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A 21st Century Energy Policy, Part 2: The Technology of the Future

NS_Savanah_NuclearPoweredShipIf humanity is to have any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change, developed countries must take aggressive steps to decarbonise as quickly as possible. This will mean not only replacing existing fossil-fuel power plants, but greatly expanding electricity production to replace gas and petrol. Such a task demands not just an energy policy, but a comprehensive economic plan.

For reasons discussed in Part 1, decarbonisation is not achievable in Britain using only renewable sources. Investments should certainly be made in wind, and (where feasible) hydroelectric, tidal, and geothermal power, but even combined these are unlikely to provide more than half of the current supply. The remainder must be made up by nuclear power. This is broadly in line with what energy analyst David MacKay proposed as “Plan E” in his book Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air. This was the plan which he deemed to be the most economical of those he proposed.

To improve cost effectiveness, new nuclear reactors should be built to a standard design, perhaps initially an established one with known costs; the spiralling costs at Hinkley C (which should probably be cancelled) show what can happen when a new and untested design is used. Such a strategy is similar to the mass build-out of nuclear reactors in France during the 1970s and 80s. Unfortunately, Britain today lacks the capacity for state-directed economic development which France had at that time. Steps to regain it will be discussed in Part 3.

According to statistics provided by the Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, currently electricity makes up about 20% of Britain’s energy usage, while gas accounts for about 30% and petroleum products for almost all of the rest. Gas and petrol will need to be phased out, as they can not be decarbonised. When faced with these numbers, the scale of the task ahead becomes apparent; not only must the greater part of the existing electricity supply be replaced, but it must be expanded several times over. Fortunately, there is much which can be done to improve efficiency, somewhat reducing the amount of new capacity needed.

Measures such as insulation could realistically result in a reduction of 15% in energy used for heating existing buildings by 2030. Obviously, new buildings should be required to meet high efficiency standards. Old and inefficient boilers could be replaced, although the phasing out of gas might mean that this is not worthwhile. The question then emerges as to how to achieve the upgrading of old buildings. The Green Party has, in the past, proposed that households should simply be given the insulation for free. However, this amounts to little more than a gift to those well-off enough to own their house or a gift to landlords. The government could offer to finance insulation at a rate where the cost would be covered by savings in gas bills. However, landlords would have to be permitted to increase rents accordingly for this to provide them with an incentive. Further discussion will be needed on this issue.

Various options exist to replace gas for heat and hot water. The simplest would be electric heating, which is a well-established technology. The upfront costs for these are relatively cheap, although still significant. In parts of Canada most people rent their water heaters from the power company and a similar option could be pursued here. Note, however, that with the UK’s present electricity supply, this form is heating is actually worse for the environment than gas, so it should only be rolled out after substantial electricity decarbonisation. Heat pumps offer a few times better energy efficiency than conventional electric heating but have very high up-front costs. Mass producing heat pumps, in order to bring down the price, should be one aim of national industrial policy and the government should also offer to finance their installation or allow customers to rent them from the power company. Solar thermal panels can be coupled with these systems to help provide hot water.

In areas with sufficiently high population density, district heating should likely play a substantial role. Where practical, this should use waste heat from power plants. This was done in Westminster with the old Battersea Power Station. A publicly owned electricity company should build such systems around any nuclear or geothermal power plants, possibly in partnership with local authorities. Heat can also be extracted from large bodies of water, sewage, and the ground using heat pumps. The government should offer loans to councils which wish to invest in such projects.

Binding efficiency requirements must be set for consumer and industrial goods and these should be regularly updated. A government program to purchase older white-goods, similar to Obama’s “cash for clunkers” program, could be used to incentivise upgrading to more energy-efficient models. A similar approach could be taken with other goods such a televisions and light-bulbs. Gas ovens and hobs will eventually become obsolete and need to be replaced.

