Coal, gas, and the GMB

Submitted by martin on 11 December, 2018 - 9:55 Author: Mike Zubrowski

On 29 November 2018, the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland published a report Engineering for Energy: a proposal for governance of the energy system.

The report explicitly does not “make any recommendations about what types and proportions of generation types should be used in the electricity system”, focussing instead on overall co-ordination of the energy system, with useful nuggets of insight.

Yet the GMB union, through emails from its press office, has "spun" the report as saying that “coal and gas power stations are needed”.

“The interconnected nature of energy issues makes it essential to adopt a whole system approach when planning for energy” begins the report, arguing throughout for a “National Energy Authority”. The aims of such co-ordination should be low CO2 emissions, energy security (such as preventing blackouts), and low cost. It recognises that market mechanisms cannot secure these things, and an integrated approach is needed. “The electricity system is [currently] being partially planned” it states, “Our recommendation is that it should be fully planned … [which t]he historical record shows ... can be very successful.” Full planning is particularly important in energy because it should be viewed as an integrated system, and because “computational technology ... can be used to predict the interactions among the parts [which m]arket signals cannot compete with”. “Engineered planning” should consider security of supply and operation, cost, and environmental issues such as emissions reduction of the the energy system – as an integrated whole over long timescales.

Recognition of this makes it clear why there are limitations to environmental activism which focusses solely on closing individual power stations, or which aims simply for local renewable energy co-operatives. A better approach would be nationalisation of the whole energy system – generation, transmission and distribution – under democratic control of the workers in the industry and the people who rely on it. The report avoids taking a bold stance on this, or even a decisive proposal, instead making clear that “full planning” is compatible with sections remaining private but tightly regulated.

The paper does not consider how to reduce CO2 emission, instead focussing on security and cost, allowing their conservative and irresponsible conclusions. It says:

“Coal-fired and gas-fired generators are important in restoring electricity supply after a system failure i.e. for black start. Wind generators can only have a very limited role in such situations and nuclear generators cannot be quickly restarted. The time to restore supply in Scotland is now estimated in days - several days - rather than in hours. A lengthy delay would have severe negative consequences - the supply of food, water, heat, money, petrol would be compromised; there would be limited communications. The situation would be nightmarish.

“The likelihood of system failure and the time to restore electricity supply is therefore increasing at a time when society and business have become fully dependent on it. The risks will continue to increase unless action is taken to control them. The solution to the problem is the coordinated future planning of the energy supply capacity and plant mix.

“The continuing closure of reliable and flexible electricity generators (mainly coal fired) and replacement of them with generators that are neither reliable nor flexible (wind and solar) is causing increases in security risks.”

Regardless of how true these statements are, no solutions follow immediately from them. You can aim to go backwards, as GMB’s press office advocate, or you can aim to construct a secure energy system on a different basis.

The report recognises that energy planning since 1926 and nationalisation since 1947 were decisive in the continual average net decrease in energy prices up until 1990, when energy was privatised. The increase in energy price at an average rate of 4% a year since 2004, the report asserts however, “is likely to have been mainly due to the introduction of renewable energy generation.” This, they claim, is as wind and solar are neither reliable nor flexible energy sources, meaning that integrating them into an energy system can come at a cost. They do not mention any costs that privatisation might have had. Even if their claim is correct, supporting coal and gas still does not follow.

The urgency and devastating effects of climate change makes the report’s oversights negligent. The publication on Wednesday 5 December of the annual Global Carbon Project results show that carbon emissions from global fossil fuels and industry in 2018 will be their highest ever. Not only that, but they will have grown by around 2.7% this year, the fastest rise in seven years. That is, not only the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and the rate in which more is released are increasing, but the rate of increase in this rate has increased slightly, and in any case shows no sign of decreasing.

On the same day, a report in Nature shows that sea levels could be rising faster than previously believed, because of “a nonlinear response of surface melting to increasing summer air temperatures”.

The report recognises that making the energy system green is central to tackling climate change, not only because it is a key carbon emitter currently, but because transport and domestic gas emissions reductions would be largely through electrification, therefore relying on more the energy system. Considering it as an integrated whole better allows for tackling emissions.

The urgency of climate change requires bold and different solutions, not conservative taking of the path-of-least-resistance to energy jobs, security, and low bills, ignoring the bigger picture and spinning reports to do so. Zero Carbon Britain document how current technology could facilitate a carbon neutral Britain. Integrate less reliable renewables such as solar and wind into an energy system with more reliable renewables such as hydroelectric dams and tidal providing a reliable baseload. A variety of energy storage systems and emergency biomass-fired power stations could ensure energy security. Additional to their suggestions, nuclear could form part of the solution.

Such a transition would cost money, but it could be publicly funded using the wealth which has been accrued by the rich, and will be much less costly – in money, lives and security – than climate change in the long-term.

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