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The U.K.'s Clean Energy Strategy - And The Greens Are Back

by: Euan Mearns

The UK government's just-published Clean Energy Strategy supposedly leads the way to the low-carbon future that the 2008 Climate Change Act calls for. But all it actually does is dust off all the old, shop-worn green remedies (smart meters, smart grids, EVs, hydrogen, bioenergy, carbon capture and storage, etc.) and present them as new solutions. The plan is to bring these solutions to reality by throwing money at them - by my reckoning at least £20 billion over the next few years - in the expectation that "investment" and "innovation" will deliver the desired outcomes, although the odds are strongly against it. In short, the greens are back in the saddle, and as a result the UK still lacks a workable energy plan.

The Clean Energy Strategy document (hereafter the CES) runs to 163 pages and often goes into considerable detail, which makes it difficult to synthesize in a single post. A simple way of gauging where the emphasis is placed, however, is to do word counts using key words and phrases. The results of my word/phrase counts are shown in the Table below:

Efficiency gets the most mentions, and improved energy efficiency is indeed worth pursuing, particularly when at least some of the recent reductions in UK emissions have come from more fuel-efficient vehicles, better-insulated buildings and the replacement of incandescent lights with LEDs (and also from people turning their thermostats down to lower their skyrocketing energy bills - an outcome of the same energy policies that the government now advocates more of. But I don't propose to get into that here).

But there are absolutely no guarantees that innovation and investment, second and third on the list, will result in any tangible gains. Throwing money at things doesn't necessarily work, with a good example being carbon capture and storage (which the CES calls Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage, or CCUS). It's been obvious for years that anyone who comes up with an economic way of capturing and storing CO2 from flue gases would become an overnight billionaire, yet still no one has been able to come up with one. The CES acknowledges that the UK government has also tried and failed:

While we have explored ways to deploy CCUS at scale in the UK since 2007, the lack of a technological breakthrough to reduce the cost of CCUS and the cost structures and risk sharing that potential large-scale projects have demanded has been too high a price for consumers and taxpayers. It is clear from the relative lack of deployment of the technology that other governments have reached a similar conclusion

Yet now the government plans to try again. How does it plan to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat? Don't hold your breath:

Demonstrate international leadership in carbon capture usage and storage (CCUS), by collaborating with our global partners and investing up to £100 million in leading edge CCUS and industrial innovation to drive down costs

This quote also raises the issue of "leadership." Why would the UK want to lead the world in carbon capture and storage? More about this later.

A very noticeable feature of the word counts is that the ingredients we on Energy Matters would consider key parts of any energy strategy not only all appear in the bottom half of the list but are overwhelmed by the attention given to the non-key ingredients at the top. Hydrogen, for example, gets over five times as many mentions as energy security. Smart meters etc. receive sixteen times as many mentions as energy storage. EVs are mentioned over eighty times; CCGTs only once. A potential game-changer like fracking gets no mentions at all. The most remarkable contrasts, however, involve nuclear, which like it or not is the obvious first option if a country wishes to decarbonize. Yet nuclear is heavily outscored by biomass, bioenergy, etc. and even by carbon capture and storage. And currently-fashionable renewables like offshore wind get even less attention than nuclear. What is going on here?

Well, I think I have it figured out. What it comes down to is a fundamental difference in perspective. Two years ago in my "Decarbonizing UK Electricity Generation - Five Options That Will Work" post I came up with scenarios which showed how the UK could meet its emissions targets with a combination of nuclear, gas and wind, which is the obvious (and probably the only) way of meeting them. But approaches that rely on proven technologies don't figure in the "green" view of the world's energy future because they allow business to continue pretty much as usual. They don't require any fundamental changes in the way society behaves. With BAU people will continue to squander resources and despoil the planet just as they always have. New technologies, new paradigms are essential if society is ever to reach the level of environmental consciousness that allows it to prosper and live in harmony with nature at the same time. So out with fossil fuels and in with wind, solar, biomass, biogas, tidal power, smart meters, smart grids, EVs that charge and discharge on demand, battery, compressed air and railcar energy storage, walkways and bicycle paths instead of roads and no watching TV during peak hours. Enough said.

Although there is one good thing about the word counts. Tidal power is mentioned only once. Maybe Swansea Bay won't go ahead after all.

Arguably the most important change the CES makes is to redirect UK energy policy. Up until now UK energy policy has been defined in two documents - the National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power Generation of 2011 and the Gas Generation Strategy of 2012. The first document decribes new nuclear as "vitally important":

Any new nuclear power stations consented under the Planning Act 2008 will play a vitally important role in providing reliable electricity supplies and a secure and diverse energy mix as the UK makes the transition to a low carbon economy.

And in the second even Ed Davey acknowledged the importance of gas:

Gas - as a flexible source of generation which emits half the CO2 of coal - will be needed to help balance the relatively inflexible and intermittent low-carbon generation our policies will bring forward. It will provide crucial capacity to keep the lights on and the economy working.

The CES does not specifically exclude nuclear, but it heavily de-emphasizes it and it ignores gas altogether. (Nuclear appears in only one of the three CES "pathways" discussed later and gas in none of them.) The emphasis is now almost entirely on developing new technologies that may or may not ever be amenable to large-scale commercialization. It seems that the government has "gone green" again, and in a big way.

