By Professor Tony Trewavas
It is likely that George Washington was killed by his doctors. With good intentions they met each new symptom with the routine of blood-letting and almost certainly bled him to death.
There are certain parallels with the present feeble state of our generating policy: Ideological meddling, poor leadership and failure to act on expertise have all taken their toll and without some radical changes we too may end up like Washington, remembered but no longer extant.
The symptoms of decay are only too obvious, threatened blackouts, failure to advance replacement of old power stations when needed, policies constructed out of hysteria and ideology, grossly expensive electricity with bills threatened to rise for another decade, a dysfunctional market system dependent on public subsidy for its survival, inadequate gas storage, etc.
Perhaps the most baffling is the failure to recognise the relation of energy price to economic activity; its resilience, competitiveness and the effects on well-being, employment, creativity and, for those on low incomes, the more immediate threat of premature death or illness from cold.
There are two words that should be tattooed on the chest of every energy minister: cheap and reliable: subject all polices to those criteria. Who will invest in an economy that can’t guarantee its electricity or gas supply or in which the price is no longer competitive?
Those who forget history are destined to repeat it. Catastrophe can be avoided but only with a clear understanding of the failures of the past. Security of supply disappeared when the 40 year old CEGB, run by responsible engineers, was ideologically privatised in the early 1990s. Slightly earlier, the Chernobyl disaster frightened people but proper leadership could have turned that around. Instead less scrupulous politicians and journalists, ever ready to seize anything to advance themselves, actively raised the spectre of nuclear damage here.
A strident but poorly-informed left wing simply rejected nuclear out-of-hand. So the pressing situation of long term nuclear policy replacement and the mesmerism of an abundance of North Sea gas and oil, distracted attentions elsewhere. Eventually the Blair government, late in the day, underwent a damascene conversion to nuclear power. But only too typically, the five year political horizon was inadequate to match ambitions that require several decades of consistent policy.
Another spectre reared its ugly head around the millennium. Numerous books prophesying the end of ‘scarce’ fossil fuels were published, no doubt excited by the peak oil concept. Violent competition for what was left of that particular bone, it was claimed, would trigger immediate industrial demise. None of those who propagated such opinions actually looked at the information but their views, (or bad news), were widely distributed in newspapers and magazines. From EIA assessments, we are several centuries away from any substantive depletion in gas, oil or coal.
Shale and methane hydrates between them put gas even longer term. There are 7 trillion tonnes of world-wide coal and even in the UK, gasification of the known 17 billion tonnes of off-shore coal offers over three centuries worth of energy.
99% of world uranium lies dissolved in the oceans and can be recovered, thus powering the future well beyond the survival of our species. Nuclear currently is the real future. And then there is thorium. We need not be complacent, oil substitution seems the most pressing because so much technology depends on it; but equally we should not descend into meaningless hysteria. Look at the facts, not the hubris.
At the same time, climate change began to take its place on the stage. Again catastrophe was threatened in language which grossly exaggerated its likely time scale and certainty. ‘Save the planet’ became the watchword in rhetoric designed to make any sane assessment impossible without being accused of denial.
The cause was readily adopted by rampant green organisations who felt their time had come. Listened to by many in government and in the EU and it seems by lazy journalists anxious to fill newspaper columns with their meaningless meanderings, these greens had come to regard as dogma that the rest of humanity (not themselves) was a blight upon the planet and all effort should be devoted to preventing their further economic improvement and development.
They saw climate change as vindicating their misanthropic and ultra-conservative attitudes and they caught the very sympathetic support in particular of some on the left of the political establishment and even acquired money from the EU.
The guilt screw was turned by under-developed countries who claimed that western capitalism was responsible for most of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and therefore should pay for it both in emissions reduction and in money transferred to them.
The defence that the West had used the industrial revolution wisely to produce electricity, gas, computers, radio, TV, smartphones, telephones, the web, antibiotics, drugs, modern medicine and agriculture, cars, railways, aeroplanes, roads, etc., in short everything that constructs present civilisation and has of course benefited all these countries, was never heard.
The West owes nothing on that score.
The use of Gazprom by the Russian government to strong-arm events in the Ukraine by threatening to cut off gas supplies sent shivers through the political establishment. Such behaviour accelerated the commitment to home-grown but expensive renewables whose development is completely subsidy dependent.
To great trumpeting in 2008, a bill to set in legal concrete was passed that committed the UK to unachievable and thus very damaging emissions reductions targets, closing down older coal-fired and gas-fired power stations and preventing new ones. Any sensible economic assessment of such policies was absent.
The UK had already committed to expensive and largely unreliable renewables, like the subsidy-dependent and land-hungry wind turbine industry. Heavy industries decided to jump ship to countries where electricity was a lot cheaper. And then of course the climate temperature hiatus, lasting now since 1998, has thrown the whole climate change ethos into confusion and some substantial backing off from emissions targets; but not here. Legislation once made can be unmade but only with difficulty.
The old humorous axiom ‘forecasting is difficult, especially into the future’ should have been to the fore; so should ‘legislate in haste, repent at leisure’.
Part of the Government justification of expensive wind energy was the claim that as its price dropped, so the price of oil would meet and overtake it. Suddenly shale gas emerged that now costs the US just over 20p/therm; here it is 63p/therm. Coal prices have plummeted and US emissions have dropped dramatically without any regulations at all.
The Government gamble is not going to succeed and without radical change the UK faces decline and ruin. The political class as a whole, perhaps well-meaning but highly destructive and often ideological, bears ultimate responsibility for the mess that we now face. Nothing can be done quickly to rectify the damage but removing political meddling seems crucial.
Qualified engineers need to be in charge of security of supply. It was naïve to suppose that a market could be constructed for electricity. It would be better to give each company a franchise area with the responsibility to maintain adequate margins of generating capacity to service their load and a requirement for a regulator to be satisfied that an adequate mix is obtained to ensure stable supply. Competition for large industrial requirements could still be allowed and profits returned to reduce costs to domestic consumers.
Given the abundance of uranium and thorium, it should be obvious that these really are the fuels of future, so reinstate a nuclear research facility. We pioneered it all until politicians made a mess of an advanced industry. Accelerate coal gasification research and development and if carbon capture is considered essential, remember it is much easier to do on gasification outlets.
The EU’s policy on climate change has failed miserably. It was supposed to provide an example to the rest of the world on what to do, but none have followed and none will.
Carbon dioxide will continue to increase as Third World and developing countries use coal to improve their standard of living. Adaptation, not renewables, is the future. Sacrificing the population here on the altar of expensive electricity, when it is known that the most vulnerable can lose their lives in cold winters in a weakened economy, is a sure recipe for ruin and is, of course, utterly immoral.
The potential future economics of any new renewable technology needs detailed examination, before justifying any expenditure. We can all dream of ways of capturing energy but, in real life, costs always decide what we can do and what we shouldn’t. There is no unlimited pot of money. Greens never cost their policies, so ignore their uninformed views until they do.
Remove wind subsidies and let wind compete with everything else on a level playing field. Push air-using heat pumps up the agenda; these need to be as cheap to purchase as a fridge or washing machine.
Professor Tony Trewavas, FRS FRSE
Scientific Alliance Scotland
7-9 North St David Street
Edinburgh EH2 1AW
0131 524 9414
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