An announcement on fracking is coming next week, says Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business and Energy Secretary. That will be an important decision. But it is only part of the picture. Nothing is more vital to a modern economy than copious supplies of energy.
But the truth is that neither we nor the EU have an energy policy that can actually deliver it. Fundamentally misconceived, exposed by the Covid switch-off/switch-on of the world economy and then the war in Ukraine, our approach needs a rethink. Without that, all ministers can do is put in place increasingly complex and expensive palliatives until, in due course, they are overwhelmed by events.
What is going wrong? To understand properly we have to look at the fundamentals.
Let’s take the 2050 net zero target as a given for the moment. There are only two ways of getting there.
The first is to put in place by 2050 systems of energy supply that are both carbon-free and capable of generating the energy we need at a cost which people and businesses can actually pay.
I don’t see how we are going to do this with current technology and the attempt to get there will be extremely expensive.
Of course, we might get lucky with fusion power. But otherwise, the route there by renewables – wind, solar – doesn’t work because you require back-up for when they aren’t generating power. Battery technology is not good enough, so you need to run a parallel gas grid, and less efficiently than gas on its own because you have to turn it on and off as the wind blows. Obviously that is going to be more expensive, and it gets more so the more renewables you have. That is why it is simply not true to say that “gas is expensive and wind is free”, as so many do.
Alternatively, we could invest properly in nuclear, although the Government does not seem wholeheartedly committed to it, and until they are, it won’t get built. Or else you have to decarbonise gas and coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS) – but unfortunately it hasn’t been shown to work at scale yet.
The other way of reaching the target is to crush demand for energy so that it matches what can be produced, carbon-free, with the technology you do have. That can be done, a bit, by encouraging energy efficiency and measures such as home insulation – although the costs are high – around £25-30 billion every year until 2050 (5-6p on income tax unless people are made to pay themselves).
It can also be done, a bit, by hectoring. But many of us tune that out, so it becomes compulsion, on electric cars, heat pump boilers, and so on.
And making people do things they wouldn’t voluntarily do is not only unpopular – as the Government is finding – but a limit on prosperity. If a heat pump is as good as your current boiler, you will buy it anyway. If it isn’t, you’re worse off.
The fundamental problem for the Government is that it can’t be honest about these two routes to its target, because one is impractical and the other deeply unpopular. But in the end, it can’t be avoided: either the net zero target has to evolve, or there must be compulsory demand control and rationing.
This week’s Climate Change Committee statement was at least honest in pointing out that current Government policy won’t deliver the target. But the committee doesn’t have to worry about public opinion. The Government does. So, rather than face up to it, this Government’s strategy so far has been to obfuscate, pretend the technology is better than it is, and throw sand in our eyes with fantasies about thousands of green jobs based on renewables. (When will it realise that these new jobs are a cost of renewables, not a benefit?)
That strategy has now come adrift because of the Covid and Ukraine crises. The cost of these supply shocks together with the huge costs of the move to net zero can’t be borne by individuals or businesses. This has been compounded by the irresponsibility over security of supply: there is essentially no gas storage capacity, the Government has realised it can’t necessarily get its hands on gas in the open market, certainly not cheaply, and the electricity interconnectors aren’t as reliable as it thought. In short, the Government has been caught on the hop.
So what is to be done? The Government must realise that it faces a crisis. In the short run it must keep the lights on or pay a heavy price. It should then drop the mad dash for medieval wind power technology and focus on the only acceptably low-carbon form of power available – gas. Get shale gas extraction going, commit long-term to the North Sea, put in place proper storage – and build some new gas power stations. By all means commit to nuclear, too – but only gas solves the problems in a meaningful time frame.
I think this because I fear a different world view is now deeply embedded across politics. It’s one that sees industrial civilisation as damaging to the planet and low energy use as desirable. It’s one that thinks some form of original sin was committed in this country by James Watt and Richard Arkwright, for which we must now expiate – a view shared by the Prime Minister, to judge by his comments in Glasgow at Cop26.
We must take on this view before it is too late. Modern civilisation needs energy, and lots of it. Abundant energy powered the Industrial Revolution and everything that came with it – proper housing, enough food, scientific and medical advances, economic growth that frees up time to do things you like doing as well as working.
I don’t like poverty, I don’t like artificial limits on human aspiration and potential, and when you don’t have enough energy you get a lot of both. That’s why we need to change tack now. We need an energy policy that delivers power, at acceptable cost, whenever we need it – because an advanced economy without that will not stay advanced for long. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/…/energy-rationing…/