Huffing and Puffing

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From Climate Scepticism

BY MARK HODGSON

Chris Skidmore, in his Chairman’s foreword to the “independent” Review of Net Zero, wrote that “[t]he Review has sought to engage, listen, and learn from businesses, organisations, industries, and communities from across the UK.” 

I’m guessing that one of those businesses was SSE. Certainly its Chief Executive, Alistair Phillips-Davies, seems very pleased with it. But then he would be, since it might as well have been written by him.

So much for the independence of the review. Jit has already written about this, and I have nothing to add. Instead I want to draw attention to a puff piece that appeared on SSE’s website about a week ago under the heading “It’s time to ‘build, build, build’ to deliver sustainable energy independence”.

It starts with a positive reference to the Net Zero review, which apparently “neatly describes the clean energy transition as “the growth opportunity of the 21st Century” creating almost half a million jobs in what could be a £1Trillion market. But there’s a small problem – in order to realise this “vast potential” we must move quickly and act decisively in order to seize the opportunities in a global race.

I’ve always been rather dubious about this “logic”.

Being first, or an early adopter, with regard to new technology, often involves making mistakes, which can be expensive. It may be better to wait until others have refined the technology, made and recovered from mistakes along the road, and generally smoothed the way for those who follow.

However, when the energy user and the taxpayer are picking up the tab, we can throw caution to the winds. Mr Phillips-Davies agrees with Mr. Skidmore that we have to move quickly and act decisively. But then – as Chief Executive of a company making lots of money from renewables thanks to a generous subsidy and planning regime, especially in Scotland – he would say that.

The problem, we are told, in a looking-glass sort of way is “an over-reliance on expensive imported gas and the regimes that control it.

The solution, also in a looking-glass sort of way is apparently not to reduce reliance on imported gas by extracting our own, but is to „build a homegrown energy system that is cheaper, cleaner and more secure.“ By this, obviously, he means building lots more unreliable wind farms, which have the disadvantage of being expensive, environmentally destructive, and introduce insecurity, due to their inherent unreliability, into the UK’s energy system.

The irony of talking about “cleaner” energy in a paragraph that is followed (evidently for illustrative purposes) by a photograph of a once pristine moorland now being covered in environmentally destructive wind turbines and new access roads is evidently lost on Mr Phillips-Davies. But then, as the Chief Executive of a company which is busily destroying the once pristine landscape of much of Mainland Shetland in its search for profits, I don’t suppose that should surprise us.

Next we are told that there are three steps to sustainable energy independence. First “[w]e need to speed up construction of homegrown renewables to end our reliance on imports.” Of course, this is predicated on the obviously false assumption (in the absence of affordable and practicable at-scale energy storage solutions) that renewables can supply energy independence (they can’t). Secondly, as for “speeding up” construction of home-grown renewables, we have barely started, and SSE isn’t helping. The turbine blades currently being landed at Shetland for the Viking Wind Farm monstrosity have been imported.

Secondly, “We need to upgrade our electricity networks to meet the massive increase in demand coming in the years ahead.” That’s a bit of an under-statement. The last time I looked, I saw a figure of £54 Billion mentioned for the planned upgrade of the National Grid. That represents a cost of around £2,000 per UK household. And, so far as I can see, that’s just for starters. Once we are all forced to drive electric cars, heat our homes with electric heat pumps, and cook our food using only electric ovens, I would guess that the necessary upgrade will make £54 Billion look like a drop in the ocean.

Third (and this is where one might expect reality to kick in, but apparently not) “[w]e need to develop cleaner forms of flexible power generation technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), hydrogen plants and pumped hydro storage to keep the lights on when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.

I suppose I should be grateful for the recognition that the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine (especially, as it happens, during a cold winter spell when an anticyclone sits over the country and the sun barely crawls above the horizon).

However, clearly pumped hydro storage can only ever provide a tiny part of the storage solution, and the hydrogen solution remains at the moment little more than science fiction, certainly at the scale required to make intermittent energy generation a feasible option for an advanced economy.

As for the cost, don’t even go there. Have you seen a realistic cost estimate for this stuff? I haven’t.

Last time I looked, carbon capture and storage (CCS) is one of many currently impracticable and unfeasibly expensive pipe dreams, but one that is supposedly a solution to “carbon” (i.e. CO2)-emitting forms of energy production (i.e. fossil fuels). It isn’t a “power generation technology” and I am baffled as to why it would be necessary in the La-La Land of “clean” renewable energy supplies.

But back to SSE’s puff piece. What, we are asked, is holding us back? (Apart from common sense and a dose of reality?).

Well, apparently it’s absolutely ridiculous that we have in place (in England at least – I know many Scots who aren’t happy about a planning system rigged in favour of wind farm developers) a planning system that takes too long.

For goodness‘ sake – we need to cut in half the time it takes to put planning consents in place! All those delays must be delaying receipt of subsidies, I suppose. As a sop we are told that “As we reform [i.e. tear up the existing limited planning constraints], we also need to work in partnership with communities who will be vital to delivering the energy system we need at pace. Yeah, right. Tell that to the people of Shetland, and to the inhabitants of many other beautiful places whose landscapes have been industrialised by SSE and the rest of them.

Almost incredibly, the other part of the jigsaw puzzle, apparently, is this: “we should also build a fleet of CCS and hydrogen power plants alongside the storage assets that will be needed to deliver a net zero electricity system.” If we are to show we are serious, we have to do these things and not just talk about them. The fact that all we can do at the moment is talk about them, because there are no costed and feasible options currently available, is apparently neither here nor there.

All this is necessary because we need to send a strong signal to investors. And here we’re let into a little secret – “a single percentage point increase in the cost of raising capital will add around £50bn to the cost of the energy transition”. 

Other than the fact that we need investors, and they need to have confidence (that they will make oodles of money out of this, presumably), the implications of this aren’t really discussed. But I see an immediate implication. If one percentage point adds £50 Billion to the cost of the energy transition, it implies (very simplistically) that the cost of the energy transition is around £5 Trillion (before financing costs).

So I have a suggestion. Instead of the rousing rallying cry at the end of the puff piece (“Let’s make 2023 the year when we move from what some have described as ‘blah, blah blah’ to ‘build, build, build’.”), let’s stop and think, think, think.

It’s bad enough that SSE wants to destroy our wild places by industrialising them, leaving us with an intermittent and unreliable energy system theoretically to be backed up by as yet impracticable and uncosted storage “solutions” that are unlikely ever to be available at the necessary scale.

I’m not in favour of spending lots of money on this folly either.

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