Is Boris Johnson's recent U-turn on renewable energy just a lot of wind?

Dave Toke isn’t convinced

Johnson has now proclaimed that half the UK’s energy future lies in wind power – thus performing another one of his fabulous about-turns, having previously declared that wind power couldn’t blow the skin off a rice pudding. But how seriously should we take this latest Johnson U-turn, and what do the Government’s energy plans amount to? 

A cynic might argue that issuing a few contracts to build a few (admittedly rather large) offshore windfarms is practically all that UK new energy policy amounts to. Well, that and dispensing a few billion here and there to satisfy a bag of establishment interest groups claiming to be able to herald the Government’s march towards the ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas target for the UK in 2050. 

The merit of the offshore windfarms is that they will cost the energy consumer nothing, although when it comes to issuing the actual contracts there are big questions about whether there will be anything like enough to meet the Government commitments on reducing carbon emissions. The problem is that the Government is still committed to building a lot more nuclear power. The problem here is that they require very large subsidies demanded by EDF, including a commitment to pay the cost overruns that always occur when nuclear power plants are built in the UK (or most other places). The only place where (some) nuclear power plants get built on time is China, where health and safety regulations are… well, let us say, not quite as rigorous as in the West. 

So essentially it looks like by far the biggest item on the Treasury’s finance sheet for low carbon energy is nuclear power, costing at least £25 billion (the likely cost of the power station assuming modest cost overruns). The rest pales by comparison. The argument given for this is that nuclear power is essential, even though it clashes with wind and solar power because nuclear power will not turn down to accommodate the times when there is a lot of wind or solar power, thus wasting loads of energy. But nuclear power will not be expected to pay for that, only the renewable energy generators. There are of course lots of techniques available for balancing and storing renewable energy that are much more effective than this, but they do not have EDF lobbying for them. 

The Treasury is not keen on the terms wanted by EDF but, under the weight of pressure by EDF and a bevy of big construction interests, it seems all but inevitable that we shall be financing another nuclear construction that will not be completed until long after there is a consensus that it was not necessary after all.  

The Treasury has announced a £3 billion programme for energy efficiency, although implementation seems slow to get off the ground. It has also thrown a few million variously to promote small nuclear reactors (a very old idea before it was realised nuclear power plants were less uneconomic if they were big) and hydrogen. Hydrogen is another big theme that has recently been floated by Johnson himself. Of course, this raises the question of where the hydrogen comes from. Here, again the subject is being captured by various elements of the gas industry. At the moment most hydrogen comes from – you’ve guessed it – the gas industry, and they want to make sure it carries on that way.  

At the moment the carbon dioxide from the gas is not captured when hydrogen is made. In future the gas industry says that it will be producing what is called ‘blue hydrogen’, whereby the carbon is captured and stored. It is then pumped around the gas network and into our houses. Sounds almost business as usual, an almost magic solution. Except it is not. It would require simultaneous changing of all gas appliances in the UK, major refurbishment of the gas pipe infrastructure to switch from it carrying natural gas to hydrogen, and lots of pipes to carry away the carbon dioxide from the plant where the gas industry changes the gas into hydrogen. This will cost a lot of money, and we shall end up with the situation where the industry that is producing the carbon pollution is being given billions of pounds to produce a product that will not be completely decarbonised anyway. 

Of course there are much more efficient ways of providing low carbon energy using heat pumps installed in new buildings and good old storage heaters in old buildings. These will be powered by electricity from windfarms and other renewable energy sources. This can be done incrementally and require no transformations of the gas infrastructure. However, again these solutions do not have major incumbent multinational corporations to lobby for them. So is Johnson’s U-turn real? Well, only as far as the energy establishment lets him! 

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