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Will they see sense about net zero? What do YOU think?


TODAY should see the publication of the government’s latest energy and net-zero emissions strategy. (It was originally due a month ago; I suspect the spike in gas prices may have caused a bit of a rethink and no doubt dealing with Partygate consumed some time too.) Despite recent mutterings about more nuclear power stations, I am far from confident that the policy will be coherent, affordable or likely to keep the lights on.

In what was probably one of the grossest abuses of parliamentary process, and indeed sound governance, in 2016 the hapless and hopeless Prime Minister Theresa May adopted net zero as a strategy with no costings and little debate. I suspect there was no feasibility study either to outline what a huge challenge it is.

At the point of use the UK consumes about 1,500 Terawatt hours of energy per year. (A terawatt hour is a billion kilowatt hours). A fully electrified country would save a bit on heating and transport (electric cars are more efficient) so the future need comes out at something like 800 to 1,200 TWh (largely depending upon the rollout of heat pumps). Generating that requires 100GW to 150GW of electricity generation running continuously. That’s 25 to 35 Sizewell Cs or about 200 to 300 of the Rolls-Royce small modular reactors.

The UK’s current installed generating capacity (all types) is around 76GW, and in 2020 (the latest available figures) it delivered about 310 TWh. That’s just a quarter of our needs; the other 75 per cent came from fossil fuels (as did about 40 per cent of the electricity). So we need three or four times as much electricity generation and if it’s to be non-emitting that will have to be nuclear, wind, solar or fossil fuel with COcapture (which takes 20 to 30 per cent of the power produced and gives the problem of what to do with the captured carbon).

As the wind doesn’t blow constantly any more than the sun always shines, we need over-capacity. On 2020 figures offshore wind delivered about 45 per cent of its capacity, onshore (the Prime Minister’s new darling) about 28 per cent and solar just 11 per cent.  Worse, as energy demand does not coincide with wind and sun, we need vast amounts of long-term storage and a technology to do this. The current option, batteries, is hugely expensive and so far we have enough battery storage to run the country for about seven minutes. Converting electricity to hydrogen and storing that underground is possible, albeit at the cost of 10 to 20 per cent of the energy, plus the problem of how to get the energy back into either heat in a house or electrons emerging from a plug.

Of course, it maybe that the new policy addresses the reality of the scale of the vast net zero project. That would be a first, though, and such openness is not characteristic of the green lobby. If the government is being guided by the Conservative Environment Network we’re in for dark times as the lights go out. The CEN is chaired by Will Goldsmith (brother of Zac the MP) and boasts Stanley Johnson (father of Boris) on its steering committee. It seems to have many politicians but few engineers, regurgitating the thoughts of others rather than addressing the stark numbers.

For reasons unknown our energy policy is being determined to assuage a motley crew of innumerate fools such as St Greta, XR and End Fossil Fuels Now rather than address the clear needs of the country and the planet. The discussion of how to deliver net zero (if it is possible) and how to pay for it needs clarity and credibility. I hope the document doesn’t disappoint.

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition.

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