We are destroying our sources of secure energy as windless Wednesday showed this week
I spent much of Wednesday in fields in southern England. It was very warm for the time of year. I noticed there was almost no wind. Usually, even on calm days, one can see the autumn leaves trembling slightly on the branch, but there the stillness was absolute.
The following morning, it was reported – though not as widely as it should have been – that, for the first time, the National Grid had been so worried by a possible shortage of power when people got home from work on Wednesday that it had appealed to industry to reduce power consumption. Energy markets went wild. At one point, the Financial Times said, the grid was paying Severn Power £2,500 per megawatt hour: the usual going rate is £60.
The day before the potential outage, I had appeared on the Jeremy Vine Show on Radio 2 to talk about Lady Thatcher’s clothes. I was preceded by the fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood. She spoke good sense about how our first woman prime minister’s couture should find a home in the V&A ; but she prefaced her remarks by stating that she detested Margaret Thatcher. By encouraging “capitalism”, Dame Vivienne alleged, the Iron Lady had caused climate change.
I had a comparably surreal encounter with the singer Charlotte Church on BBC Question Time a few weeks earlier. Charlotte insisted that the war in Syria was the result of climate change. Every ill is blamed on global warming. No doubt it also causes the obesity epidemic, female genital mutilation and TV licence evasion.
But now we have reached the point when, on a warm day in early November, the country can run short of electricity, it is time to turn the question round. Is the Western policy elites’ obsession with global warming itself a threat to civilised life on the planet?
Commenting on wobbly Wednesday, the distinguished energy expert Professor Dieter Helm said: “We are now sailing very close to the wind.” I am not sure whether he was playing with that metaphor, but he is right. Of electricity generated in Britain in 2014, 19 per cent came from renewables, the majority of that being wind. So if there ain’t no wind, there’s much less power. And without wind, there has to be a non-intermittent “despatchable” source of energy, such as gas or dirty energy from emergency diesel generators, to plug the gap. And if you have to buy emergency energy, you – or rather we, the consumers – have to pay emergency prices.
The problems of emergency are only the most visible tip of it. Because, for green, EU-driven reasons, the Government hastens the closure of coal-fired power stations (still 30 per cent of our electricity generation) and prevents the construction of new ones, it needs other sorts of power stations. But when it held its “capacity auction” last December, no new gas-fired power stations resulted. The potentially interested companies feared the political risk which now infects the subject and the knowledge that, if green policies continue, the demand for non-green power will sink lower.
So now we have coal-fired power stations closing down, no new gas-fired power stations coming on stream and – even after the friendly words exchanged between David Cameron and the President of China in London last month – no actual, definite money to ensure we get the promised nuclear power station at Hinkley Point. The energy “safety cushion” has lost its stuffing. All we know is that the current renewables subsidies of £4 billion will rise to £8.5 billion by 2020: we’ll be getting lots more offshore wind-farms (there being fewer angry voters in the sea than on land).
On Thursday, I attended the glittering ceremony at the Savoy Hotel in which Mr Cameron was made Parliamentarian of the Year by The Spectator. In his acceptance speech, he emphasised that “security” was one of the chief concerns of his second term. He was speaking about defence and terrorism, but what about the security of our energy supply? The former is menaced by actual enemies; the danger to the latter is entirely self-inflicted. If successive governments had not, in the name of saving the planet, set about destroying the reasonably well-functioning post-privatisation market, we would not now be in danger of plunging ourselves into darkness.
A few weeks ago, the Financial Times reported an authoritative calculation that, in 2016-17, Britain will need a capacity of 56 gigawatts, but will actually have only 53 gigawatts. Just as we are reducing our financial deficit, we are creating an energy one. Just as the supply of fossil fuels such as oil and shale gas vastly increases (thus reducing the cost), so ever-higher electricity costs caused by renewables subsidy are wiping out our steel industry.
Obviously we must not forget that there are only 30 days left to save the world. In early December, in Paris, “COP 21”, the latest UN climate conference, will take place. Religious authorities like the Pope, the Dalai Lama and Roger Harrabin of the BBC all insist that global agreement on emissions reduction must be reached there if catastrophe is to be averted. Indeed there can be little doubt that a document will be signed. But a couple of qualifications should be borne in mind.
The first is that it is quietly admitted that there will be no legally binding agreement. The developing countries will not submit themselves, by law, to the hairshirt which Western powers love wearing. They will promise to cut emissions, and we know that they won’t. We shall promise to pay them $100 billion a year to assist greener energy, and they know that we won’t. The objective, rather than the rhetorical effect, will therefore be to make the idea of legally binding targets die. If the EU, including Britain, tries to persist with them alone, we shall turn our continent into a retirement home and leave the rest of world history to others.
The second qualification is disclosed in another news story this week. The New York Times revealed that China has been burning 17 per cent more coal per year than it previously thought. Since the whole edifice of global climate change reduction depends on what the Bali conference of 2007 called “measurable, reportable, verifiable” figures for emissions, the fact that a quantity larger than the entire annual fossil fuel consumption of Germany could previously have been missed suggests that the figures are nearly meaningless.
Like most people – possibly everyone – who takes part in the global-warming debate, I do not know what will happen to the temperature of the Earth in a century’s time. What I do know, because it is plainly visible, is that the attempt to run the world as if we can control our eco-fate 100 years hence is statistically fantastical, politically impossible, economically ruinous and morally bogus. “The lights are going out all over Europe,” lamented Sir Edward Grey in 1914. That was because of a war. Now we are doing our best to put them out all over again, in the name of the common good.