Lying With Numbers: Green Energy Edition

30/12/2011 20:32:20

To say that the green energy revolution will cost about the same as fossil fuels is, well I call it a flat out lie. And aren’t we lucky that we are forced, at gunpoint, to pay the salaries of those who lie to us so grievously?

Tim Worstall, Forbes 30 December 2011

A nice little report out telling us that going green isn’t in fact going to cost us anything. Which is indeed nice as just about everyone else would just love to clean up the planet, reduce pollution and not boil Gaia but we have this sneaking suspicion that the costs of doing so are going to be greater than the benefits. So to hear that it won’t cost anything is just glorious: miraculous in fact.

And of course we can and do trust all of the numbers that are given to us by a government department. Would be terribly cynical not to, undemocratic even:

“Every person in Britain will need to pay about £5,000 a year between now and 2050 on rebuilding and using the nation’s entire energy system, according to government figures. But the cost of developing clean and sustainable electricity, heating and transport will be very similar to replacing today’s ageing and polluting power stations, the analysis finds.

The forecasts come from a unique open-source analysis package, called the 2050 pathways calculator, which was created by Professor David MacKay, chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

The predictions challenge suggestions that the costs of embracing low-carbon energy and meeting the UK‘s legally binding commitments to tackle global warming will be higher than the bill would be for using traditional energy sources. They are also supported by a major EU project that found developing renewable energy was no more expensive than alternatives.”

That’s all absolutely fascinating, don’t you think? Miraculous even, given what we already know about the various renewables and so on.

The most important of which is that we know that renewables, well, at least most of them, are more expensive than fossil fuels. There’s some hydro that is cheaper but we’re already using that which is cheaper. Onshore wind, when the wind actually blows, is pretty cheap too, but we’ve got to have backup generation for when it doesn’t making it really rather expensive. Offshore wind is much more expensive than that (it’s the getting it to where people want to use it that is expensive, electricity in the middle of the North Sea is not notably useful) and solar, even at the point of use, is still two to three times coal fired electricity.

So we’ve a major problem here: how are we going to make the whole system cheaper while each component of the system is more expensive? A pretty tough nut to crack that, a very difficult circle to square.

We could, in fact should if we’re to be proper about this, add in those social costs of carbon emissions. That number we get from the Stern Review of $80 per tonne CO2. So we get to the current fossil system plus the costs of emissions will be about the same as the new not fossil system. Excellent, that’s fine: but if that were true then we wouldn’t actually need to have government planning all of this for us. We would just have a carbon tax of $80 and everyone would naturally move over to the better, greener, system and that would be that.

That we still have government telling us that this is not enough is proof that they themselves don’t think it is enough. So, obviously, it isn’t enough.

So, how is it that they have squared the circle? How have they concluded that the new, greener, energy system made up of more expensive components is going to be cheaper? The answer is here at the report site:

The total energy system cost of tackling climate change could be similar to doing nothing and may even be cheaper than remaining fossil fuel dependent (even if fossil fuel prices are not high).  For example, taking action could save £84/person/year over the next forty years based on a pathway from the cost-optimising model, MARKAL.  In the MARKAL pathway, energy use per person in 2050 is half today’s levels; around three quarters of this is due to uptake of more efficient technologies.”

And that’s where our lie is. They are not saying that producing the same amount of energy is going to be about the same price with the new technology. They’re saying that producing half the amount of energy is going to be about the same price.

Well, I can do better than that myself. Great, we’ll all use half the energy. The energy production system is going to cost about half what it does then, isn’t it?

Note that my answer gives us a 50% cut in the cost of the energy system. From £5,000 per person per year to £2,500 per person per year. The government’s system reduces the cost by 1.6%, from £5,000 a year to £4,914 per person per year. I win that one I think?

In more detail, note that they do not say that using renewables is going to be what makes the system cheaper. They say the use of new technologies will. And deeper into the paper you find that they mean LEDs reducing electricity consumption for lighting, more efficient home heating, more insulation, better cars (perhaps electric) and so on. The actual reductions in energy usage they give us are nothing at all, in fact, to do with the use of renewables or green energy.

We could (and we will with LEDs) adopt these new technologies with or without carpeting the land and the oceans with bird choppers. So it’s entirely possible for us to have that energy usage reduction and also be using fossil fuels all of which would be markedly cheaper than the plan which is being presented to us.

And that, in the end, is where the lie really is. In the attempt to sell us renewables the assumption is made that energy usage will halve. But energy usage halving has nothing at all to do with renewables, it has to do with energy efficiency. And when we compare energy efficiency plus fossil fuels with energy efficiency plus renewables we find that the renewables are twice the price of the fossil fuels.

So to say that the green energy revolution will cost about the same as fossil fuels is, well I call it a flat out lie.

And aren’t we lucky that we are forced, at gunpoint, to pay the salaries of those who lie to us so grievously?