Dominic Lawson: The Game’s Up For Renewable Energy

  • Date: 26/01/14
  • Dominic Lawson, The Sunday Times

The green energy crisis in Europe — facing nothing less than complete de-industrialisation — is now fracturing, or rather fracking, the green movement.

David Cameron is a most reliable weather vane. Last week, surrounded by billionaire industrialists in Davos, the prime minister proclaimed that Britain would follow America in a single-minded drive to reduce its energy costs for manufacturers, via the oil and gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Last month, however, he told Tim Farron, president of the Liberal Democrats, that he agreed that man-made climate change arising from carbon-based energy production was the cause of the recent “destructive” storms in the UK.

But then again, last November the PM told a group of Tories that he would be focusing on getting rid of all the “green crap”— part of his response to Ed Miliband’s pledge to freeze energy prices. Well, that’s coalition government for you — tell your own party’s backbenchers that you are fed up with excessive subsidies for giant onshore wind turbines and your Lib Dem colleagues that you are still “the greenest government ever”.

Angela Merkel seems to manage the running of coalition governments in Germany without giving such an impression of hastily improvised — and contradictory — policy lurches; and the stolid German chancellor has on more than one occasion been exasperated by Cameron’s student-essay-crisis style of decision-making.

On the other hand, it is better to have no plan at all than a bad plan carried out with iron consistency. For it is Germany’s energy policy that is the real disaster — or, as one former EU commissioner put it at a meeting I attended a fortnight ago: “It is the stupidest policy ever proposed by any post-war German government — unless, that is, the purpose is to destroy Germany’s hard-won competitiveness.”

A few days ago the European Commission belatedly acknowledged the self-impoverishment threatened by its renewable energy policies, and abandoned its previous insistence on maintaining mandatory targets for each of the 28 member states in the union.

Europe’s biggest economy had revealed the full idiocy of the existing policy. By giving massive subsidies to renewables — about £17bn last year alone — Germany had, in the words of a Spiegel editorial, “been forcing other power plants out of the market. Only cheap coal can compete on price … The insane system to promote renewable energy sources ensures that with each new rooftop solar panel and each additional wind turbine, more coal is automatically burnt and more CO2 released into the atmosphere.”

In fact Merkel’s “insane” policies, especially the decision to abandon nuclear, the only significant generator of non-intermittent CO2-free power, were also partly based on the exigencies of domestic party politics. Just as Cameron had declared “vote blue, go green” before the 2010 general election, so Merkel had been determined to neutralise the Green party, a powerful political opponent, ahead of last year’s general election in Germany. It worked; but as Die Welt pointed out last week, “It is the German taxpayer who now has to meet the costs of this political success.”

In fact it is increasingly not the taxpayer who will be charged directly for those vast costs, but German industry. The European Commission is mounting a legal challenge to the more than 4,000 subsidies in Germany for renewable energy, partly on the grounds that such handouts were never meant to be given to “mature” industries: believe it or not, the single biggest source of renewable energy in Europe is wood-burning.

Come to that, wind power’s been in use for more than 2,000 years. It was what we used for energy production before we moved to vastly more productive fossil fuels: the breakthrough (known as the Industrial Revolution) that moved millions from subsistence to prosperity.

In modern Germany, industry carries a much more powerful political stick than the ordinary consumer: if it has to pay the full market price for its energy — now more than double that paid by rivals in America — it will simply move out. The Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal was hardly exaggerating when he said last week: “Unless the EU takes action … [it] could destroy the manufacturing industries that are the backbone of the European economy.”

In fact, what is required is not action by Brussels, but masterful inaction: that is, to abandon its catastrophic “green policies” and let European companies buy their energy at the best possible price.

This crisis in Europe — facing nothing less than complete de-industrialisation — is now fracturing, or rather fracking, the green movement here. Last week Lord Deben, the government’s independent adviser on climate change, while insisting that “nobody could be more enthusiastic about renewables than I”, unequivocally backed the idea that Britain should now begin to exploit its vast and untapped onshore shale gas deposits. He told The Guardian that those opposed to all oil and gas fracking were “nonsensical extremists . . . very close to sort of Trotskyite politics”.

The politician previously known as John Gummer had named no names, but the executive director of Greenpeace UK, John Sauven, identified himself, responding that his group “supports John Gummer on many things, but he does make mistakes. His vigorous advocacy of fracking is looking like a bigger one than his famous feeding of a hamburger to his daughter during the height of the BSE crisis … he’d be better off sticking up for energy efficiency and renewables. That is the only sure way to ensure jobs, green growth and stable energy bills into the future.” Sure: jobs in China and America.

And Sauven’s reference to the moment for which Gummer is best known is selfdefeating. The daughter who munched that hamburger is very much alive and well. The one looking silly now is the then government chief scientist, who warned in 1996 that half a million Britons could die within a few years of the human form of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (variant Creutzfeld-Jakob).

Another government adviser, Professor Richard Lacey, had described this as “the timebomb of the 20th century, equivalent to bubonic plague”. For the record, 177 Britons died from vCJD.

Greenpeace’s terrifying stories of the consequences for the planet and our welfare from anthropogenic CO2 emissions are all too reminiscent of Professor Lacey’s suggestion that by 2016 half a million Britons a year would be killed by infection from insane ruminants.

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