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2035: the end of civilisation

Where is energy policy taking us

Artillery Row

On a cold, windless December night, a rare bout of religious fervour has broken out in the control room. Not usually given to spirituality, the station controller finds himself whispering a prayer for a change in weather as the clock ticks down to New Year’s Day, 2035. Shaken from a vague recollection of Luke 4:12 by the sound of fireworks, the seasoned engineer takes a deep breath and orders his subordinates to disconnect the gas turbine — a ritual being repeated at power stations across the country. There is a moment’s peace, and then the lights go out. Miles away, the staff of the Electricity National Control Centre watch helplessly as the sudden drop in power collapses the entire national grid. 

Despair gives way to morbid laughter a few hours later, when the prayed-for wind arrives in force — frying dump load systems and cables. Across the country, heat wishes its final farewell to homes as electric pumps cease to function. Chargeless electric cars pointlessly litter the streets. Well accustomed to rolling blackouts, the public have stocked-up on diesel generators, but the closure of pumps following the 2030 ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars has already caused shortages and rationing. Those who can afford the power for a television tune in the following evening for Prime Minister’s candlelit address, as he congratulates the nation on its progress towards Net Zero and heralds the “Green Industrial Revolution”.

Readers will be relieved to know that the described events are unlikely to transpire. They do, however, illustrate what would happen if politicians do as they say they will: ban petrol and diesel-powered cars and gas boilers, and switch the electric grid to net-zero generation by 2035.

Having looked into this extensively, I can confirm that there is no plan

Is this melodramatic? I invite prospective doomsday preppers (and sceptics) to examine the existing roadmap to 2035 and judge for themselves. Expect to discover potholes, gullies and gaping ravines which point to startling negligence on the part of the cartographers. Tinfoil hats on — let’s take a look. 

According to National Grid, the amount of electricity Britain can hope to generate at any one time (its “de-rated generation capacity”) is around 62GW. Discount the intermittent (i.e., often unavailable) sources like wind and solar, and the figure falls to 57.5GW. This is slightly lower than peak demand, an uncomfortable reality which explains why National Grid is paying households to use less electricity. By 2035, planned nuclear closures, with the phase out of gas, oil and coal (plus the opening of Hinckley C) would reduce the figure to 15.4GW. That leaves us with a supply shortfall of 43.6GW — the equivalent of 17 Hinckley C-style nuclear power stations. At current build rates, it would take over a century to replace that lost generation. 

This leads us to a key question: will peak demand be the same in 2035?

The short answer is “no”. The government is currently subsidising the roll-out of electric heat pumps and plans to ban the sale of natural gas boilers by 2035. Researchers at UCL recently modelled the impact of a 90 per cent uptake of heat pumps, based on the (cold) winter of 2010, and found that demand would sky-rocket to 130GW — 70GW higher than with gas boilers. Thankfully, the Government is only targeting a 25-40 per cent rollout by 2035, but this still implies a 19.5-31GW surge in demand. 

Next, we must look at the effect of electric vehicles (EVs). Here projections become more difficult. The Government plans to ban the sale of conventional petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030 and allow the sale of “plug-in” hybrids (PHEVs) — which charge directly from the grid — until 2035. By 2040, it wants 100 per cent of cars to be net-zero emitters. 

What does this mean for car ownership? In December, EVs made up 33 per cent of new car registrations. Even if that market share stops growing, churn rates mean we’d expect 14 per cent of cars to be EVs by 2029. If the ratio of EV to PHEV sales remains the same after the 2030 ban, we’d expect nearly 50 per cent of vehicles to be EVs by 2035. This is all highly speculative — it may be that the lithium shortage and rising electricity costs lead British motorists to mimic their Cuban counterparts: constantly doing up old bangers. On the other hand, the shutting of pumps, a shortage of mechanics and government incentives may push ownership in the other direction. Let’s take the 50 per cent figure — which doesn’t account for the high probability of a growing EV sales share until 2030 — as a conservative estimate.

Even this modest figure bodes ill. Research by a team at Berkley looking into the impacts of 50 per cent EV take-up on the US west coast grid found that, if most people opt for “smart-charging” during low-demand hours, peak demand would increase by 25 per cent (or 27GW). Adjust down for UK car ownership and mileage, and this translates to around 6GW. The National Grid ESO is more optimistic about EV uptake than I am; it predicts demand will increase by 7.5-10GW with smart charging (and 10-20GW without) by 2035. 

Taken together, then, EVs and heat pumps would increase peak demand to at least 84GW by 2035 (and that’s without accounting for population growth or rising use of air conditioning). This leaves us with a 68.6GW shortfall — the equivalent of 27 Hinckley Cs. Put simply: we cannot build this in 12 years. 