A concerted effort should be made to shift people out of cars and onto public transit. One step in this direction would be free public transit. Congestion charges, pedestrian zones, road tolls, and reduced speed limits can all be used to discourage car use. Cycling routes and infrastructure should be improved. 100% electrification should be a goal for railways and some of the routes closed under the Beeching Axe of the 1960s should be considered for reopening. The current bus fleet should be gradually replaced by trolleys, trolley-buses, and battery-powered buses. This will be more difficult for long-distance buses, as batteries have limited range and it may be impractical to run wires over the long stretches of highway. To the extent that private vehicles continue to be used, they will have to be electric and government action will be needed to develop the charging infrastructure. Long-distance freight should increasingly be transported by rail and local freight by electric trucks.

Long distance travel by air or sea is more difficult as there are no nearby electrical wires to power it. The energy density of batteries is only a few percent of diesel or jet fuel, making it impossible to fit enough of them on a ship or plane to power a voyage. Alternatives such as biofuels or hydrogen are still decades away and, in the case of the former, there are concerns about them displacing essential food production. In the meantime, rail should start to replace short-haul aviation, particularly for domestic flights. Various incremental improvements can be made to reduce energy use by planes. Research into alternatives to jet fuel should be continued and expanded. Shipping remains quite energy efficient and thus is not an initial priority for decarbonisation but, in addition to developing biofuels, the government could look to develop nuclear powered freighters along the lines of nuclear powered aircraft carriers, submarines, and ice breakers which already exist. Similar safety procedures could be used as when transporting nuclear waste by ship.

There are also various non-energy related sources of greenhouse gases. Particular culprits are agriculture and the manufacture of steel and cement. These issues are beyond the scope of these articles, but it should be noted that they are not easy to solve. Furthermore, at present the greenhouse gases emitted in the production of Britain’s imports are almost equal to those of Britain itself. Rebuilding Britain’s manufacturing sector will help with this, but ultimately it represents the need for international action to fight climate change.

As can be seen, the task of moving Britain over to a low-carbon economy is a Herculean one. It will require government intervention on an unprecedented scale. Only a left-wing government, armed with a detailed and carefully worked-out economic plan, can hope to achieve it in an equitable manner.

34 Comments

  1. John Penney says:

    Interesting stuff, C.Mack. Won’t go down well with the “anti nuclear energy under any circumstances, in any form” Left/Greens though !

    I fully agree with the need to modernise and expand the UK public transport system,
    , even making it free in some cases (local buses for instance) or at least massively subsidised in the case of rail travel – to take vehicles off the road network.

    On the private car though – I think the hope that masses of people, having experienced the huge convenience of having their own transportation vehicle will EVER abandon the personal private car, even if public transport was entirely free and very regular, is a total pipedream.

    I remember raising this during the creation of Left Unity’s ,very Green Party influenced, Economic Strategy a few years ago – and it turned out that the most vociferous advocates of “abolishing the private car” had lived in public multi variant transport rich London all their lives, and in some cases had never felt it necessary to learn to drive !

    I think on the Left and Green sides of politics there is a complete blind spot in grasping just what a liberation for the mass of people the private car/and motorbike/moped, is, and how unconditionally the mass of citizens will cling to this transport form, come what may.

    My advice for any political movement not wanting to be wiped out electorally is “leave the private car alone”, but push for incentives to move to high efficiency , low polluting engine types, including electricity, and emerging technologies like liquid hydrogen.

    1. C MacMackin says:

      I don’t think the anti-nuclear left is going to like any of my three articles!

      I admit to having a bias against cars, despite (or perhaps because of) having grown up in suburban Canada where they were a necessity. I’ve also grown rather used to living without a car, having been a student in high-density areas for the last few years. I think we need to change the narrative about cars and freedom, to some extent. To me, a car represents an expensive machine which needs to be maintained and insured. I find it far more liberating to be in an area with good public transit that I can use whenever I need. That said, I do take your point. I think the goal should be to make it much much easier for people to get by without a car on a day-to-day basis (I didn’t mention it in the article, but urban planning also plays a role in this). Publicly (or co-operatively) owned car-sharing clubs could be used for the rest of the time. This obviously won’t work for everyone, especially those living in rural areas, but we should see how far we can push it. I have read (although don’t recall where, so take it with a pinch of salt) that there simply are not enough raw materials for every family in the world to have their own car.

