Three facts about wind generation of electricity in the UK:
(1) Headlines exclaim that the UK has beaten its own record and produced 55% of its demand from renewables alone.
(2) Similar headlines (here and here) boast of the average contribution of renewable power over the year (2020 is likely to be a record) and demonstrate the real and laudable displacement of coal and consequent dramatic (world-leading) reductions in GHG emissions.
(3) No headlines, but very real – days when wind and solar don’t contribute and these cause significant perturbations to the grid, price spikes and CO2 emissions rise.
All of these are factually correct – but depending how they are presented (or ignored) can significantly change the narrative.
It is normal to want to live in harmony with nature and the unrelenting negative news about climate and CO2 and energy speaks to this. Exciting examples of how things are being done create expectations about how the system should change but also create exasperation about how slow progress is. But the use of flagship projects should be managed with care – these are often in the news because they are the exception, not the norm.
A while ago, there was a widely-shared video of a huge truck carrying quarried rocks – the electric truck was painted green (of course) and to much adulation was reported to “never need charging”. Factually correct because the specific circumstance is that the quarry is high on a hillside and its destination (a cement factory) is in the valley. The truck uses regenerative braking to charge its 600kw batteries, and the charge is sufficient to get it back up to the quarry. Magic. The nuance is of course that it carries load down and comes back up empty; thus the losses in generating and storing electricity are compensated for by the additional kinetic energy provided by gravity on the way down – the unladen truck weights 45 tons and carries 65 tons of material – so is 110 tons on the way down and 45 on the way back up.
In many ways this is not too different to counter-weight systems like funicular tramways or building elevators – only here instead of a mechanical transfer with friction losses and a “top-up” of input energy, there is an electro-chemical transfer (with associated losses but net gains). The laws of thermodynamics still hold.
I had the great honour of speaking (virtually) to the venerable Geological Society of London yesterday on the subject of what the transition to low-carbon energy might mean to the economy and to society as a whole. The video is available via the Geological Society and the raw feed here.
Returning to one of my favourite subjects – those disgraceful subsidies for fossil fuels. One of the features of having teenage kids is you often hear “whatever”, or more recently “no one asked” as conversation stoppers. In the same way, having reasonable conversations about fuel subsidies is often met with the “concerned citizen” equivalent – one such appeared on a previous blog post that laboriously (I thought) tried to show that it wasn’t a simple case of “Fossil-Fuels Bad (and subsidised), Renewables good (and yes subsidised, but that’s OK)”. Despite this I got the “whatever” style comment of how “we should just stop subsidising fossil fuels”.
So here I go again. The infamous $5.2 Trillion headline has been widely debunked so will be ignored hereafter and whilst there are some places that have direct subsidies for production, in the vast majority these are “implied” subsides whereby the specific and very high petroleum taxes simply generate some rebates, and were discussed at length in the previous post.
However, there clearly are countries who subsidise the cost of (notably) petroleum products to their citizens. The headline number is often mentioned “$426bn” or “$372bn” or some such. A far cry from the debunked $5.2 Trillion, but still a big number, but you have to dig pretty hard to see who these bad actors are. The platitudinous headline is “fossil fuels subsides to consumers must stop” or in more thoughtful works, “should be swapped to subsidies for renewables”. Let’s just ignore that petroleum product molecules and renewable electrons are not always interchangeable, especially around transport.
Note in the 33 pages of this report there is no definition of these subsidies other than the above – it is just gospel that they exist and must be swapped out. When digging, I found the cited IEA reference has no mention of subsidies at all in it, the Merrill paper is better, and references price-gap analysis.
Spoiler Alert: the countries that subsidise their citizens for say gasoline are clearly globally significant, get them to change and all will be well in the world…
Summary: With a focus on “Greener, Cleaner and Cheaper” energy, we are overlooking the possible negative consequences of cheap energy. More expensive energy can be seen as a big negative as it will slow economic growth, but cheaper energy could accelerate degradation of planetary resources. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t?
About the publisher: Richard Norris is a leading business developer and advisor to energy investors, developers, bankers and the public sector.