Published on:

Too much cost, not enough output or too little emissions reduction

My Times Column explores why renewable energy has been so disappointing.

On Saturday my train was diverted by engineering works near Doncaster. We trundled past some shiny new freight wagons decorated with a slogan: “Drax — powering tomorrow: carrying sustainable biomass for cost-effective renewable power”. Serendipitously, I was at that moment reading a report by the chief scientist at the Department of Energy and Climate Change on the burning of wood in Yorkshire power stations such as Drax. And I was feeling vindicated.

A year ago I wrote in these pages that it made no sense for the consumer to subsidise the burning of American wood in place of coal, since wood produces more carbon dioxide for each kilowatt-hour of electricity. The forests being harvested would take four to ten decades to regrow, and this is the precise period over which we are supposed to expect dangerous global warming to emerge. It makes no sense to steal beetles’ lunch, transport it halfway round the world, burning diesel as you do so, and charge hard-pressed consumers double the price for the power it generates.

There was a howl of protest on the letters page from the chief executive of Drax power station, which burns a million tonnes of imported North American wood a year and plans to increase that to 7 million tonnes by 2016. But last week, Dr David MacKay’s report vindicated me. If the wood comes from whole trees, as much of it does, then the effect could be to increase carbon dioxide emissions, he finds, even compared with coal. And that’s allowing for the regrowth of forests.

Despite the best efforts of the Conservatives to rein in their Lib Dem colleagues, the renewable-energy bandwagon careers onward, costing ever more money and doing real environmental harm, while producing trivial quantities of energy and risking blackouts next winter. People keep telling me it’s no good being rude about all renewables: some must be better than others. Well, I’m still looking:

Tidal power remains a (literal) non-starter; if you ask ministers why nothing has been built, they say it’s not for want of proffering ludicrously generous subsidies on our behalf. Yet still no takers.

Wave power: again, the sky’s the limit for what the government will pay if you can figure out how to make dynamos and generators survive the buffeting of waves, corrosion of salt and encrustation of barnacles. Nothing doing.

Geothermal: perhaps great potential in the future for heating homes through district heating schemes, though expensive here compared with Iceland, but not much use for electricity. Air-source and ground-source heat pumps, all the rage a few years ago, have generally proved more costly and less effective than advertised, but they are getting better. Trivial contribution so far.

Solar power: one day soon it will make a big impact in sunny countries, and the price is falling fast, but generating for the grid in cloudy Britain where most power is needed on dark winter evenings will probably never make economic sense. Covering fields in Devon with solar panels today is just ecological and economic vandalism. Solar provides about a third of one per cent of world energy.

Offshore wind: Britain is the world leader, meaning we are the only ones foolish enough to pay the huge subsidies (treble the going rate for electricity) to lure foreign companies into tackling the challenge of erecting and maintaining 700ft metal towers in stormy seas. The good news is that the budget for subsidising offshore wind has almost run out. The bad news is that it is already costing us billions a year and ruining coastal views.

Onshore wind: one of the cheapest renewables but still twice as costly as gas or coal, it kills eagles and bats, harms tourism, divides communities and takes up lots of space. The money goes from the poor to the rich, and the carbon dioxide saving is tiny, because of the low density of wind and the need to back it up with diesel generators. These too now need subsidy because they cannot run at full capacity.

Hydro: cheap, reliable and predictable, providing 6 per cent of world energy, but with no possibility for significant expansion in Britain. The current vogue for in-stream generation in lowland streams in England will produce ridiculously little power while messing up the migration of fish.

Anaerobic digestion: a lucrative way of subsidising farmers (yet again) to grow perfectly good food for burning instead of eating. Contrary to myth, nearly all the energy comes from crops such as maize (once fermented into gas), not from food waste. Expensive.

Waste incineration: a great idea. Yet we are currently paying other countries to take it off our hands and burn it overseas. If instead we burned it at home, we would make cheap, reliable electricity. But Nimbys won’t let us.

Over the past ten years the world has invested more than $600 billion in wind power and $700 billion in solar power. Yet the total contribution those two technologies are now making to the world primary energy supply is still less than 2 per cent. Ouch.

If we had spent that sum on research, and steadily replaced coal with gas as a source of electricity, we would have done far more to cut carbon emissions and kept prices low. A new report by Charles Frank of the Brookings Institution has come to the startling conclusion that if you encourage gas to replace coal, you get fewer emissions per dollar spent than if you use wind or solar.

In Mr Frank’s words: “Solar and wind facilities suffer from a very high capacity cost per megawatt, very low capacity factors and low reliability, which result in low avoided emissions and low avoided energy cost per dollar invested.” In short, we are picking losers.

I would not suggest Drax goes back to burning only coal, partly because I have a vested interest in the coal industry and partly because more than 40 per cent of the coal we burn in this country comes from Russia, so we are more exposed to Vladimir Putin for our coal than for our gas. The answer is staring us in the face. Gas is the cheapest clean way of making electricity, and we are sitting on one of the world’s richest shale-gas fields. Yet investment in gas-fired power is deterred by the government’s preference for renewables.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times