      I’m dubious about the use of hydrogen in cars and more optimistic about batteries. The range of battery-powered cars is getting to the point where they are usable (especially in a small country like Britain) and they’re already better for the environment than petrol cars almost regardless of how electricity is being produced. The big thing that’s needed is charging infrastructure. A public electrical utility should construct extensive charging points, with the power use simply added to the driver’s home energy bill. Some of these can be high-voltage chargers which I have heard are able to get a car mostly charged on the order of 10 or 20 minutes (rather than hours), but which are too expensive for individuals to afford for their homes.

  2. Rob Green says:

    Problem with all these massively intricate policy documents is that they miss out the vital element. They have zero possibility of being implemented unless the power of capital is overturned by the revolutionary proletariat. There is no mention of the need for a proletarian dictatorship over capital before we can even think of saving the planet. All, we are told, that is needed is a left wing government. Navel gazing and illusion creating. Demagoguery even.

    1. David Pavett says:

      “Dictatorship of the proletariat”. It may be comforting to imagine that there is a text book formula covering the forms of development irrespective of circumstances since it relieves one of the need to study the detail or to think creatively but, as Marx and Lenin often pointed out it is also foolish.

      These articles do not deal with ephemera but with key tecnological and environmental issues and their social and political consequences. A debate which ignores this detail would just be hot air.

      1. Rob Green says:

        Technological issues is right. They are completely apolitical and therefore delusional and possibly dangerous and despite being interminably boring demagogic too.

        As for the dictatorship of the proletariat one way or another the power of capital will have to be suppressed and it is the proletariat that will lead that struggle.

        1. David Pavett says:

          You regard conclusions about public ownership and the need to reject EU free market rules on public intervention, i.e. things which are resolved at the political level, as “completely apolitical”. Is that really your view?

          1. C MacMackin says:

            In fairness, David, I don’t really discuss the details of public ownership and EU regulations in this article, other than to assume that there would be a public electricity company. The formation of such a company and its relationship with EU directives are the focus of the next article, which should be posted on Monday.

            I’m sorry if anyone found my article boring and I certainly don’t mean to be a demagogue. At some point politics does have to delve into the technical and technological issues if we are to have a plan to achieve our objectives. Given that there is much talk on the Left about the need for public investment, I thought I could lay out what some of it could be used for. This is especially the case for currently non-electric forms of energy use, which often get over-looked by energy policy. I am not an expert on these topics, so I’m happy to discuss points of disagreement.

            I think the proposals I outline here are perfectly achievable by a radical left government willing to nationalise key sectors (particularly energy, transport, and finance). They would require an economic plan which, while not actually overthrowing all of capitalism, would begin to look beyond it. This is essentially a Ralph Miliband-type approach to building socialism. Unlike declaring the dictatorship of the proletariate, this is something which we might conceivably be able to win popular support for.

          2. David Pavett says:

            Agreed Chris that you don’t discuss the details of public ownership, that would require a special study of its own, but one of the things I like about your analysis is that you show that implementing the technological solution you favour has political consequences e.g. for public ownership. You restate this in you response (third paragraph). I was suggesting no more than that in order to reject the idea that your analysis is a technological wish list with no politics.

    2. Imran Khan says:

      I did keep reading after I got to ” revolutionary proletariat”, it’s just that anyone who uses phrases like that can’t be taken seriously.

  3. John Walsh says:

    To pick up on the point I think John Penney is making above – that there is a need to be more politically aware when thinking about policy – for me, this article feels like a technologists wish-list, that the politics of energy policy has faded into the margins.

    I’d thought that the point about discussing policy on Left Futures what to kick-start conversations. Whereas, this is just one persons view and is, perhaps understandably, somewhat lacking in areas. For example, anyone who works on low carbon housing would most likely find the comments on insulation, well, poorly informed (interesting to see the Committee on Climate Change as a primary source).

    Cue a defensive reply which works against the purpose (I’ll take DP’s claim that the article deals with “key technological and environmental issues and their social and political consequences” as also defensive and consequently, largely groundless). Disappointing.

    1. David Pavett says:

      The point of a conversation is to take up issues where you think the case made is wrong, unclear or in need of further development. You say (assert) that the comments on insulation are “poorly informed”. So why don’t you explain why and give us what you consider better information?

