So is there a vacuum at the heart of this announcement? I would expect that government departments, including whatever the one for climate change is called this week, will have written loads of position papers over the last few years about how we are going to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. We've seen some very limited evidence of that, for example in stories about extending the number of electric vehicle charging stations. What we don't see is any analysis on a big picture which you can look into for more detail. I've been expecting to see stuff on:
- the implications of orders of magnitude greater battery production on mineral resources availability and prices. (Spoiler alert: a part written blog post on lithium batteries may eventually follow but for now I just note that most of them aren't recyclable which doesn't seem very Greta)
- the electricity generating capacity we'll need and how it will be provided. After all 2035 is sooner than the time it is taking us to build Hinkley C nuclear power station and some other technologies such as tidal barrages wouldn't be built quickly either
- what the charging infrastructure will look like and how it will be financed and built.
All of which is just part of that big picture, other bits including heating our buildings without using gas boilers, for example.
I did see a technical article in a professional engineering journal written by a consultancy company that offers advice to small countries on how to reduce their carbon emissions. No Leo Varadkar, not small countries like the UK, more like Malta or maybe Ireland. For electricity production they take the starting point of the present generating capacity and how it is operated in terms of load factors etc. They get their client to set a goal - reducing CO2 from generation by 50% by a specified date, for example. They assess future growth in demand and what actions are available, at what cost, to reduce energy consumption. They look at options for replacing generating capacity with non-fossil alternatives, how it can be funded and when it would come on line. They then show a rather traditional graph of generating capacity over time, revealing whether the target can be met or whether there is an "enegy gap" to recycle a phrase from the 1970s. If there's a gap they look at options to close it, including flexing the target.
This fairly conventional approach could of course be applied, with a fair amount of uncertainty to a larger, more complex system such as the UK's. I suspect it would show a whacking great capacity gap yawning open as our ageing nuclear power stations reach the end of their generating lives and renewables reach their limitations - driven by the operability of the grid rather than the quantum of energy that could theoretically be drawn on.
In the 1980s it used to be thought that the maximum amount of intermittent capacity the grid would take was around 20% without causing instability. This was presumably a guess from the Book of Bollocks as we've already gone well beyond it. Around half of our generating capacity is renewable - mainly intermittent wind power - and it now generates more than a quarter of our electricity. But there will be a limit to the amount of intermittent renewable capacity without other measures. The base load and the peaks still have to be met. Sure you can pump water up hills to let it run back again; we've done that at Dinorwig in north Wales for decades but the 2nd law of thermoydynamics means that is a very inefficient way of doing it and even wind power is far from free in terms of cost. Yes, some renewables are more predictable but while the practicality of a 100% renewable powered system is doubtful the cost would certainly be enormous. Which is why nuclear power and renewables are complementary and provide the most obvious route to a fossil free electricity generating system.
I realise many folk think the future will look much more disaggregated and the role of the national electricity and gas grids will be a much smaller part of the picture. Or that the grid will flow both ways as the enormous reserve in all those charged up vehicle batteries is drawn on to meet the peaks in demand. Or that we'll all have batteries in our houses, factories and offices so there won't be peaks in the first place.
I'd be very interested to see the analysis of all that, if only to allay my scepticism about the grid that runs both ways. I recall in the 1980s that the area of Oxfordshire we lived in was very prone to short power drop outs. A senior executive in the electricity supply industry explained to me that, as we lived near the huge and now decommisioned Didcot A coal fired power station and it was used to meet peaks and surges in demand, partly because it was located at a point where the power supply was roughly in balance (the flow being generally towards Didcot from both north and south given where the power stations and population centres were) then the grid was intrinsically less stable in our area. When Didcot A fired up the direction of flow suddenly changed from towards Didcot to away from it which tended to cause issues. Once the Didcot B gas-fired station was built some years later it operated steadily as it was cheaper than coal, so when the A station fired up it made for smaller swings in the local grid and our drop outs ceased.
The point of this is to illustrate that the grid is quite sensitive. So I wasn't at all surprised when, in August, the almost simultaneous crashing of two generating sources, a gas-fired plant and the Hornsea offshore wind farm, caused problems for the grid and blackouts across much of England. The initiating event was a lightning strike but a software fault on Hornsea's system tripped the wind farm, which will be the largest offshore wind farm in the world when all three phases are completed around 2025. Phase one has a capacity of 1.2GW; the eventual capacity may be as much as 6GW. To give that figure context most of our current nuclear power stations have capacities of around 1GW, the "huge" coal fired Didcot A was 2GW and the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station under construction will be around 3GW. Anything more than 1GW suddenly tripping out is likely to crash the grid as the frequency fluctuates locally and the grid has limits beyond which it trips out to protect itself. The operators of Hornsea - and the gas plant - are paying £4.5 million for their part in the fiasco, which they blamed on an "extremely rare sequence of events". The thing is, as I correctly predicted (ok, mansplained) to Mrs H what had probably happened at the time of the outage, there are a large number of possible rare events which means something putting stress on the system may not be that infrequent. And lightning striking the grid somewhere won't be at all rare, though usually it doesn't show up an as yet unrevealed software fault, though the latter may not be very rare either.
So I remain fascinated to hear from the government's experts how we are going to get to this fossil fuel free future and how it's going to be made to work. Because it seems to me they are still at step 1 of imagining this future.
A consultant my last company used a lot to facilitate some of our board strategy sessions had a disarmingly simple but powerful approach to what used to be called brainstorming, until that term became politically incorrect. The first step would be to discuss what we wished for, with no constraints. "No fossil fuelled vehicles on sale by 2035" would be a classic example. So how to get there? The next step was to postulate what you would have to do to make your wish materialise. He called these "WYDIs", which he pronounced "woodies". As in what would you do to make that wish happen? What You Do Is.....
Some of these WYDIs could be major projects or tasks in themselves. So for each of those you would have to figure out - you've got it - What You Do Is.... Until you get a list of projects and activities to deliver the goal. If any of these prove to be unaffordable or, perhaps, breach the laws of physics then you have to go back round again with a modified objective. Many iterations might prove necessary to get your definitive list of WYDIs. But once you've got that you have the template for your programme director's plan and you can measure your progress towards the sunlit uplands of your objective.
I see no sign whatsoever that anyone with anything to do with our climate change goals (or anyone's climate change goals come to that) has the faintest clue about the package of actions that need to be taken to make their wishful thinking come true. They've made their wish but they haven't really started on their WYDIs. So at the moment it's pie in the sky. Or, if you prefer, empty gesture politics.
PS we'll know when the government rumbles that the targets can't be achieved. They'll switch the goal to inventing a time machine. Why? Because, of course, it then doesn't matter how long it takes or how much it costs. Because once you succeed you can take that knowledge back in time and do it quicker and cheaper and change whatever else you want. Either that or they'll say nuclear fusion is the answer. Fusion was 50 years away when I first visited the UK's fusion research establishment in 1977. What, that's 43 years ago? Yes, and fusion's still 50 years away..... What do you mean, Boris Johnson's been bigging up fusion? Oh yes, so he has.....
It'll be the time machine next!
PPS I also learned in the 1980s that, if the electricity grid were to completely crash no-one knows how to restart it. When power stations are brought on line they synchronise to the grid frequency. If there ain't nothing to synchronise to....
One would have thought this wasn't an insuperable issue (just start one supply and bring the others on one by one?) but no-one alive has ever had to do it. But I guess that's why it takes many hours to get everything back working again even when there's a problem short of total failure.