Saturday, August 30, 2008

Beware the renewable energy fairy tale

Jeremy Leggett has an article up on Comment is Free urging people to "Beware the bear trap". Essentially, his case is that we need to pile on the renewable capacity in order to prevent Russia being able to use its fossil fuel resources as a weapon against us.

The first thing to note is that, while Western Europe is in an unenviable position relying on Russia for its gas, the Russian position isn't quite as strong as it looks. Each time oil and gas resources are used as a weapon they lose their impact. By making it clear that supplies aren't reliable you encourage your customer to put more effort into seeking alternatives or other sources of supply.

There is no doubt that recent Kremlin bolshiness has strengthened the case for Western Europe to revive its nuclear industry, for example, which could well mean threats to the gas supply are less potent next time around. We can only hope that there is someone in the European political elite with the basic strategic vision needed. Business, at least, will probably put more effort into exploiting alternative sources of hydrocarbons like Canadian tar sands.

The major problem with Leggett's article is that he sees renewables as part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. In reality, one of the reasons why Britain is in such trouble is that over the last ten years we've had a Government with a fondness for airy, unrealistic fantasies that renewables can provide a substantial portion of the electricity we need. Our energy policy has been based, for a decade, on the ludicrous idea that a combination of gas and renewable energy can provide the stable, affordable and secure capacity we need.

While renewables can provide power, albeit often at great cost, their unreliability means they can't provide significant capacity when you need it (peak load capacity). The situation is stated pretty clearly in this REF report (PDF, pg. 94). As such, their contribution to energy security is negligible. If Russia were to cut off the gas all the wind power in the world would do pretty much nothing stop the lights going out on a cold evening. Other renewables have, at present, a limited ability to provide remotely affordable power. Unless unreliable or exceptionally expensive electricity is felt to be acceptable renewables can't deliver energy security.

So long as politicians listen to people like Jeremy Leggett, and his renewable energy fairy tales, serious solutions like Enhanced Oil Recovery in the North Sea and building coal and nuclear capacity won't get the attention they deserve. By the time we wake up, it might be too late.


TBRRob said...


But being 'eco' has become very popular over the last ten years.

CityUnslicker said...

nice to hear a lice slaughtering of that green piece(SP is correct) lemon on 5 Live last night.

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