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The climate scaremongers: Net Zero and the shocking naivety of our Energy Secretary

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TWO months ago, I wrote this open letter to Claire Coutinho, Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero. It was published by TCW on March 1. 

One of my contacts is in her constituency, so he was able to write to her as a constituent. He passed this letter on to her with a few comments of his own. This presented a great opportunity to get the answers straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were. Similar letters to MPs are normally answered by a bog-standard response from some lowly civil servant. Here is the letter.

Dear Ms Coutinho

MAY I start by asking if you are aware of the electricity mix during the windless spell last weekend? According to official data from the grid, shown below, in the 24 hours to 10am on February 25, wind power supplied only 2.5 per cent of total generation. This works out at an average of 0.7 GW, just 2 per cent of Britain’s wind capacity.

Solar power contributed only about 1.4 GW, 8 per cent of its capacity. This is not dependable, as it often drops to about a quarter of this figure on cloudy days in winter, as it did earlier that week.

It is also worth noting that we are still using coal, despite your promise at COP28 that it would have been phased out by now.

This sort of weather can last for several weeks at a time in winter.

As it is the government’s plan to totally decarbonise the grid by 2035, (and by 2030 for Labour), could you please explain how we will be able to run the grid without gas and coal then? Building yet more wind/solar farms won’t solve the problem – twice nothing is still nothing!

Battery storage, as I am sure you know, is of little help, because it can supply only enough for an hour or so. As for green hydrogen, not only would we need to spend tens of billions building electrolysers, seasonal storage, distribution and a fleet of CCGT (combined cycle gas turbine) power stations to burn it, there would simply not be enough wind and solar farms to provide the electricity needed in the first place. It is not conceivable that any of this could be in place by 2035, nor any new nuclear after Hinkley.

Switching demand from peak to off-peak will also be of no help, because we will be desperately short of power at all times of day, and for weeks on end.

Carbon capture (CCS) is often quoted as a solution, even though there is no evidence that it works at scale. But, more pertinently, CCS cannot be fitted to nearly all of our CCGT fleet as it is far too old. That would mean we would need to build a whole new fleet of CCS-ready gas power stations, all at colossal expense. It would, of course, increase our dependence on fossil fuels, not reduce it, as CCS is a very fuel-inefficient process. And we would need to begin that construction now, though there are no plans currently.

The problem is actually worse than I have laid out, because electricity demand is projected to be much higher in 2035 with EVs and heat pumps.

We are already far too dangerously reliant on imported electricity, which provided a quarter of our power in the above 24-hour period. When there are low winds here, the same usually occurs in the rest of NW Europe. On the same day that our wind output dropped away last week, Germany’s fell to less than half its usual level.

When the EU countries have also closed their coal and gas plants, they will also be desperately short of electricity during windless days. What guarantees do we have that we will be able to import it then?

The first half of your job title is ‘Energy Security’. I suggest you focus more on that, and less on the other half, Net Zero.

Below is Ms Coutinho’s response to her constituent just received:

Thank you for your email of 4 March regarding the UK’s net zero policy. I am responding in my capacity as both your constituency MP and Secretary of State at the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero. Please accept my apologies for the delay in my response.

As you note, and as Paul Homewood also raises in his article, solar and wind power are variable energy sources and energy is still needed when the weather is unfavourable. That is why we are supporting the development and deployment of a portfolio of low-carbon technologies for generation, storage and system flexibility. We have one of the most reliable and diverse energy systems in the world, and we intend to maintain that security as we decarbonise. We have also committed to a minimum 5GW of new unabated gas, to maintain energy security until the clean technology is ready. This is likely to come from a mixture of refurbishing existing plants and building new, net zero ready gas plants.

As we re-committed to in our recent Civil Nuclear Roadmap, we are aiming for 24GW of nuclear power by 2050, meeting around a quarter of electricity demand. We are looking to deploy both Small Modular Reactors and further large-scale nuclear over the next decade. We launched the arm’s-length body Great British Nuclear (GBN) in March 2023 to deliver a programmatic approach for new nuclear projects. It has also been possible to extend the original lifespan of some of the existing fleet, although the Government has no direct involvement in those decisions. The Roadmap can be found here. 

