The Pathfinders Column from the July 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
One claim that raised eyebrows during the recent general election was Tim Farron's assertion that the UK could be completely self-sufficient in renewable energy, this despite the Lib Dems' own manifesto pledge of reaching just 60 percent renewable by 2030 (Link). Team Tim promptly issued a qualifying statement (aka rebuttal) describing his claim as 'visionary as opposed to completely literal'.
Yet Farron has not completely fallen out of his chimney. The UK recently passed an important milestone with its first coal-free day since the 1880s (Link) and just last month the National Grid tweeted news of a further milestone, that on one particularly sunny and windy day in June just over half of UK energy was supplied by renewables for the first time (Link).
Things have changed in the past ten years or so, with renewables becoming steadily cheaper and more efficient, while international consensus on climate change, as well as the economic recession, have exerted a downward pressure on fossil usage. From a thirty-year flatline, renewable production has turned sharply upwards since 2010, crossing the spasmodic free-fall of coal in 2015 to reach 26 percent of the grid, more than any other source except gas (see Graph 3, Link). However, just as Germany plugs the dropouts in its renewable supply by strip-mining and burning brown coal, the UK props itself up by importing a third of its energy in the form of natural gas, mostly from Norway.
Meanwhile, the much-vaunted new nuclear renaissance has largely failed to materialise, with old power stations being kept running beyond their use-by dates and virtually all new building projects cancelled or mothballed, not just in the UK but across the world (New Scientist, 17 May). Blame the recession, and the Fukushima effect.
But it's not all green sunlit pastures for the renewable industry. Capitalist money-chasing gets in the way and renewable investment tends to founder whenever oil and gas prices plummet, as has been the case in the last few years thanks to OPEC price wars and the fracking bonanza. And renewable energy has built-in problems, notably its poor conversion ratio. UK renewable production for 2015 including wind, wave & tidal, biomass and other gas sources, hydro and solar, amounted to the equivalent of just over 7 million tonnes of oil. However conversion losses amounted to a further 6 million tonnes, giving overall a roughly 45 percent conversion loss. Why so much? Because power is rarely used where it is produced, and wastage through pipe bleed multiplies with distance. Meanwhile wind and solar, being sporadic, need buffering to smooth out the bumps, but large-scale efficient batteries do not yet exist, so power is steadily lost in storage. There are various systems which store power by converting it to something else and then reconverting it for later use, but power is lost in these bi-directional conversions. Meanwhile a plan to sell renewable power abroad when in surplus and buy it back when in deficit – known as an interconnector deal - may offset some storage losses while incurring greater transport loss, as well as being prey to the vagaries of the market and, of course, the weather. Just because the wind stops blowing in the UK doesn't mean it will obligingly start blowing in France.
Socialists have said this so often it's hardly worth repeating, but socialism would start addressing energy by looking at ways of not wasting it in the first place. For instance, instead of building extra capacity, it would be more sensible to insulate and double-glaze houses, a task at present left to cash-strapped householders. But the biggest consumer of energy in the UK is not the domestic sector, or even industry, as you might think, but transport, and much of this energy is coughed out of exhaust pipes while miserable commuters sit in twice-daily traffic jams and motorway tailbacks, forced by capitalist economics to chase jobs in other cities. In socialism, where people would only work on a voluntary basis and mostly close to home, there would be no need for regular long-distance commuting. Put freight back on rails too, and the roads may become almost empty, thus reducing energy consumption, not to mention improving air quality.
However, socialists also take a pragmatic view of energy as with other technologies. It makes no sense to come out today against a technology you might need tomorrow. If, for example, socialism were obliged to rely on frack gas deposits, then of course it would use them. A similar rationale applies to nuclear power, GM crops and others which today inspire protest among those who seem keener to oppose than propose.
One technology, though, might give us pause. If you haven't heard of methane hydrates yet, you're going to soon, and probably from the publicity of a colossal 'anti-hydrate' movement which is no doubt gestating even now. If you think fracking is bad, you're about to be horrified.
Methane hydrates, or 'fire ice', are burnable deposits of frozen methane which lie under the world's oceans, most of them close to continental shelves, and between them may offer more energy than all the world's coal, oil and gas combined, or up to 800 years' worth at current gas usage rates. Discovered in the 1960s, fire ice has largely been overlooked because of the difficulties of mining and extracting it, and because fracking is easier for now. However things have changed, and China recently announced a breakthrough in extraction technology which could lead to a new energy gold rush (phys.org, 19 May). So what's not to love? Well, it's methane for a start, like frack gas, and when you burn it, it releases carbon the same way. But it's concentrated, so a cubic metre of fire ice translates to 160m3 of airborne methane gas. There are two problems with this. One is that methane, while being relatively short-lived and in short supply compared to carbon in the atmosphere, is around 86 times more potent for global warming (Link). The other problem is that ocean floor drilling is still at the very edge of what mining companies can do, and a submarine blowout at depth would be like Deepwater Horizon all over again, except spewing millions of tonnes of the worst possible climate gas into the atmosphere. 'If all the methane gets out', said an International Energy Agency spokesman in 2014, 'we're looking at a Mad Max movie' (Link). Added to this, the proximity to continental shelves is predicted by some to cause large-scale underwater landslides which may trigger coastal tsunamis. So, not an energy technology likely to be warmly received in many quarters, especially considering capitalism's ability to promise the moon on a stick and then balls it up and stick us with the consequences.