But are we looking at a real policy change, or is the CES just another exercise in virtue-signaling that the government has no intention of implementing? Senior management seems to be taking it seriously:

This Strategy sets out the action we will take to cut emissions, increase efficiency, and help lower the amount consumers and businesses spend on energy across the country. Prime Minister Theresa May

This Strategy delivers on the challenge that Britain embraced when Parliament passed the Climate Change Act. If we get it right, we will not just deliver reduced emissions, but also cleaner air, lower energy bills for households and businesses, an enhanced natural environment, good jobs and industrial opportunity. It is an opportunity we will seize. Greg Clark, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

And the provisions of the 2008 Climate Change Act will remain in place whether or not the UK exits the European Union:

Leaving the EU will not affect our statutory commitments under our own domestic Climate Change Act and indeed our domestic binding emissions reduction targets are more ambitious than those set by EU legislation.

The CES's planning, if such it can be called, also leaves much to be desired. The approach is clearly illustrated in the first of the five pages in Annex B that outline "Actions and Milestones." It foresees consultations, meetings and discussions of what to do next but essentially nothing in the way of concrete actions:

The CES also provides six pages of detailed bar-graph schedules of activities by sector between now and 2032. The first page (Business and Industry) is shown in the screen shot below. The quote in the white block at the bottom, which again deals with CCS, sets the overall tone:

Develop our ambition of deploying CCUS at scale during the 2030s, subject to costs coming down sufficiently, building on our innovation programme and international collaboration.

The degree to which the CES falls short of qualifying as anything resembling a workable plan is even better illustrated by the fact that despite having had years to play with the DECC calculator it still hasn't decided which decarbonization "pathway" to follow. It cites three options:

• Electricity pathway: Under this pathway, electricity is the main source of energy in 2050. There are many more electric vehicles (EVs), we replace our gas boilers with electric heating and industry moves to cleaner fuels. Altogether this means we use around 80 per cent more electricity than today, and virtually all of it comes from clean sources (renewables and nuclear). In this pathway, CCUS is not used in the UK by 2050.

• Hydrogen pathway: Under this pathway, we use hydrogen to heat our homes and buildings, as well as to fuel many of the vehicles we drive in 2050 and power the UK's industry. We adapt existing gas infrastructure to deliver hydrogen for heating and a national network of hydrogen fuelling stations supports the use of hydrogen vehicles. A large new industry supports hydrogen production using natural gas and capturing the emissions with CCUS.

• Emissions removal pathway: Under this pathway, sustainable biomass power stations are used in tandem with CCUS technology. Carbon is removed from the atmosphere by plants (biomass) as they grow and, when the biomass is used to generate electricity, emissions are captured and stored instead of returning to the atmosphere. There is still a significant clean transition in other sectors but successful innovation in emissions removal allows more time for some of these changes.

And concludes that none of them may work:

These illustrative pathways should not be seen as predictions, as we are continuing to build our understanding of the best approach. The ultimate way forward might in fact be some combination of these, or another approach that builds on further innovation.

It can in fact be confidently predicted that none of them will work. The first option is the only one that stands a chance, but installing enough new nuclear and renewable capacity to cover an 80% demand increase by 2050 is pushing it, and getting millions of EV owners to discharge their batteries when the grid needs it and not when it's convenient to them will require a level of public discipline which is unlikely to be achieved. The second and third options can be discarded as green pipe-dreams. It's already clear that the authors of the CES have no real concept of how to go about cutting emissions. But then, most of them will no longer be around when 2050 comes.

The CES also goes overboard in its summation of climate change risks, which could have been (and probably was) written by a cadre of climate alarmists:

This growing level of global climate instability poses great risks ... It is likely to lead to the displacement of vulnerable people and migration, impact water availability globally, and result in greater human, animal and plant disease … increase the risks of violent conflicts by amplifying drivers of conflicts such as poverty and economic shocks ... The UK is likely to feel the impact ... flooding and coastal change; shortages in public water supply; risks to health, well-being and productivity from high temperatures; risks to natural capital and our ecosystems; risks to food security and trade; and new pests and diseases.

And there is, of course, no longer any doubt that man-made climate change is real:

In recent years the debate and focus of scientific research has shifted from whether climate change is happening and/or is being caused by human activity, to the severity of the expected impacts and the level of action required...

Although here we have to remember that if climate change no longer threatens the world with catastrophe then the people to whom the Climate Change Act continues to give gainful employment are out of a job. A certain level of disregard for the facts is therefore to be expected.

Finally, on the subject of world leadership, which receives more word count mentions ("leader" = 51) than wind (43), nuclear (30) or solar (27). The government's desire to be seen as leading the world in the conversion to a low-carbon economy crops up repeatedly in the CES. Why is the UK so fixated on becoming a world leader? Because everyone else wants to lead the world too. (In my "who leads the world in the fight against climate change" post I identified almost 100 countries, regional jurisdictions, cities, towns and islands that claimed world leadership.) The "world leader" claim is little more than political posturing. It has no business figuring as prominently as it does in government strategy.

Besides, according to the CES's own data the UK already is a world leader. The Executive Summary displays this chart to prove it:

And what's the point in spending billions of pounds of taxpayer money to make the UK a world leader if it already is one?