Discussions about Energy policy often generate more heat than light

The dominant political trend of modern times is binary ideology – the YES/NO choice about everything. So on Energy you’re either a Wind freak, or a believer in the continued burning of fossil fuels. Anything more nuanced will lead to your position being traduced by both sides.

The truth is more subtle as Mr Lawson says in his excellent piece in The Sunday Times today. As a Shell Pensioner with 40 years service, including a period as Head of Energy Forecasting in The Netherlands, I can endorse every word. My position is not self interest but, I hope, informed.

Datteln 4 The new 1.1GW Coal-fired power station commissioned in Germany in 2020. It is likely to have a twenty year operational life.

The Primary Energy mix of any country – the balance of Coal, Oil, Gas, Nuclear, Hydroelectricity and Renewables – is driven by practicality, cost, established infrastructure and environmental issues. For example if you generate some of your electricity from a modern, efficient, environmentally controlled coal-fired power station you don’t close it because of some ideological obsession that “coal is bad”.

The hidden hero of energy consumption is not the wind turbine but conservation. We now use far less primary energy per unit of useful energy output than we did thirty years ago. Power stations, cars and trucks, aircraft, central heating boilers and the rest are far more efficient these days. Even the humble light bulb has been replaced by something that uses less power.

Electric cars are still a tiny percentage of our vehicle fleets. Clever though they are they cost much more and are much less convenient than a petrol or diesel car or truck. They have become a boastful status symbol for the virtue signalling rich – or for a quirky tree hugger. The technology breakthrough that would make an electric car a logical rather than a showy choice hasn’t happened yet.

Electricity generation has to have a mix of base load and flexible production. If the wind drops or the hydroelectric station runs out of water or the sun stops shining you need something else. Nuclear, Gas or Coal is that “something else” as well as supplying the base load demand that renewables cannot adequately satisfy.

The answer is to eschew the binary and accept that for the foreseeable future oil and gas and to some extent coal have to be in the mix. And in some sectors, including transportation, oil will be either the only (aviation and marine) choice or the dominant one (personal and commercial road transport).

Investment in conservation has really been revolutionary but we seem to forget this success. That journey is not over. If you get significantly more miles per gallon, or warmth per kilowatt that really is WIN/WIN. You pay less and the environment is less polluted. This message seems to have become lost in our narrow definition of what is “green” and what isn’t.

The oil and gas corporations are being bounced into a renewables sector in which they have no collective memory or competences. They would be far better employed doing primary research into how hydrocarbons can be used more efficiently. Both in the refinery process and with the use of additives more energy efficient petrol can be made. Is this research happening?

Sadly discussions about Energy policy often generate more heat than light.

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