I have been UKIP’s Energy Spokesman since March 2012, and during that time we have been resolutely opposed to renewables. There have been many reasons for this stance. Æsthetic reasons. Environmental reasons. Animal welfare reasons. But above all, the inter-related issues of intermittency and cost. I have raised the intriguing question of why wind power operators on the one hand claim that they have achieved “grid parity”, but on the other hand insist that they need subsidies to continue operations. The answer: because they choose to ignore the massive indirect costs of intermittency.
I have been concerned that fossil fuels have been outflanked by renewables, not because fossil fuels are uncompetitive, but because renewables benefit from massive subsidies and regulatory protections. I have complained that it has become difficult to attract investment into major energy infrastructure projects because of the high level of regulatory uncertainty.
But on the key issues of cost and intermittency, we may now need to consider recent developments in large-scale battery storage. I have always said that the game-changer for renewables would be very-large-scale – and I mean very large scale – energy storage. If it were possible to store (say) solar energy through the summer and use it in the winter, the economics would be transformed, and intermittency would cease to be a factor. If we could store just a few days’ usage, the picture would dramatically improve.
In a Telegraph comment piece on Thursday, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard explains why he believes that a break-through is coming in this area. He speaks of the very concerted efforts that the US Department of Energy is making to develop large-scale storage with new battery technologies, quoting the Advanced Research Projects Agency (Energy) at some length.
We need to approach this question with a cool head. In my view, Ambrose has always been just a little bit too gung-ho on renewables, when the rest of us simply saw their drawbacks. Nonetheless it does seem that new battery technology is coming. Ambrose speaks of the “Holy Grail” of battery development – large-scale storage at a capital cost of $100 per KWh. US scientists and technologists believe this should be achievable.
On this basis (says Ambrose) the US economy could be totally “decarbonised” by 2050, and the UK “within a generation” (I’m not sure which comes first).
Before we get carried away, we should consider the down-sides. This will require both very large-scale storage, to back-up the grid, as well as energy-dense small-scale storage, for vehicles and other applications. I don’t believe that widespread up-take of electric cars will happen until the industry can offer 300+ miles range (with air-con and other electrics operating), plus very rapid recharging facilities. And while solar is already (arguably) price-competitive in the Sahara desert, it still struggles in our gloomy northern latitudes.
We are still left with the hideous æsthetics of wind and solar, and the millions of birds chopped up by turbine blades (RSPB please note). And the bats. You can’t evict the bats from your parish church when they’re leaving a mess on the silver chalices, but you can kill bats on an industrial scale with wind turbines.
Then there is the issue of efficiency. All energy storage schemes involve some degree of inefficiency, and therefore cost – even pumping water up-hill to use later in your hydro scheme. But it won’t help having a low capital cost on the storage facility if the costs of operating it are prohibitive.
Nor does Ambrose’s position justify any immediate decisions (apart perhaps from the cancellation of Hinkley C – but there are many reasons for doing that). Ambrose himself admits that the timing is still in doubt: “The question … is whether the inflection point arrives in the early 2020s or the late 2030s”. So there is little justification for upping investment at this stage in renewables, because the turbines and solar panels we deploy in 2016 will be obsolescent by “the early 2020s”, and downright antique by the “the late 2030s”, and we will wonder why we didn’t save our investment funds for more modern, cost-efficient devices. Indeed the turbines we erect today are unlikely to last until the late 2030s.
Nonetheless, the probable availability of cost-effective large-scale storage in the next two or three decades should perhaps now start to colour our thinking – especially as nuclear plants represent a six-decade investment.
UKIP will announce a new Party Leader on September 16th, and that Leader will no doubt wish to make his/her own decisions on policy spokesmen. I shall be happy to hand on my portfolio responsibilities to whomever is designated for the task. But I think that the recent developments outlined above need to be taken into account and factored into our UKIP energy policy in coming years.