver over half a decade?  One such political announcement arrived yesterday, in the shape of Rishi Sunak’s announcement of the development of new gas power stations.  According to Sunak:

“It is the insurance policy Britain needs to protect our energy security, while we deliver our net zero transition.”

Which sounds a lot like “we had to carbonise the economy in order to decarbonise the economy.”  In any case, since the most optimistic timescale for delivering a new gas power station in the UK is three years, the announcement is no more than a politician mouthing empty words to stay in the media spotlight.  If the UK is to build new gas (or any other) generating capacity, it will fall to the incoming Labour government to make the decisions.

Nevertheless, opponents – who also mouth words to capture attention – were quick to condemn Sunak’s announcement.  The BBC, for example, quotes some people called “the Green Alliance” (no, me neither) who say that the announcement “flies in the face” of the government’s net zero commitments… which, of course, it does.  Meanwhile, the opposition – who regularly mistake “capacity” for “output” – came up with the non-solution of covering every hill in the UK with wind turbines as an alternative… conveniently forgetting that every windfarm requires equivalent back-up or storage capacity, and that for the moment gas is the only game in town.

It would be simple enough to decarbonise the UK’s electricity.  Indeed, following just four steps, it can even be done at a profit… and far sooner than the Tories’ 2035 or Labour’s 2030 target:

  1. Pass legislation to nationalise (without compensation) the remaining fossil fuel power stations
  2. Disconnect these from the grid
  3. Send in the bulldozers
  4. Sell the recovered land off to property developers.

And voila!  In no more than two years, the UK could have a decarbonised electricity system.  Although, more observant readers will also notice that having demolished 35,346 MW (30,314MW of which is gas) of the UK’s total 103,148 MW of generating capacity, the system could only meet two-thirds of current demand… and then only on a good day when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining.  On a bad day, the system would likely struggle to meet a fifth of current demand.  And this would get worse over time, because Britain’s ageing fleet of nuclear power stations is being decommissioned much faster than it can be replaced.  The eye-wateringly expensive Hinkley Point C, for example, was proposed in 2010, and is still unbuilt… with few observers expecting it to be complete by the end of the decade.

A less obvious problem with going carbon free is that by taking out the fossil fuel power stations, and with most of the nukes closing, we would be stripping the grid of essential inertia – all of those giant spinning steel turbines – without which grid frequency cannot be maintained, causing most electrical devices plugged into it to fry… possibly including the Grid’s own control systems.  And in the event that the lights were to go out, there is a serious risk that it will be impossible to turn them back on again.

In theory, some combination of nuclear baseload, biofuel generation, carbon capture and storage, and a massive expansion of pumped hydro systems similar to Dinorwig in North Wales, would – for trillions of pounds – allow windfarms to become the largest part of UK electricity generation without crashing the Grid and leaving Britain without energy.  In practice though – in a country with a long track record of civil engineering failures – there is simply no way that the UK could do this within the time and cost constraints available.

This is why Sunak’s announcement of new gas power station construction was couched in the language of “energy security.”  Because, despite the line taken by establishment media, energy policy in the twenty-first century has always involved a difficult trade-off between:

  • Security
  • Environment, and
  • Cost.

As Dieter Helm noted in his energy policy review in 2017:

“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.”

There are, no doubt, some “back to nature” types within the “green” movement who welcome the destruction of industrial civilisation which an instant shutdown of fossil fuelled electricity generation would involve.  The majority of environmental campaigners, however, have bought-into the immoral myth not only that electricity can be decarbonised using wind turbines, but that the entire economy – including mining, manufacturing, and transport – could be powered in this way by as early as 2030 without crashing the economy and propelling us to dystopia.

At least the “de-growth” movement is honest in explaining that the switch to a low-carbon economy is also a switch to a much less complex and technical (i.e., poorer) economy.  Although even within this movement are a high number of activists who imagine that there will still be things like the internet, smartphones, and hi-tech medicine in the energy-depleted aftermath.

Sunak embracing gas along with Starmer’s recent ditching of the – woefully inadequate – £28bn of green investment, is evidence of a political class finally waking up to the impossibility of balancing cost, energy security, and environmental concerns.  Not least because the disappearance of cheap Russian oil and gas following the invasion of Ukraine has decimated the European wind turbine industry, and rendered the development of windfarms unprofitable at any price the economy can withstand.

Nuclear would have been a better option than windfarms from the very beginning – which is why France has a head and shoulders lead over Germany and the UK when it comes to generating low-carbon electricity:

Given the UK’s inability to deliver civil engineering projects though, even the small modular reactor (SMR) fantasy is likely unachievable.  And so, increasing the number of gas power stations is the only means of keeping the lights on… and even this comes with a big potential drawback.

One of the few far-sighted decisions during the Blair years was the construction of the liquid natural gas (LNG) terminal in Milford Haven.  Without this, Sunak’s proposed gas power stations would be a non-starter.  As a result of the new trade deal with Texas, the UK will be able to import LNG for as long as the USA has a surplus – which some hope could be the remainder of the century, while more sober analysts argue might only be until the end of the decade.  In any case, the cost of compressing and shipping LNG is so high compared to piped natural gas, that it is doubtful that even with new gas power stations, the wider UK economy could avoid a depression due to the excessive price of electricity that transatlantic LNG entails.

Perhaps there is an unconscious belief among the political class that sooner or later the European economies will get back to the good old days when cheap Russian gas allowed us to power our economies on the cheap; supporting the German manufacturing and UK currency speculation which allows the wider European economy to grow.  Given the speed at which China is building gas pipelines to Russia, and India is uprating its oil refining capacity, however, there is no good reason to believe that Russia, or even the BRICS states more generally, will ever again trade with Europe on favourable terms.  And so, one way or another, high energy costs are here to stay…

Which is where the balancing act comes in.  For several decades, the UK electorate has embraced environmental policies which were falsely sold as being cost-free.  In the high-energy cost years following lockdown and tearing up relations with Russia though, a growing electoral majority has emerged against any further, inevitably expensive, decarbonizing measures.  And while the political class might be able to ignore this to some extent, what they cannot ignore is the detrimental impact of high energy prices on the wider economy.  Which is why both wings of the uniparty are currently flip-flopping between cost, security, and environment.

Ultimately, a balancing act succeeds only where there is a natural equilibrium… in this case, a stable point at which the economy has sufficient energy at an affordable cost from sources which do not cause further environmental destruction.  Four decades ago, when the political class began to be exercised by climate change, it seemed like technology would somehow overcome the inherent problems with diffuse energy sources like wind and solar, so long as the requisite laws were enacted.  Forty years later, we are beginning to wake up to just how wrong they were.  The balance cannot be struck.  The choice is to either secure a high energy-density alternative to fossil fuels (which doesn’t currently exist) or face a relatively rapid simplification of our economy – which will be something like the Great Depression of the 1930s… only much worse and with no way back.

As you made it to the end…

you might consider supporting The Consciousness of Sheep.  There are seven ways in which you could help me continue my work.  First – and easiest by far – please share and like this article on social media.  Second follow my page on FacebookThird follow my channel on YouTubeFourth, sign up for my monthly e-mail digest to ensure you do not miss my posts, and to stay up to date with news about Energy, Environment and Economy more broadly.  Fifth, if you enjoy reading my work and feel able, please leave a tip. Sixth, buy one or more of my publications. Seventh, support me on Patreon.

Check Also


But by the end of 2018, all oil production was in decline. Even without the lockdowns, we would have had a recession...