John Constable, Policy Director at the Renewable Energy Foundation; Ruth Lea of Global Vision; Zehra Zaidi, Conservative SW euro-candidate, and myself at the Global Vision lunch in London Thursday June 26th.
On Thursday 26th, Gordon Brown announced the government’s plan for the greening of Britain. It involves a massive shift from traditional power generation technologies like coal and gas, which deliver the reliable, consistent, steady and continuous base-load power which we need to drive our industries, and their replacement with renewable technologies, mainly wind, which deliver an intermittent trickle of power.
I have had a busy week with climate issues. On Monday 23rd, I had my Brussels seminar with US Professor Fred Singer. On Wednesday, I attended a lunch briefing from the World Wildlife Fund in Brussels on CO2 and energy issues. Then on Thursday, the very day when the government announced its plans, I attended a briefing at Global Vision in London with John Constable, Policy and Research Director of the Renewable Energy Foundation (REF).
I have been profoundly alarmed by what I have learned this week. I have long argued that we should focus less on climate change and more on energy security, and indeed there are close parallels between the two. Both climate alarmist and energy security protagonists will agree that we want more energy efficiency in homes, in agriculture, in transport and in industry. We will probably agree that we need hydro, and waste incineration for energy recovery. We will agree that we need renewables, though the security side will insist that renewables should pass economic and environmental tests, whereas the climate alarmists will have them at any cost. We agree (or should agree) to develop additional nuclear capacity, though the green campaigners frequently show a irrational fear of nuclear energy which sits badly with their concerns about emissions. Where we will disagree is on coal. I believe that any rational energy policy in the UK must be diversified, and must include coal, and I have elsewhere set out the reasons why I reject the CO2/global warming argument.
We are chasing the EU’s 20/20/20 target of 20% of energy from renewables by 2020, (by the way, WWF is lobbying for 30%!) though because of the UK’s current position and capacity for renewables development, we are only required to achieve 15% by 2020. Even that will cost between £5 and £6 billion, and according to press reports is likely to increase the average family’s power bills by £260 a year — in addition to the swingeing rises already in place and in the pipeline from fossil fuel price increases. But that is an underestimate. If you add in the costs to industry, which sooner or later are passed through to consumers, we are looking at more like £600 per household.
Most of the renewable energy — up to a third of current capacity — will have to come from wind. The wind industry likes to quote rather modest figures for the cost of wind energy, being rather coy about the output of wind turbines, which is typically, on average, between 25 and 30% of rated capacity — less in some on-shore locations. But they fail to take into account a range of factors, including the massive inefficiencies in the back-up which conventional power stations must always be ready to provide when the wind stops blowing. Running conventional power plants at “tick-over” is hugely wasteful in both economic and environmental terms. More likely, conventional plants would simply run at a lower percentage of peak capacity — but this drives up the cost-per-unit of the power produced by a substantial margin. These costs are rarely taken into account.
This proposed massive switch to wind also requires a major reconfiguration of the national grid, the costs of which do not appear to have been factored in.
But it gets worse, much worse. This is not merely an issue of cost, critical though that is. The question is whether it can work at all. No one in the history of the planet has ever tried to drive a grid system the size of the UK on a very high proportion of intermittent generation. Some voices in the industry are doubting whether such a system is viable. Moreover the plans require heroic numbers of turbines to be installed. Depending on size, we could be looking at 8000 new turbines by 2020 — in eleven years time. That’s two a day. Starting now. And it’s not just Britain. Around the world many countries are jumping on the wind generation band-wagon. There isn’t the capacity to build the machines at the rate envisaged. Press reports suggest that there are simply not the vessels capable of placing these massive turbines on offshore sites.
So if we buy the government’s plan, then in addition to the massive costs, we face a real possibility that the programme will fall way behind schedule, or that the grid will simply not sustain the new, distributed, intermittent generation methodology, or both. But at the same time our conventional and nuclear generators are ageing. They urgently need replacement. If we delay the necessary replacement in the fond hope that the windmills will fill the gap, it will be too late. We will sit in the cold and the dark, cursing our folly while the lights go out, and watching the advanced civilisation we take for granted falling apart around our ears. I find that a whole lot scarier, and more likely and more immediate, than concerns about climate change.
When I first started to engage in the climate debate, and to argue the need for energy security, I was thinking of Russia’s hand on the gas-taps, and of the high proportion of our imported fossil fuels sourced from geo-politically unstable areas. I still have that worry, but there’s a second worry to go with it — the energy security situation in our own country, and our capacity to generate the power we need. So for what it’s worth (is anyone out there listening?), my prescription is first that we should focus on the real priorities. Forget climate change, think generating capacity. Certainly we should push for efficiency. Certainly we should promote biomass, combined heat and power, waste-to-energy, distributed generation, hydro. And we should seriously consider all the other renewables, but only after a radical and critical look at both economic and environmental viability (and I suspect that wind, especially on-shore wind, will largely fall at that hurdle). The very high prices of fossil fuels will wean us off them, as consumers follow the price signal, buy smaller cars, and economise. Compared to market prices, the EU Commission’s complex policy prescriptions are unnecessary distortions.
But we must also be conservative in our estimates of the possible contributions from renewables, and we must plan, now, for new nuclear and coal capacity, not just to keep the lights on, but to save Western civilisation from disaster.