It is safe to predict that no speech made by a British politician this week will be more surprising or significant than that to be delivered by a senior Conservative, who was sacked from the Cabinet last July for being too good at his job. On Wednesday, as reported on our front page, Owen Paterson, our former environment secretary, will give the Global Warming Policy Foundation’s annual lecture. It’s entitled “Keeping the lights on”, and is focused on Britain’s energy policy. And having seen the mass of expert research on which his lecture is based, I can only say, as someone who has been writing about energy for years, that it shows how the reality of the situation now facing us is even more alarming than anything I have reported on this subject before.
Mr Paterson will, for the first time, reveal clearly just what we have now been committed to under the two Lib Dem ministers, Chris Huhne and Ed Davey, who, since 2010, have presided over our energy and climate change policy. Most of this is hidden away in policy documents so obscure that few non-insiders have any idea of where we are heading. But Paterson will explain, first, what is really now being planned, and, second, why it cannot conceivably work. He will then set out what hard-headed technical experts believe to be the only practical policy that could save us from an almost unimaginable national disaster.
1. The reality of our existing policy
Key to all our present energy policy is the fact that Britain is now, uniquely in the world, legally committed under Ed Miliband’s Climate Change Act to cutting our CO₂ emissions by more than 80 per cent by 2050. When this Act – which Mr Paterson wants repealed – passed almost unanimously through Parliament in 2008, not one politician tried to explain how in practice such a target might be achieved. But since then, the officials at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) have been trying to devise ways in which it might be possible, within 36 years, to eliminate those four-fifths of all the CO₂ emissions on which any modern economy depends.
Their declared aim, at an estimated cost of £1.1 trillion, is the almost complete “decarbonisation” of our economy. Astonishingly, this means that, before 2030, the Government plans to eliminate almost all use of the fossil fuels we currently use to generate 70 per cent of our electricity, to cook and heat our homes and workplaces, and to power virtually all our transport. They want all our existing coal- and gas-fired power stations to close.
Out will go petrol-driven vehicles, along with all gas-powered cooking and central heating. These are to be replaced by such a massive switch to electricity for heating and powering our vehicles that it will require a doubling of our electricity needs. Much of this is to come from “renewables”, such as wind turbines; most of the rest from new nuclear power stations – although, after 2030, new gas- and coal-fired power stations will again be allowed, on condition that all the CO₂ they emit is buried in holes in the ground (what is called “carbon capture and storage”, or CCS).
2. Why the policy cannot work
Mr Paterson will then show how any hope of achieving those Decc targets hidden away in a mass of opaque documents is, in practical terms, just pure make-believe. The EU would have us provide 60GW of electricity from wind turbines, which, thanks to the wind’s intermittency, would require a total capacity of 180GW. We would thus have to spend £360 billion on some 90,000 giant wind turbines, 85,000 more than we have at present, covering an area the size of Scotland.
To meet our 2050 target would require building 2,500 new windmills every year for 36 years, a rate eight times greater than we have managed in the past decade.
Because wind is so unreliable, the Government hopes instead to keep the lights on by adding 1.5GW of power every year until 2050 from huge, new “zero carbon” nuclear power stations. But we can already see what a pipe dream this is, from the only plant so far given approval, at Hinkley Point in Somerset. This is not expected to begin generating its 3.2GW until 2023, at a cost now estimated to have soared sixfold, to a staggering £24 billion.
Equally wishful thinking is Decc’s belief that by 2030 we might have “carbon capture and storage”. Even if this can ever be made to work on a commercial scale, its costs could treble the price of their electricity. As for providing electric replacements for two thirds of the 36 million vehicles on Britain’s roads, last year’s uptake was just 10,000. At this rate, we might get there in 20,000 years’ time.
In other words, there is not a chance of meeting any of Decc’s targets, except by closing down virtually our entire economy. So, as Mr Paterson will ask on Wednesday, is there any way in which such an incredible disaster can be averted?
3. Paterson’s ‘Plan B’
Having consulted a range of practical experts, Paterson will end by suggesting a revolutionary new energy policy, based only on proven technologies. This might not meet the requirements of the Climate Change Act, but at least it could achieve a dramatic cut in our CO₂ emissions (for what that is worth) – and, unlike Decc’s policy, his “Plan B” could guarantee to keep our lights on, our buildings heated, and our now almost wholly computer-dependent economy still functioning.
The first leg of his new policy would be to tackle what has long been one of the real scandals of the way we use energy, by wasting colossal amounts of heat from power generation. This could be used to warm most of the buildings in the country by what is known as “combined heat and power” (CHP). Official figures from the US government show just how dramatically gas-fired CHP compares with the inefficiencies of wind and solar power. At well over twice their efficiency, a CHP system can generate more than twice as much electricity as wind, and, furthermore, produces large quantities of heat, at significantly less cost – while actually saving 50 per cent more in CO₂ emissions. And if ever we can emulate the “shale revolution” that has recently cut US gas prices by two-thirds, the costs of CHP would be even lower.
The second proposal is that, instead of relying for nuclear power only on hugely expensive plants such as Hinkley Point, using obsolete reactor designs, we should look to hundreds of mini-reactors. These would be similar to those that have been used safely for decades to power ships (Rolls-Royce has been running one for 50 years next to Derby football ground). These could thus be installed much nearer to population centres, both to generate electricity and to power CHP district heating schemes.
The third leg, the only one Decc is currently looking at, is to use the latest computer technology to provide what is called “demand management”. This uses sophisticated techniques to reduce electricity demand so drastically that we could actually reduce our capacity by 40 per cent, without anyone noticing.
The stark alternatives, Mr Paterson will conclude, are that either we continue down the present course, which cannot begin to achieve any of its desired goals – or we can adopt an entirely new strategy, which could actually allow us to survive as an industrial nation.
In his lecture on Wednesday, he will be the first politician to kick off a properly realistic debate on Britain’s energy future. It could not be more desperately overdue.