John Constable and Capell Aris: Net Zero is a utopian plan that won’t work. Here’s a realistic plan for cleaner energy that will.

18 May

Dr John Constable is the Energy Editor of the Global Warming Policy Forum. Dr Capell Aris had a career in the energy supply industry, in the nuclear and pumped storage areas. Their policy paper, The Workable Alternative to Net Zero: A plan for cleaner, reliable and affordable energy has just been published.

From 1920 to 2000, the UK electricity supply industry reduced carbon dioxide emissions and prices as well as improving reliability, a record that was even maintained during the 1939–1945 war. This remarkable achievement resulted from efficiency improvements and bringing gas and nuclear into the generation fleet. For the most part, these developments emerged from the realm of multi-disciplinary engineering, free from policy interventions.

However, since 2000 the UK has tried to accelerate the rate of carbon dioxide emissions reductions, with increasing political, ideological and environmental inputs, and little or no reference to sound engineering principles or economics. Our electricity supply industry has become more expensive and significantly less resilient – as witness the nationally significant blackout of 9 August 2019 – yet it is delivering emissions cuts no faster than seen in the period prior to 2000.

These undesirable effects are the result of adopting thermodynamically incompetent generators such as wind turbines and solar panels, and (allegedly) low-emitting and extremely expensive fuels such as biomass. Subsidy costs to renewables, which remain expensive in spite of the propaganda, are now running at about £11 billion per year.

The cost of balancing the grid, at nearly £2 billion a year, has risen four-fold since the early 2000s and will rise still more sharply as batteries are built to provide ancillary services to the grid. Transmission network costs are rising as the result of onshore grid reinforcement and the construction of subsea cables, some exclusively for the benefit of the renewables sector.

And the negative impacts of renewables go much further. In spite of rising costs, grid resilience is falling. Apart from hydro and biomass, renewables have intermittent, highly variable, and uncontrollable production levels, as well as responding badly to faults. Furthermore, unlike traditional generators, they deliver little or no grid “inertia”.

This means that when there is a fault, the impacts are likely to be felt over a much wider area, and the risk of major blackouts is much higher. This situation will only become worse as the share of renewables grows. It is becoming doubtful that nuclear generation plant can operate alongside such an unstable grid.

There is an increasing dependency on interconnectors, with serious political implications, now more obvious than ever with French threats to Jersey. In any case, large weather systems, such as a pan-European high, can bring low wind speeds and low power generation across Northern Europe, from Scotland to Poland, reducing the value of interconnections.

About 1,000 acres of farmland a month are now entering the planning system for solar development, with even DEFRA conceding that over 20 per cent of farmland will be lost to renewables to meet Net Zero targets. With a growing population, such a reduction in agricultural capacity would leave the UK 50 per cent import dependent for all foodstuffs within twenty years.

The smart metering initiative is over-budget (the cost is now in excess of £15 billion or £555 per household), has dubious information security, is compromised by of out-of-date technology and incapable of interacting with any prospective IoT (Internet of Things). Smart metering is a paradigm for the Net Zero project and a catastrophe.

Detailed professional criticism of the decarbonisation agenda has been ignored, with the result that the electricity supply system is failing. There is an increasing risk of deep societal harm through low productivity, intolerably high electricity costs and extremely harmful interruptions of supply.

As a matter of urgency, electricity generation policy must refocus on dispatchable low-emissions plant that can to deliver a secure and competitive electricity system. The resulting lower electricity prices will prevent further deindustrialisation, and facilitate some limited electrification of domestic and commercial heating and mobility.

There is then the potential for longer-term decarbonisation in transport and heating via a medium-term nuclear programme, which might include the generation of hydrogen using high-temperature reactors.

The action points for reform are:

1. Remove market distortions and reduce consumer cost by buying back all subsidy contracts to renewables at a discount, compelling them to operate as pure merchant plant, and institute a rolling program for closure of the wind and solar fleets to reduce system operation costs.

2. License rapid construction of high efficiency combined-cycle gas turbines, perhaps Allam cycle generators, and perhaps with Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS), if economic.

3. Use low-cost Government debt to finance a new generation of nuclear plant, ideally of smaller scale than those currently envisaged.

4. Investigate the use of high temperature nuclear reactors to generate hydrogen, seeking close co-operation with the Government of Japan, which is already steering in this direction.

Current UK policies will struggle to deliver Net Zero by 2050, or ever, and run a high risk of deep and irreversible societal damage. Because of the harms already inflicted, the engineerable programme outlined here cannot deliver Net Zero by 2050, but it will reduce emissions rapidly and sustainably without destabilising British society. This, then, is a realistic plan – rather than a utopian and, frankly, risible one.