The UK’s plans to decarbonise the economy are a classic example of the ancient political strategy of “winging it”. Hard though it is to credit that idea, it’s true; the “experts” in Westminster have been basing your future and mine on a plan that relies, to a very great extent, on a collective crossing of the fingers.
Governments of one shade or another, Whitehall bureaucrats, and their advisers in the Climate Change Committee have been working on such plans for well over a decade now, and it’s fair to say that they still have little or no idea how Net Zero can be achieved, beyond a vague idea that we should electrify everything and have lots of energy from windfarms.
That’s no more than a starting point, of course. There are enormous practical difficulties (and eye-watering costs) to be dealt with, but such nitty-gritty issues seem of little interest to the experts in Westminster. “Things will become cheaper…” they say “….we’ll invent something”.
Expert handwaving of this kind has been enough to convince the media and most politicians, but as the legendary physicist Richard Feynman once pointed out, Nature cannot be fooled, and it looks very much as Nature is going to lay her cards on the table this winter.
One of the key problems is that we don’t have any way to store electricity on a large scale for when the wind isn’t blowing. That can be a few weeks in a normal year, or months in a bad one. The problem has always been there, and we have had no firm answer from the “experts”. We don’t have enough suitable sites for pumped hydro; batteries and hydrogen are far too expensive. As was pointed out in a letter to one of the national newspapers last week, enough batteries to see us through a wind lull lasting just ten days would cost £150,000 per household at current prices.
The Climate Change Committee says that we can get electricity through interconnectors from other countries when the wind doesn’t blow here. This is something of a “magic solution” for them, because they can simply claim that we’ll build as much interconnector capacity as we need. However, it again ignores the practical difficulties, such as the fact that if the wind isn’t blowing here, it probably isn’t blowing in most of western Europe either, so assuming (as the “experts” in Westminster do) that everyone follows us down the decarbonisation path, we are all going to get in a bidding war for the few megawatts of power that are left. There is also a national security problem with interconnectors, as was recently brought sharply into focus by French threats to cut the UK off if we didn’t play ball over fishing rights.
The CCC also says we can get a bit of power from gas-fired power stations equipped with carbon capture and storage (CCS). However, the practical problems are again fairly stark; nobody has yet made a success of CCS – a series of pilot projects have tested the waters on the easier ground of coal-fired power stations, and each has been closed as an economic failure; the power they produce is simply too expensive. And nobody has yet got the technology to work at all for gas-fired power stations.
The other problem with planning for gas and CCS to deliver us from the perils of intermittency is that it appears unlikely we are going to have any cheap gas to feed them with – successive governments, egged on by the CCC, the renewables industry, and the green movement have told us we must “keep fossil fuels in the ground”. This was seen in part as a way to encourage the second part of the decarbonisation strategy, namely for people to “invent something”. In other words, if we have no gas and no way to balance the grid, well, someone will come up with some way to fix the problem. So we first made the electricity grid unwelcoming for gas-fired power stations, then we neutered the nascent shale gas industry with absurd regulations, and then we banned it completely.
Which brings us to where we are today, with the whole country crossing its fingers and praying that someone will “invent something”, or at least find us a way to make it through the winter without the lights going out.
For twenty years, the vested interests have had their say, and public relations have taken precedence over engineering and economics. But, to return to Professor Feynman, Mother Nature really cannot be fooled, and when she reveals her hand, the results are likely to be horrible.
Is catastrophe coming? I fear so, unless ministers get a grip and liberate the private sector to go for gas, right now.