The Scienttific Alliance Newsletter - Changing and informed scientific debate

Keeping the lights on

This week, the House of Lords Science and Technology committee has published the written evidence it has received for its current inquiry into the resilience of UK electricity infrastructure. This may not sound very sexy, but it is nevertheless important. Also this week Owen Paterson, who until the last Cabinet reshuffle was Secretary of State for the Environment, gave a much-trailed speech at the invitation of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, in which he lambasted current government energy policy and called for the suspension or repeal of the Climate Change Act.

These two events are closely related. The capacity of our energy networks to cope with peaks in demand, particularly in a cold winter, has been questioned for a number of years, and the parliamentary inquiry shows that peers, at least, are taking this seriously. So are a large numbers of others: 41 contributors, ranging from energy companies and experts to lobby and protest groups, submitted over 300 pages of evidence. The Scientific Alliance put its own submission forward, written by a group of distinguished experts (Sir Donald Miller, Colin Gibson and Prof Michael Laughton).

The published evidence, not surprisingly, gives a wide range of views, but there is a common thread of concern about the historically low margin of generation capacity available to meet peaks in demand. This is exacerbated by the faith politicians have put in the role of renewable energy. With the exception of biomass (which, on a large scale, makes little real sense because burning it actually increases emissions in the short to medium term) renewable energy technologies available to us today are intermittent and therefore cannot be relied upon for a secure electricity supply. This situation might change if an economic means to store vast amounts of energy was available, but that is not even on the horizon yet.

In the UK, the emphasis is on erecting more wind turbines, increasingly offshore because of the high level of opposition to land-based installations. These are more expensive, albeit somewhat more efficient, and receive much higher subsidies than onshore wind farms to compensate for the higher installation, maintenance and transmission costs. On the other hand, much has been said about the decreasing cost of electricity generated by (onshore) wind turbines, and it is true that construction costs have come down as the industry gets more mature and economies of scale kick in.

However, this argument is somewhat disingenuous, because the electricity only has a value if it is available, and must come from other sources if the wind is not blowing. The only true measure is the total system cost of the entire electricity generation and transmission network, which is a highly complex calculation. Suffice it to say that countries with large installed wind energy capacity – Germany and Denmark in particular – have much higher than average domestic electricity costs.

The UK is set on the same path, although the Department of Energy and Climate Change has used flawed arguments to support its contention that renewable energy policy will actually save consumers money in future by cutting down on the use of increasingly expensive gas. Unfortunately for the government, they got their sums wrong and made the baseline a rising gas price which has turned out to be much higher than reality.

Even discounting that error, their argument also seems to be based on the simplistic assumption that every kilowatt hour of wind-generated electricity displaces one generated from fossil fuels. This turns out to be far from the truth; as the contribution of wind energy rises, then so does the degree to which it displaces other generation methods, because of the need for conventional backup.

The reality is a more expensive and less secure energy future, a message which a Daily Express article this week relayed, based on the Scientific Alliance’s evidence to the House of Lords inquiry: UK’s wind farm ‘folly’: electric bills to soar by £1,000 thanks to reliance on wind power.

Owen Paterson delivered a similar message, calling for a strategy based on exploitation of domestic shale case, increased use of combined heat and power plants (CHP), use of small modular nuclear reactors situated close to demand (and also capable of being used in CHP mode) and intelligent demand management. Critics can argue with the detail: CHP systems are really only suitable for new developments, for example, and no-one knows how much shale gas will actually be recovered.

Nevertheless, the thrust of his argument is absolutely right. We should move forward with the best technology available to us now, rather than insisting on subsidising renewables which cannot achieve the policy objectives. This message in itself was enough to ruffle feathers, but his real bombshell was a call for the repeal of the Climate Change Act, which commits the government to an 80% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. This means not just a decarbonised electricity system, but the end of gas for domestic heating and petrol and diesel for the majority of road vehicles. Maybe this will be achievable, but to legislate for a binding target when the necessary technology does not exist seems foolhardy.

There is a sense that Mr Paterson is only voicing the opinion of many in his party (and, indeed, maybe other parties), but the fact that he is the most senior politician from any of the major parties to put his head above the parapet is interesting and possibly significant. Where one leads, others may follow, and having a proper political debate about such a vital issue, rather than dismissing all criticism of energy policy as right-wing nonsense (probably promoted by vested interests) would be a welcome move.

At the moment, voters have no real alternative; any political party with a realistic chance of being in government insists that increasing reliance on renewables is the way forward. But at some point, there may just be a weakening of that resolve as the economic consequences become clearer and public concern continues to increase. Then, it would be too much to expect a reversal of policy, but a relaxation could well be on the cards. This may not be an election issue next May, but it is surely going to be one before long.

Copyright © 2014 The Scientific Alliance, All rights reserved.