There must be a plan, right? You would think turning off 73 per cent of the grid whilst forcing everyone to buy electric boilers and cars isn’t the sort of decision a politician makes on a whim, or for the sake of a press release. 

Having looked into this extensively, I can confirm that there is no plan. 

The Government’s 2035 policy paper makes no attempt to guess peak demand and makes no mention of intermittency. At best, there is a vague reference to long-term storage technologies “in the early stages of development that may prove to be game-changing”. What are these technologies? How will we roll out thousands of gigawatt hours’ worth of them within 12 years? Like a spurned suitor, the reader is kept guessing. 

No one had even a vague picture of the scale of the problem

Last year’s British Energy Security Strategy claims, “we can only secure a big enough baseload of reliable power for our island by drawing on nuclear, yet concedes we will only be able to build “up to 24GW by 2050”. No attempt to explore the implications of these two statements is offered. 

The House of Commons’ Climate Audit Committee’s report on energy security is even more negligent, arguing that the UK’s energy security needs can be met by wind and containing not one section addressing intermittency. Indeed, the three uses of the term in the report suggest the authors don’t understand what it means. 

Some policy papers talk up the ability of gas generators to stay running by employing carbon capture storage (CCS) to extract the CO2 they produce. This technology is not in large-scale use anywhere on earth, with good reason. In 2021, the UK’s gas-based power stations released 59.6 million metric tonnes of CO2 — equivalent to 156 per cent the volume of oil we extracted from the North Sea. The CCS solution would require us to create the infrastructure to collect that gas, compress it, transport it to the equivalent of an offshore oil rig, and pump it underground. As you consider the practicalities and costs of creating this “reverse-North Sea Oil” infrastructure, bear in mind that we would have to double our installed gas generation to account for both growing demand and the fact that CCS power stations burn 10-15 per cent more gas to produce the same output. I can find no evidence that the Government is about to embark the nation on this bold adventure any time soon. 

This all raises the question: how has no one noticed the impending cliff edge?

In fact, people have. In 2017, Professor Dieter Helm was invited to conduct an independent Cost of Energy Review for the Government. His report pointed out the failure to back up renewables and estimated that the grid would have already suffered catastrophic failure by the mid-2010s if the Recession hadn’t suppressed long-term economic growth. For his troubles, he was attacked by the Government-sponsored Committee on Climate Change (CCC) and ignored by politicians. A valiant attempt by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers to raise the alarm met a similar fate. 

Two weeks ago, when I had the opportunity to question the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Environment on the shortfall, I was met by a failure to understand the difference between annual and peak demand. No one had even a vague picture of the scale of the problem or what needed to be built. Chris Skidmore MP — author of the recent Net Zero Review — appeared confused by the line of questioning and repeated his demand for faster cuts to fossil fuels. 

The sad fact is that most MPs are not trained engineers — in fact, half of them can’t wrap their heads around basic probability. To expect them to keep track of the 22 organisations responsible for energy policy is expecting too much. The more complex the bureaucracy, the more politicians rely on the assurances of appointed experts.

Civil servants react to inconvenient hurdles by fudging figures

Herein lies the problem — as I have previously covered, civil servants are under a statutory obligation to plan as if they can meet Carbon Budgets. They react to inconvenient hurdles by fudging figures. The CCC, on which the Government relies for projections, is a climate activist-staffed organisation that has been caught lying

For their part, businesses are following government incentives. Parliament is swarming with lobbyists eager to offer MPs pitches on their latest green project and lap up subsidies. Held hostage to politics by North Sea permitting and windfall taxes, big oil producers are eager to proclaim their willingness to take part in improbable schemes in order to build political capital and cash in on public money. Some even sponsor parliamentary groups to get a foot in the door. 

Together, these factors create an ecosystem in which people with no understanding of energy policy are encouraged to overhaul the foundations of our society on the advice of liars. 

How do we break the death spiral?

This winter, I was hopeful that National Grid’s blackout warning would shake politicians awake. I was wrong. It now seems only the real deal will do, and recent events suggest this reckoning may not be far away. In December, a surging demand from heat pumps almost knocked out the entire eastern portion of the US national grid. Disaster was only avoided by quick-thinking local controllers ordering rolling blackouts in the Carolinas.

The UK is in rougher shape. Last summer, London narrowly avoided a blackout thanks to an emergency diversion of power from Belgium nuclear plants. These plants have since shut down. “Low frequency events” — indicating an inadequate electricity supply — used to happen once a month; they now happen virtually every day

Grid failure, combined with the rocketing energy prices, must eventually force a political reckoning. When that happens, we will need to have a sober conversation about how it came to be that our political class chose to gamble the future of our country on the weather. If not, we may find ourselves in the same shoes as our imagined engineer: huddling in a coat in his dark home and clutching at a vaguely remembered Bible verse from his childhood: “thou shalt not tempt the Lord.”

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