November 6, 2009
U.K. Renewables Revolution Threatens BlackoutsBy Peter C Glover
It is easy to understand the romantic attraction of the clean energy revolution and the rush to replace "dirty" fossil fuels. In light of the war on carbon, it's a no brainer, right? Which is precisely why, just as diminishing EU and U.K. subsidies are prompting an industry exodus westward, the British renewables industry may be about to get an unexpected investment shot in the arm from some of the world's biggest multinational companies. It's one of the biggest analogies to the adage, "I gave at the church"...in this case, the environmentalism church. It seems that in their rush to appear politically correct, companies are oblivious to how the renewable revolution is ushering in a new "dark age" in Britain.
Why the multinationals?
Speaking at a U.K. Confederation of British Industries (CBI) conference in October, the Bank of America's head of power and utilities, John Lynch, named Google, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, and IKEA (the Swedish home goods company) among a raft of potential new investors for Britain's offshore wind industry. "This is the technology that the U.K. is leading in, and these companies are looking at ways to get involved," Lynch told his CBI audience, "because it meets their own corporate social responsibility objectives." Enthusing over the prospect of a massive new injection of funds for British industry, Lynch noted how the Crown Estate (which owns the U.K. seabed) had launched the offshore program specifically to enable Britain to meet its target of 80 percent cuts in carbon emissions by 2050 compared with 1990 levels. Clearly, nobody had told Mr Lynch that in recent weeks, British energy chiefs have privately warned the government that its climate targets, contingent upon renewable sources replacing hydrocarbon fuels, are "illusory" and "delusional." Strong words.
Not that the sudden growing corporate "sense of responsibility" should be seen in entirely philanthropic terms. By far the greater motivating factor is the specter of national climate bills, post-Copenhagen in December, when a low carbon "commitment" will need to be demonstrated more "substantially." And what could be more credible than investing in the world's premier "clean" energy experiment?
But I wonder if the upsurge of interest might not waver, given that so many U.K. energy insiders are predicting an impending national energy crisis. This is a crisis brought on by a U.K. energy policy based on achieving the economically non-viable, the geographically unacceptable, and, ultimately and most crucially, the mathematically impossible.
As regards the economically non-viable, we might begin by noting that there would be no renewable energy revolution at all if not for massive government subsidies fueling it. Quite simply, no business or private equity investor in his right mind would invest in a loss-making business with such an appallingly poor rate of energy return.
That is why, just a few short weeks ago, the U.K. saw its only turbine manufacturer close the door of a major plant, citing low demand, public opposition, and diminishing government revenue. Note how "public opposition" -- the geographical unacceptability -- has seen U.K. land-based wind farm applications mired in planning battles, leaving only the even more expensive offshore option. What does this presage for those nations with less available seabed, I wonder? More generally, the non-viability of renewables, and wind power specifically, as a serious commercial proposition has been demonstrated time and again. Wind's unreliability, its need for (mostly gas turbine) back-up facilities, the problem of storage in times of over-capacity, and the fact that it will not save at all on natural gas use combine to present a formidable technological obstacle.
But while the oft-hidden costs associated with all renewable energies should prove prohibitive and potentially economy-busting, the intellectual axe for the renewables revolution finally falls when basic math proves that it makes no economic sense at all. In his brilliant essay Understanding E=mc2, William Tucker helpfully applies the understanding of "energy = mass" to renewables. Above all, he demonstrates why renewables, and wind and water specifically, are mathematically unable to produce the industrial scale energy power essential to keeping the lights on in any industrialized society.
Tucker explains, "Wind and water are matter in motion that we harness to produce energy." In a nutshell, what Tucker shows is that the density of mass in both wind and water, being critically far less than oil, coal, and gas, is simply unable to produce anything approaching a reasonable "renewable" energy output. Tucker calculates, for instance, that a land mass of about 375 square miles with around 660 widely spaced windmills would be necessary to get a power return of just 1000MW, the production capacity of one large scale hydrocarbon-powered facility. (With offshore wind turbines, associated problems of distance, leakage, and maintenance costs must all be significantly scaled up.) Put bluntly, Tucker shows that industrial scale renewable energy is realistically and mathematically an economic non-starter.
Ironically, just as UK and European subsidy opportunities are dwindling and the revolution is faltering, the retail multinationals may be about to reinvigorate the flagging U.K. program. And as the economic cost of renewables is being counted across Europe, Britain's "soon-to-be-boosted" energy-climate policy is likely to be touted increasingly as the blueprint for others to follow. A rash of U.K. studies continues to sound alarm bells over the government's current energy direction and one of these, just published, should do the same well beyond U.K. shores.
Does it really take an Einstein?
In October, the UK energy regulator Ofgem (The Office of Gas and Electricity Markets), warned that Britain was facing 1970s style power blackouts within just four years -- a much shorter timescale than previously thought. Project Discovery cited the British government's failure to renovate its "crumbling power infrastructure" due to compliance with new EU "pollution rules" that will force the closure of a quarter of the country's power stations by 2015. In typical British understatement, Alistair Buchanan, Ofgem's chief executive, warned, "There could be a potential shortfall in the period 2013-18 ... Life might be pretty cold." Buchanan's assessment is that only an "involuntary curtailment of demand" -- power cuts -- can conserve household supplies, unless the government acts urgently to upgrade its nuclear plants. Jeremy Nicholson of the Energy Intensive Users Group, representing some of Britain's biggest manufacturers, states that power cuts that hit U.K. business first would present a "material threat to heavy industry." Nicholson also warned that once the crisis hits, the 60-percent hike in British energy bills currently being acknowledged by the government will more realistically hit the 120-percent mark.
Bottom line? If Einstein's E = mc2 as it applies to "renewable energy" (an oxymoron in commercial terms?) doesn't cut the intellectual ice for prospective investors and foreign governments alike, perhaps another will. Try this:
U.K. energy-climate policy, circa 2009 = a blueprint for black-outs.
Peter C. Glover is European Associate Editor at EnergyTribune.com. For more, go to petercglover.com