We are also seeing exciting progress in other renewables that will supplement solar and wind. The nearly 94MW of tidal stream capacity procured in the last two rounds of the Contracts for Difference scheme will increase the UK’s installed capacity tenfold, while 12MW of geothermal energy was procured in the last round (AR5) – the first time geothermal bids had been successful.

Low-carbon hydrogen will be critical to supporting the UK’s energy security and presents significant economic opportunities for our industrial heartlands. The UK’s geography, geology, infrastructure and expertise make it particularly suited to rapidly developing a low-carbon hydrogen economy, with the potential to become a global leader. In December 2023, we announced 11 projects that will deliver 125MW of new electrolytic hydrogen production capacity. We have also opened a second round of funding for an extra 875MW.

Electricity storage can enable us to use energy more flexibly and decarbonise our energy system cost-effectively by helping to balance the system at lower cost, maximising the usable output from solar and wind, and deferring or avoiding the need for costly network upgrades and new generation capacity. A variety of storage technologies will be needed, including technologies that can deploy at different scales and provide output for different durations such as lithium-ion battery storage and pumped hydropower storage, as well as emerging technologies including liquid air energy storage and flow batteries. Today, there is around 6.4 GW of electricity storage operational in Great Britain. There is a pipeline of at least 35GW of lithium-ion battery storage and 3GW of pumped hydropower.

The sheer naivety of this reply is shocking. It confirms all the fears we have had that ministers in charge of energy policy have no idea about how our energy system works, and continue to believe the fairy tales they are fed by the green blob, who are the ones really in charge. I have written this reply which has now been sent to Ms Coutinho:

Many thanks for your reply concerning Net Zero policy.

I appreciate the Government has many ambitious low carbon plans for 2050, which you list. However, none appear to offer a solution to the catastrophic problems facing us during the 2030s.

To lay it out in simple terms, according to the National Grid’s Future Energy Scenarios, peak demand for electricity will be about 100 GW in 2035. We will probably have about 10 GW of dispatchable capacity (nuclear, biomass and hydro) – this assumes that all unabated gas power is shut down.

Even with 20 GW of interconnectors, which we most certainly cannot depend on, we will be woefully short of electricity when wind and solar power is at low levels.

You plan on 5 GW of new unabated gas, but clearly this will be nowhere enough. We will likely need ten times as much. Building new gas power plants incorporating carbon capture (CCS) may be a solution, but I see no plans to do so in the time scale we are looking at, ie the mid-2030s. In any event, carbon capture adds significantly to the cost of electricity, and increases the amount of gas needed to produce each unit of electricity. Are you happy to see energy bills rising as a consequence?

The other plans you mention are currently far too small to make any difference, and will certainly not be ready in any scale by 2035.

Low carbon hydrogen, for instance, will need tens of billions spending on a whole new infrastructure – electrolysers, distribution networks, seasonal storage and hydrogen burning power stations. The new batch of projects outlined will supply only about 0.1 per cent of the UK’s annual gas consumption, and are not grid-scale solutions.

On top of that, there simply won’t be enough wind/solar power in your plans to produce the hydrogen anyway. And if that is not enough, the contract price you have agreed for the next batch of hydrogen projects is ten times that of natural gas. Are you prepared to see household energy bills rocket to pay for these subsidies?

Similarly, tidal and geothermal are extremely expensive, and the 106 MW currently procured is a tiny amount. While these technologies may bear fruit in thirty years’ time, we clearly cannot rely on them making any difference in the next decade.

You mention 35 GW of battery storage, but typically such batteries can store only enough for an hour’s use. Plainly these will be useless when we go days on end with little wind power.

So there you have it! We are staring at a gigantic black hole in our potential electricity supply come 2035.

I can only see one solution – begin construction now on a fleet of new CCGT plants, if necessary made CCS-ready. (Bear in mind, CCS is still not a proven technology at scale). It will need to be at least 50 GW. In addition the current fleet needs to be contracted for at least 15 years to provide standby capacity.

Evidently this is not part of your government’s plans. In which case, could you please explain how your plans will avoid the blackouts which appear inevitable?

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Paul Homewood
Paul Homewood
Paul Homewood is a former accountant who blogs about climate change at Not a Lot of People Know That

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