It seems to me there are at least six strands to this complicated subject as follows:
1. The Science,
3. Risks, costs, fear and democracy,
4. Usage levels,
5. Protection vs. Prevention
6. Government failures to date.
1. The Science.
Although I have a physics degree and understand the principles of the greenhouse gas effect, I would not claim to be an expert in the subject and could not, for example, assess the calibration of the various effects involved. Now that we have some actual results coming through for things like sea temperatures, they seem to be about halfway between the zero baseline and the original (ice-)hockey stick projections. That still leaves us with a serious problem to address.
We are faced with two sets of scientists apparently saying opposite things. Or are they? Perhaps they are both right and both wrong to a degree and the truth lies somewhere in the middle? UKIP’s traditional view is sometimes misunderstood as a denier position, but it is actually more subtle than that. Our argument has not been that climate change is not happening but that its causes are not significantly man-made, and that a panic reaction has already been and will become even more counter-productive. As a centre politician I don’t see a conflict between supporting a move towards green energy provided we do not shoot ourselves in the foot in the process. As I say, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
At this very moment we are facing a massive increase in wholesale gas prices. This almost certainly is to do with international politics rather than climate change, with the allegation being that the Russians are closing off the gas pipelines for their own economic advantage. We could see a similar position develop over nuclear fuel as the Chinese buy up most of the mines in Africa and elsewhere.
UKIP is all about independence, and green energy potentially gives us that independence if we can just get round the intermittent nature of wind and solar. Hydrogen is on the way and tidal lagoon generation can give us that independence, and maybe some other technologies as well.
Although very little progress has been made in developing tidal lagoon generation yet (why?), with the Swansea Bay project being refused for reasons that are unclear, mainly political it would seem, and the MeyGen project in the Pentland Firth now in financial difficulties apparently, the potential in the seas around our island is both untapped and virtually unlimited. How can the cost be significant? Tidal lagoon is basically the same as hydroelectric. Just a wall with some turbines in it, and hydroelectric has been economic for decades. Perhaps Big Business deliberately wants the expensive option?
There are many locations in our seas, such as the Severn estuary, which must be sufficiently shallow in many places and have a sufficient tidal fall to make tidal lagoons economic. We could build great big circular lagoons in the middle of the estuary and stick dozens of turbines in them. And what about all those long thin Scottish sea lochs, absolutely begging to be brought into use. Or we could be encouraging individuals to buy up old shipping containers, stick a couple of small turbines in the side, one in each direction, and plonk them in the sea. You could have thousands of such mini-lagoons all hooked up to the grid, or a local hydrogen plant, all producing green energy pretty much round the clock (except when the tide turns). Indeed if you split them in half you could phase out the turning tide as well. Not very scenic at low tide I admit, but much better than wind turbines.
3. Risks, Costs, Fear and Democracy.
There is no point in taking up an extremist position that is simply counter to the popular view just for the sake of it, even if the science is dubious. There are no votes out there. However, much of the fear relates to costs as it does to extinction, so we have an opportunity here to emphasize a balanced approach that is both responsible and practical at the same time. Fear in society is pernicious and subversive and can cause people to take up confrontational and totalitarian attitudes as they seek refuge in the simple clarity of extreme positions. The alarmist demands fall very much into that category. We have already seen the effects of fear with Islamophobia and now we are seeing it with climate change. Fear must be taken seriously in itself. As libertarians we must fight against this danger and address the fears as much as the science. Whatever populists may say about politicians doing what the people demand, they still expect us to get the technicalities right. At an election they will judge us by results anyway, and that is as it should be. It is no good delivering a disaster and then saying it was what the people demanded at the last election! We are expected to exercise good judgement.
Which brings us to Hinckley Point C. This is supposed to have a 60 year operation span starting in 2026. And they have agreed a fixed price at £92.50 pMwH, albeit subject to upwards inflation adjustments, when it is impossible to predict costs and prices six years ahead let alone sixty?! I bet the investors are rubbing their hands, as I should not be at all surprised if operating profits turn out to be high. Those costs they have been bandying about will have been padded out to the heavens to cover the long-term risks involved, unless that is they intend to re-insure them in the City in which case the City will be rubbing its hands. Either way the customer and taxpayer are going to get screwed. We must substitute a cap and collar profit contract if this happens. That will protect both investors and consumers at the same time. Why didn’t they think of that at the outset?
Nor have we heard much about small nuclear, which benefits hugely from much lower transmission losses. Again the hand of Big Business appears to be involved, and their poodles, the Tories, will do whatever they want.
A similar approach should be taken to wind and solar farmers. How much profit after receipt of subsidy are they actually making? I don’t know but we need reassurance that profiteering is not taking place. Again, cap and collar is the way forward. This means that if profits exceed an agreed maximum, say 5%, then prices must be reduced, but likewise if losses occur prices or subsidy can be increased. Wind farms have an operational life of only 35 years. Let us aim not to have to replace them when the time comes.
The 2050 net zero target must be seen as an aspiration not a commitment. I would never sanction the closure of existing power generation if adequate and economic replacement generation were not already in place. We cannot guarantee to achieve that, but we can try, and actually I am quite optimistic about it. Hydrogen is on its way and various technologies and economies of scale are developing fast. We must also guarantee that energy prices do not increase by more than say 1% above inflation each year, if that. Recovering our trade deficit from the EU could be instrumental in financing that.
4. Limiting electricity usage.
Extinction Rebellion are current campaigning to insulate all our houses at enormous cost. But what does it matter how much electricity we use provided it is all green? It just adds to the confrontational nature of the whole thing and the idea we must all be poor in the future. Then we have the exhortation to switch to electric cars when the grid itself is still hybrid. These cars are no more pure green than a hybrid car. Green and fossil energy is mixed up before it goes into the grid, so you can’t get out anything other than hybrid. And what about all those electricity supply companies promising to supply only green energy. They should be prosecuted for misrepresentation. Likewise smart energy meters – pointless. These are all examples of totalitarian government.
5. Protection vs. Prevention.
With increasingly alarming weather events on our television screens each evening, the question arises as to what we are doing about any damage already with us, whether or not it is man-made? We hear no plans from the government about this. And what about that infrastructure tzar? Haven’t heard from him in ages. Is he asleep? Clearly adequate funds must be allocated to sea defences, river defences and other matters.
6. Government failures.
We got off to a ‘good’ start with the disastrous 2008 Climate Change Act, which artificially increased energy prices to the extent that many firms could no longer compete and went out of business, throwing thousands of workers onto the dole in the process. Coming on top of the banking crisis and the ever increasing trade deficit with the EU, the poor suffered a triple whammy leading to the riots of 2011. That should have been a wake-up call.
We appear to have the general lack of planning and concern for finding the most efficient solutions and the best protection as I have described above.
In conclusion our policy must be to proceed with conversion to green energy in a careful and economic way so as to address all of the challenges I have outlined above, not least the imperative for national energy independence. Even if we don’t make it by 2050 that is not disaster when you consider the UK’s contribution to greenhouse gases is only 1% of the global total. Let’s just make sure we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot in a panic along the way.
In the meantime there is no reason why we should not exploit our own fossil reserves to promote independence over conversion until there is no conflict between the two and to keep costs within reason. In other words a balanced approach taking into account all four factors: independence, cost, conversion and protection.