Arlene Foster is at the centre of the RHI scandal Credit: Liam Burney/PA Wire
Booker has a round up of our energy policy farce this week:
The oddest thing about the political crisis gripping Northern Ireland was what triggered it. In 2012, under an EU ruling that burning wood was “carbon neutral”, the Northern Irish government, led by Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness, adopted a “green” scheme introduced by the UK the previous year, the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), offering lavish subsidies to businesses to use wood chips to heat their premises.
RHI was launched in Belfast without any control over how the money was spent. When businesses discovered that they could be paid £160 for every £100 they spent on wood, so many signed up, even using it to heat empty buildings, that, by 2020, it was estimated, the bill to UK taxpayers could have risen to £1 billion.
But this is only one of the countless unforeseen consequences of that obsession which has long held our politicians in its grip: the belief that, to “save the planet”, we must replace the fossil fuels on which our entire way of life rests with new sources of supposedly “carbon-free” renewable energy.
We are committed to spending almost unlimited sums on subsidising ways we can tap into “clean, green” energy. Yet scarcely a week goes by without one of these schemes being revealed to be making a mockery of the purpose for which they were set up.
Each new example is shocking enough. But when we put them all together we see just how far this relentless drive to “decarbonise” is based on a colossal act of collective make-believe. Here are some examples.
1. The “Renewable Heat” Fiasco
Northern Ireland is only the most publicised instance of the absurdities created by the Renewable Heat Incentive. When in 2014 the Government extended this scheme to domestic premises, many owners of large houses across Britain realised that the more they kept their boilers running, even in summer, the more profit from the taxpayer-funded subsidy they could make. Since 2013 our bill for all this has been soaring so fast that, within four years, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, it will have totalled nearly £5 billion.
One consequence is that Britain is now burning more wood than at any time since the industrial revolution (hence inter ala last week’s first-ever ”Very High Pollution Alert” in London). Just as disturbing have been revelations of where much of the fuel to feed this subsidy bonanza comes from. Alarming pictures have shown the appalling damage being done to some of our most treasured ancient woodlands, even including a Cheshire estate owned by the National Trust.
Burning wood for heat is an ancient practice Credit: Pierre Edouard Frere/www.bridgemanart.com
2. The “Biomass” Farce
On a much grander scale is the sad story of Drax in Yorkshire: until recently the largest, cleanest and most modern coal-fired power station in Europe, supplying 8 per cent of Britain’s electricity. When in 2010 fossil-fuel power stations began to be squeezed by George Osborne’s “carbon tax”, intended to make them increasingly uneconomical, Drax decided to spend £700 million on converting its giant boilers to “biomass”, burning wood. For the three already converted, instead of being “carbon-taxed”, Drax now receives a whopping subsidy under the “renewable obligation” worth nearly £500 million a year.
But what has made this really shocking is that most of the 7.5 million tons of wood Drax uses each year is being shipped from the south-eastern states of America, where 4,600 square miles of forest are annually being felled, to be turned into wood pellets for burning 4,000 miles away in Yorkshire. Scientific studies have shown not just that much of this is virgin forest, uniquely rich in wildlife, but that, far from saving CO2, the whole process, including production and transporting of the pellets, has been estimated to result in emissions actually much higher than if Drax was still only burning coal.
3. The “waste into gas” threat
More controversy has lately been spiralling around another subsidy bonanza, again under the RHI and costing taxpayers £216 million a year. Developers have rushed to build nearly 100 giant “anaerobic digesters”: massive industrial plants in the countryside, designed to supply methane to the national gas grid made from food waste and crops such as maize, now specially grown on hundreds of thousands of acres formerly producing food to eat.
A particular concern for those living near these unsightly operations is not just their smell and the thousands of vehicle movements needed to bring in their fuel, but the growing list of pollution incidents from leaks of toxic ammonia, killing farm animals and wildlife. Investigations are currently underway into whether a spillage which killed more than 1,000 fish in one of Britain’s best-loved salmon and trout rivers, the Teifi, came from one such site.
4. Tidal fantasies
Many have long dreamed of harnessing the energy of the sea to produce electricity. Recently yet another such project collapsed, with a giant wave-powered turbine on the Welsh sea-bed, costing £18 million (£8 million of it from the EU), having broken down after just three months of operation.
Far more ambitious is the proposal to invest £40 billion in the world’s first huge “tidal lagoons”, first in Swansea Bay, with five others to follow. But, as I wrote two weeks ago, the derisory amount of power these might produce, paid for by mind-boggling subsidies, should make this a pipe-dream.
An artists impression of part of the Swansea tidal lagoon Credit: PA
5. When the wind doesn’t blow
Of the £52 billion Britain has invested in “renewables” since 2010, by far the largest chunk has gone into wind and solar farms, which, for a subsidy of more than £5 billion a year, now produce 14 per cent of the UK’s electricity, But the penny has now widely dropped that when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, these are not only useless, but require immediate and very expensive back-up from gas-fired power stations (and even thousands of diesel generators), to keep our lights on.
Even more absurd is how, when there is “too much wind”, to prevent this destabilising the grid we must pay £90 million more a year in “constraint payments”, to compensate their owners for not sending electricity into the grid.– pay ing them very handsomely to do nothing.
6. The electric car debacle
Although we have now paid more than £50 million to bribe motorists into buying “green” all-electric cars, barely 50,000 have been sold, at £25,000 or more each. This represents just 0.0091 per cent of the cars on Britain’s roads.
Carefully hidden, of course, is that most of the power used to charge their batteries comes from fossil fuels. So, when the manufacturing process and transmission losses to charging points are added in, these vehicles emit significantly more CO2 than they supposedly save, Yet MPs last July nodded through the “Fifth Carbon Budget”, imagining that within 13 years 60 per cent of all our cars will be electric.
Tesla’s Model X is an electric car Credit: James Lipman
Endless more examples could be cited, such as the environmental catastrophe inflicted on tropical countries by replacing vast areas of virgin rainforest with palm oil plantations, fuelled at least in part by the need to meet the EU’s legal requirement for us to use “biofuels”, which again have been shown to generate more CO2 in their production than they save.
Nor should we forget the “Diesel-gate” scandal which followed from the EU’s drive to reduce CO2 and other polluting emissions by engineering a switch from petrol to supposedly “greener” diesel-powered cars. Only in 2015 did it emerge that Volkswagen and other European car makers had been systematically cheating on their emissions tests.
It is time we woke up to the fact that all this nonsense represents one of the most bizarre collective flights from reality in history. But so long as the Climate Change Act is in force, we remain firmly in its grip.