Britain’s probable departure from the EU provides an opportunity to re-examine national policies on energy and climate change. The Climate Change Act was passed with the best of intentions but without competent analysis of its likely impact on global emissions, the practicality of its implementation or the possible consequences to the UK’s economy and energy security. While the Act actually proposed emission reductions beyond those required by the EU, our impending exemption from those makes it sensible to revisit the whole issue.
We are a relatively minor contributor to global CO2 emissions. For a northern European country our per capita emissions are modest, less than those of Norway, Denmark or Germany. Had it been possible to eliminate all our emissions of around 500Mte (million tonnes) per year over the last decade the global impact would have been swamped by China’s increase to 10,000Mte per annum, five times their emissions in 1990.
Those with relevant expertise were never consulted by politicians over the practicality of achieving CO2 emissions reductions by a huge expansion of renewables. Britain is not a particularly promising venue for any known renewable energy technology. It is too cold and has too little arable land for fuel crops, solar generation is non-existent at times of maximum demand, and the unpopularity of wind turbines in our countryside and limited remaining wild land could have been predicted.
Competent examination of OFGEM and the late DECC’s scenarios for replacing natural gas as the main domestic fuel and electrifying most of road transport would have dismissed them out of hand, not least because they would have required more than doubling electricity generation already struggling to cope with current demand.
The insecurity now facing electricity supplies is the result of the failure to consider the economic impact of subsidising wind power. Wind generators have a guaranteed return in the form of ROC or FiT subsidies and zero marginal cost. This means that they can undercut any conventional generator when the wind is blowing. Coal and gas generation is thus unprofitable and new capacity is not a sensible investment. Capacity required when the wind is insufficient is thus being closed and not replaced. We are now faced with either power cuts, euphemistically described as “demand management” or large consumer price increases resulting from subsidies which will now have to be paid to build or retain conventional generation capacity which will sit idle for much of the time.
Enthusiasts claim that the solution to the problem of obtaining energy security from intermittent wind and solar power is storage. In theory this is indeed the case. However there is no way in which the storage required can be provided using any known technology. Currently the most cost-effective way of storing electricity in significant quantities is by pumped hydro schemes such as Cruachan. Unfortunately Britain’s four such facilities provide only 45 minutes’ supply at average demand. The geographical constraints on sites for pumped storage mean that at best this might be trebled. There is no way in which the several days of low wind which often occur at the coldest times of the year could be covered by this or battery storage no matter how much the cost of the latter may be reduced. And there is no practical means at all of storing a surplus of solar generation in the summer to provide power on dark winter evenings when maximum demand occurs.
A rational future energy policy needs to be developed, most importantly with input from people who understand energy, engineering and economics. It should focus firstly on security of supply, next on cost and only then on CO2 emissions. The best way to satisfy all three is by reducing energy consumption. This can be done by unglamorous actions such as improved building standards, and a sensibly designed insulation programme to replace the bureaucratic and now abandoned “Green Deal”. Energy consumed by road transport could be significantly reduced by the greater use of hybrids (though not the plug-in variety) and start-stop internal combustion vehicles in congested urban areas, particularly for public transport. Buildings and transport currently consume more energy than is generated by the electricity sector.
The electricity market can be restored by the elimination of future subsidies to any form of generation. Future developers should also be charged the full cost of any grid expansion they require. It would be invidious to change existing contracted subsidies, but all commercial intermittent generators should be liable for an intermittency levy to reflect the cost of providing backup. If pumped storage is expanded, then the costs of this should also be borne by the intermittent generators for whose benefit it would be provided.
• Professor Jack Ponton FRENG is Scientific Alliance Scotland