I read this article by Lord Frost and it depressed me. At senior political levels, there is still a misunderstanding about what is going on in our energy system.
The article is an illustration of a polarised debate where those on the left and right see the net zero transition as an opportunity or threat. We have seen similar discussion in the Conservative Party leadership debates.
Some of the left see climate change as a symptom of global capitalism and wealth. What is needed is rationing and reduction in choices for people. We must all make sacrifices, accept that we can’t continue to live as we do. Taxes will need to be applied and individual behaviour constrained for the greater good.
Some of the right, even those not denying climate change, see it as a conspiracy to extend government control over individuals and attack success.
Neither are correct. The revolution needs state intervention and individual dynamism.
In the medium term, we will not need to ration ourselves, we will not need to make sacrifices or curtail individual rights. We have unlocked effectively infinite, ever-cheaper clean energy. It will enable extraordinary economic growth and opportunities – which almost no-one is discussing – and reduce geopolitical tensions hugely.
That said, there is investment, taxation and policy needed now to get there. Examples where we need work to change markets, are on the issue of heat pumps and the electrical supply system.
On the supply side, we need a lot more electricity. We are going to electrify almost everything; heating in buildings, all surface transport, some industry, even some air and sea transport.
Estimates for that transformation suggest we will need two to three times the electricity we use today, (~500-800TWh). The source of that electricity needs to be zero carbon to address the risk of climate change.
In the UK, most of that electricity is going to come from wind power, solar and nuclear (or be imported from somewhere cheaper). Solar and wind will be the cheapest energy we have ever made and get ever cheaper, nuclear is expensive at the moment, and the extent of its role in our future will depend on its ability to reduce costs.
The challenge with these technologies, as we all know, is that they can’t be turned on or off. Again, nuclear is more complicated, but it is inflexible for technical and commercial reasons.
This is a problem. Up to now, a lot of our energy generation has been flexible and there is a lot of standby generation. In the future, most of our generation system will not be directly flexible. Most of the time the system will be making too much or not enough electricity.
There are solutions: battery technology can already store energy for short periods, but not the long-term. When we buy electricity, variable tariffs will encourage us to use electricity at different times to help balance the system.
All of this will make the system cheaper to operate and more efficient. It will reduce energy bills for us all and give us freedom to choose how we procure energy.
To get there, however, needs regulation of electricity markets, regulation on networks and contractual mechanisms supported by taxpayers.
There is an open question as to whether we need to find a long-term energy storage solution, such as hydrogen, or whether inter-connectors, batteries and geographically dispersed renewables will do the job.
The demand side, we need to stop using fossil fuels. For most of us, that revolves around a gas boiler and a petrol or diesel car.
Electrification of cars and the rest of surface transport is already happening and will continue for simple economic principles; it is cheaper and a superior product in every way.
On heating, it is different. Almost all the heat in buildings will need to switch to heat pumps. Heat pumps can be as cheap as gas boilers to run, I think they will be cheaper in the long-term. They cannot be as cheap to buy. They are fundamentally more complicated pieces of kit.
That is why we need incentives and regulations to increase their deployment. Do not listen to anyone who says some buildings can’t have heat pumps.
The whole of Japan uses heat pumps just fine. Over half of Norwegian homes have heat pumps.
Because of this cost difference and the fact that the supply chain is immature in the UK, it means we need Building Regulations, incentives and policies to drive this transition.
The point is that we need the policies of the state and we need the dynamism and energy of the free market. Climate change is real and needs a lot of work to address it. That requires policies, incentives and restrictions.
The all-electric future to which that leads will reduce environmental damage of all kinds, increase wealth and individual choice.
Extremists on both sides reduce how quickly we get there, and more airtime needs to be given to political moderates and people who understand energy systems.
Stephen Gwynne says
“We have unlocked effectively infinite, ever-cheaper clean energy. It will enable extraordinary economic growth and opportunities – which almost no-one is discussing – and reduce geopolitical tensions hugely”.
This is because this assertion is untrue.
The Mining of Minerals and the Limits to Growth.
clearly highlights that the critical materials necessary for a net zero carbon global economy are simply not available.
Similarly, when Modelling energy transition risk: The impact of declining energy return on investment (EROI)
the negative effects associated with the transition—recession, stagnation, stagflation, increasing inequality and asset stranding—are positively related to the capital intensity of green energy production and reductions in EROI.
There is no world where the human species is going to be able to create the same amount of green power as grey power which is going to lead to economic contraction not expansion as useable oil reserves deplete and the EROI of hydrocarbons continue to decline.
I read your links and they don’t make much sense. The price of renewable energy has declined for 20 years plus. It shows no signs of changing. Solar and wind are already the cheapest energy humanity has ever made. The paper around EROI just assumes that there is a decline. Profits on energy production will decline because the sector is so competitive, but the EROI issue is dead. You are dealing with a product that is infinite, effectively. You can use ever cheaper solar and wind power to make more modules and turbines.
On the minerals, solar and wind don’t really use much exotic or rare material. (Batteries do, but that is changing and there are so many storage technologies.) As for there being limited minerals, that is true but solar and wind use a tiny amount of global supplies compared to buildings, roads, etc.
Currently UK generates about 100TWhs of renewable elec. a year. We may need to generate as much as 800TWh. There are no limits to minerals, sun, wind, space, or anything else that would prevent that.
As I said, we have unlimited energy, it will unlock huge economic opportunity and end issues like fuel poverty. We do need government policy to guide that.
It is very exciting.
Natasha Thoday says
EVO and this post’s author fail to account for the laws of thermodynamics rendering their visions of an unlimited future deeply and fatally flawed.
EVO writes: “The paper around EROI just assumes that there is a decline” – that’s because there is a decline. Humans have harvested the easiest to get fossil fuel supplies already, what’s remaining needs and ever greater share of what comes out the ground.
The reason this is crucial is because it impossible to build solar flow harvesting machines & infrastructure because solar energy flows are too dilute (low energy density) to harvest and turn into concentrated (high energy density) fuel needed to run machines that are used to mine and refine materials and power machinery to transport and build wind turbines and solar farms.
As such this means that de-growth to pre-fossil fuel age global population of about 2 billion people is inevitable. i.e. EROI is declining rapidly. Plenty of references here:
Hi, I can’t tell if this is serious. Solar energy flows are too dilute? Solar power is the cheapest energy humanity has ever produced. There are contracts in Portugal and the Middle East going for less than 1p per kWh. It doesn’t matter how dilute it is, we are never going to run out of sun, wind, ground or silicon, (or whatever else comes next).
If I can build a solar farm and sell energy at this price then the energy and other materials going into it must cost less. EROI may have relevance for fossil fuels, (although we kept finding ways to make them cheaper), it is not for solar and wind. They do not get more difficult to harvest, they get ever cheaper. Offshore wind prices continue to fall and their efficiency continues to improve.
These papers that keep proving how in theory degrowth is inevitable struggle when they bump into reality of us installing >100GW of solar and the same of wind power each year.
My article was trying to address the issue that people have ideologies and then try and make the energy situation fit them. You are doing this.
I bet you that solar and wind will be cheaper in five years than they are now. I also bet you there will be no shortage of materials for either. I can’t guarantee the earth’s population, but it won’t be limited by energy. You will have to find another logic for degrowth or rationing.