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Net Zero is a threat to energy security

The UK’s new energy ministry is grappling with two contradictory goals.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics UK

What’s in a name? In his cabinet reshuffle last week, prime minister Rishi Sunak split up the old Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to create three separate departments. Most notably, Sunak has hived off responsibility for energy policy to the new Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, headed by Grant Shapps. On the day he gained what is now his fourth cabinet position in just five months, Shapps tweeted: ‘My focus will be securing our long-term energy supply, bringing down bills and thereby helping to halve inflation.’ There are good reasons to be sceptical.

The new department is relatively small. Predictably, a green chorus has already complained that it will have neither the clout nor the cash that would be needed to decarbonise the entirety of the UK economy, as our 2050 Net Zero target demands. A much more fundamental problem with the department is this: the pursuit of Net Zero, through renewable energy and the electrification of heat and road transport, is fundamentally incompatible with the goal of energy security.

The received wisdom in green circles today is that Net Zero and energy security can go hand in hand. For instance, top academics at Harvard and Columbia University’s Climate School proclaim that Net Zero ‘will mitigate some traditional energy-security risks’. At the World Economic Forum (WEF) confab in Davos, Switzerland in January, the head of the International Energy Agency insisted that renewables are ‘the energy of peace. The long-lasting solutions of our energy security go through renewables.’ And in the Financial Times, chief economics commentator Martin Wolf argues that ‘massively expanding renewable energy is a climate and security priority’.

On one level, it seems intuitive that relying on wind and solar power generated in Britain ought to lower our dependence on unsavoury foreign regimes – reducing the need to import oil and gas from the likes of Russia, Saudi Arabia or Qatar. Yet the US climate academics give the game away when they say that the pursuit of Net Zero will mitigate ‘some traditional’ risks to energy security. What they mean by ‘some’ is that gas will still be needed to back up wind turbines and solar panels when these intermittent sources produce no juice. And what they mean by ‘traditional’ is that, although Net Zero will theoretically reduce a country’s imports of fossil fuels, the special minerals required to make Net Zero-compliant wind turbines, solar panels and nuclear reactors will present new and different risks to energy security.

The intermittency problem of renewables ought to be reason enough to rethink Net Zero. If a country such as Britain can’t immediately despatch electricity to make up for the shortfalls that occur when the wind drops and the sun doesn’t shine, businesses and households will suffer electricity shortages. And if renewables suddenly provide too much electricity, on days of high wind speeds, we will need to turn other sources of electricity off to stabilise the grid.

At the moment, we rely mainly on gas to make up for electricity shortfalls when the wind stops blowing. Sir Keir Starmer, who hopes to lead the next government, claims we can eliminate all fossil fuels from energy production by 2030. That would leave us with no good options for when the weather turns against us. Battery storage at scale is not yet feasible. And Britain’s nuclear fleet cannot easily be turned on and off to fit around the intermittency of renewables. Although nuclear reactors can be powered down quickly to avoid grid overload and accidents, getting them working again is a very considerable task. The next generation of small modular reactors will be more flexible than traditional reactors. But there are no plans to deploy these at the scale needed to meet Starmer’s 2030 target. Even the current Conservative government’s target of 2035 is unlikely to be met. The truth is that gas-fired power stations will be needed for decades to come.

Meanwhile, the materials needed to produce wind turbines, solar panels and electric batteries will pose their own problems for energy security. As the WEF is forced to concede, in the fabled transition to Net Zero, ‘new risks will emerge’ from ‘clean energy sources’.

We will require vast quantities of cobalt and lithium to make all our electric vehicles, storage batteries and magnets for wind turbines. China plays a leading role in both markets. Production of nickel, vital to wind turbines, is dominated by Indonesia – but, as the New York Times reported this month, ‘Beijing increasingly appears to have the edge’ over the West in wooing that large and populous country. Meanwhile, solar panels require more silver than most other energy sources. Here China is the world’s second-largest producer. And finally, China has a very strong grip on the world’s supplies of rare-earth elements, which also figure prominently in wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles.

In other words, the transition from gas and oil would not end our dependence on foreign powers – it would merely lead us to be dependent on different overseas suppliers, especially China.

Of course, new sources of supply for the basic ingredients of renewables will emerge in some cases. For instance, Sweden’s state mining company has recently found Europe’s largest deposit of rare earth metals. But to rely on such discoveries is hardly a good foundation for a secure energy supply.

Perhaps the clearest sign that the UK government has no intention of actually securing a steady supply of energy can be seen in its willingness to embrace rationing. In November, alongside chancellor Jeremy Hunt, Shapps set a target for households and businesses to cut their energy consumption by 15 per cent by 2030. This, the government says, is a necessary step towards energy independence. To this end, Shapps began bludgeoning householders to turn down their thermostats for the winter. Plans for insulating Britain’s millions of draughty homes to improve efficiency are unlikely to get off the ground anytime soon – and even if they did, according to recent research, they will not save energy in the long run anyway. This target will only be reached by cuts to production and consumption – an unappetising prospect.

Here we can see clearly that the government’s plan for ‘energy security’, when combined with the push for Net Zero, means making do with less. To truly boost Britain’s energy security, and to power the economy we deserve, we need to drop the green diktats.

James Woudhuysen is visiting professor of forecasting and innovation at London South Bank University.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Politics UK

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