The first version of this post appeared on our good friend Sackerson's excellent blog ...
An important line of thought in energy matters is how coal transformed the entire world by being a very dense (and fairly convenient) form of energy. Oil is even better. (Google ERoEI for quantified approaches to these thoughts.) Cheap coal and oil were the basis of industrial civilisation, and cheap electricity the basis of the modern way of life. Oooh-errr, missus: isn't "green energy" going to be of much poorer ERoEI, and much more expensive? ... and hence, the end of civilisation as we know it?
When allied to the obvious observation that activist "greens" are generally ignorant to the point of causing despair; and those that aren't daft romantics are often outright malcontents (sometimes anarchists and sometimes malevolent & motivated anti-capitalists) - oh, and add China to the mix, because they ain't falling for this crap but we are! - there's scope for some fairly apocalytic visions. Oooh-errr, missus ...
For a well-written example of this thesis my attention was drawn by the good Sackers to a piece by one John Constable, a name that will be familiar to those who get their kicks from the often rather peculiar output of the Global Warming Policy Foundation. His article is here. Now I understand this "intellectual" line of thinking, and it's always nice to have something theoretical to worry about: but he's been eating too much cheese and I'm deeply skeptical of his argument, on three immediate grounds:
- ad hominem: Constable is a deep fellow but always leaves the indelible impression he's pursuing an unacknowledged agenda
- "Attempting to reverse this process by returning much or all of the energy system to low density flows means handing over to those who control the renewable energy sector the majority of the potential for change available to our society. The political implications of this are terrifying, and not even public ownership of those resources could avoid the concentration of power and constriction of human freedom that would result."
- he's dramatically (and, given his considerable knowledge, wilfully) wrong when he talks about "low density flows" as if that's anything remotely new **
So whom does Constable imagine has been controlling the energy system** up until now (in the open-market era, i.e. post 1990)? The nearest UK candidates are, in broad coalition, (a) National Grid (b) Ofgem (c) HMG. The CCC helps a bit and snipes a bit, from the sidelines: other related quangos are either more helpful (being more closely directed by government and industry) or more snipey (being "greener"). Similar in most countries. With most aspects of detailed development / delivery / execution outsourced to private companies (and/or municipal utilities in some countries), small and large (EDF is an egregious counter-example, but doomed in its present form). Any serious signs it's about to be handed over to Greta? What does she know about constructing anything more weighty than a tweet?
No: as I keep saying here: net zero carbon has gone completely mainstream now (since 2019, specifically, in my assessment). So - it's in the hands of the engineering companies, the traditional energy companies (who ain't volunteering to go the way of the dinosaurs any time soon) as well as a rash of really creative newer engineering / technology companies, and the banks.++ Right now I'm working on a project for a gigantic "traditional polluter" whose products are vital for our way of life, whose efforts to go green up until last year were next to nil, and who now are throwing their best people into really bold schemes to go zero carbon! And when you see real, competent people working these Big (very big) Problems, constructively and productively, it makes the idea of "handing things over to parish councils" look utterly, utterly absurd. And despite RL-B's talk of the unions taking a controlling stake in all this, whose side do you think a practical GMB man is on? (Or Kier Starmer?) For reasons both of jobs, and keeping the lights on, nobody in the real world will do anything other than let the big corporates do what they're doing.
Now: will our 2050 energy end up being more expensive? Not sure: there are some very simplistic a priori arguments in the air on this one. Yes, there are huge upfront capital costs - but right now, that's surely going to be spent on Something Big, on Keynsian grounds at least, so it might as well be building clean & useful stuff. (Plus adaptation / mitigation, of course - a key part of the 2019 breakthrough-to-mainstream.) And the beauty of wind and solar is that once the (substantial, but fast declining) capital expenditure has been taken care of, the operating costs are wholly unburdened by the fuel costs that dominate "conventional" energy. (Don't fret about the details like grid balancing, over which Mr Constable frequently hyper-ventilates - and I used once to worry myself a few years ago. It's just an engineering problem: the Grid is very good at it; lots of clever people are beavering away at it - and the costs of all that will fall, too.)
But let's suppose, as seems possible, that Chinese coal+wind+solar beats western hydrogen+wind+solar+batteries on cost. So what? Globalism is over! We ain't gonna be buying our stuff from them on the same scale anymore, anyway. Are we ..?
** the whole point about the gas industry is that methane is INCREDIBLY low in energy density, (even when you freeze it to put it in ships, it's still quite poor) - but an exceptionally useful form of energy. And so, highly specialised infrastructures (physical, financial and commercial) have long since been established to cater for this. In many respects (although the technical analogies aren't easily mapped for non-scientists), the electricity situation is even more extreme. Neither of these massive industries are in the hands of the Green Blob. Anywhere. Whatever daftness sometimes surfaces in the legislation under which they conduct their resolutely practical business.
++ OK, yes, and a bunch of chancers, con artists and would-be 'war profiteers' at the margin