      Chris M has gone to the effort of going well beyond mere assertion by both the detail he gives and the references he provides. He also shows that implementing the technologies he believes to be necessary would lead to some very far-reaching political and economic consequences (e.g. the need for public ownership of the nuclear power industry, and the impossibility of solving the problems within the framework of current EU single market legislation). It would be really helpful if you could try to do the same.

      1. John Walsh says:

        DP: “It would be really helpful if you could try to do the same”. Thanks for saying that (or was it an assertion?) – I think you’re (perhaps unwittingly?) getting to the heart of the matter.

        I’m not sure what a useful conversation on here about developing policy initiatives would look like, and I don’t think anyone else does either, or that any progress is being made with, for example, this article on energy policy. Given this, I’m not warming to your instruction to do as you and CM do. Examples …

        “The point of a conversation …” – are you talking about (typing about) face-to-face conversations and does your description encompass online ‘conversations’? For me, these are very separate realms and your ‘point’ doesn’t seem adequate or useful for describing what is happening here or how we might move forward.

        “… (assert) …” – although I’m trying to balance what I say with ‘would most likely find’, my comments are for you assertions (I’m taking a negative connotation here – is that correct?) while CM has “gone to the effort of going well beyond mere assertion”. For now, let’s put to one side that my days of swanning around doing a PhD are long gone and now I have time-constraints relating to making a living. That said, I’m not at all convinced by the ‘detail’ and find many of the references less than convincing. I have commented on these on the previous article and find the responses either unconvincing – e.g. taking Monbiot’s throw-away political jibe about the difference in subsidies as being evidence of the value of technologies , or ignored – e.g. when referring to a la-la land West Coast futurist to substantiate a comment on nuclear safety.

        “… he believes …” – if we’re going to have a sensible discussion about policy I don’t see a future for articles where an author takes the position of an expert but clearly isn’t (self described as merely ‘better-than-average”). I’m not sure which ‘ivory tower’ Pete Willsman refers to but do wonder (maybe it’s a discipline thing) given your defence of what is presented here. For most disciplines, however, I’d have thought that a students’ journey would involve wending their way from personal opinion and on, in postgraduate study, towards the holy grail of synthesis – from “mere assertion” to, for example, the marshalling of the thoughts of members of the canon in ways that invite comment, conversation and new insights.

        I don’t see evidence of that here which is disappointing as it could have provided a basis for conversation. It might have involved setting out David MacKay’s various plans (by the way, was he really an ‘energy analyst’?), critiquing them by reference to other positions and inviting input on points of disagreement. Of course, there will be many other methods for moving forward and if you do find one I’d be happy to “try [and] do the same”.

        1. C MacMackin says:

          On the topic of photovoltaics, you still have not addressed the central issue that output peaks at a different time than useage peaks, both during the course of a day and a year. The reason I referenced the Monbiot piece was because I thought it was an articulate explaination of this and other issues. On the topic of nuclear safety, I changed that link to a more reputable one. However, I still don’t think that the original was an especially terrible link. The results were comparable to those of other studies, the author is a fellow a think-tank with big-name backing, and the raw data he used was taken from reputable sources such as the WHO. If you have reason to think that the conclusions are wrong then I’d be happy to discuss them.

          Of David MacKay’s proposed plans, all require one or more of nuclear, carbon capture/storage, and solar farms in North African deserts. As I have expressed elsewhere, I am not convinced that we can adequately store captured CO2. Doing so also uses considerable energy, adding considerably to the cost of power. I don’t think that building solar farms in North African deserts is a good idea, as these countries are not the most stable right now. One of the professors in my department, several years ago, did a presentation on such a scheme to Gaddafi’s government. Had this been built, can you imagine what it would mean for our energy supply during the Libyan civil war? Given this I think that nuclear energy will be unavoidable. I’m afraid I do not have time to go into more detail than that. If you would like to write an article discussing his plans in the way you describe then this would be helpful and I would look forward to reading it.

          I am fully aware that these articles are not of a standard which could be published in a peer-reviewed journal. I can’t think of a single article on this website that is. Most people would not be interested in reading such an article, given that it would be many times longer and far more technical. Even as someone “swanning around” doing a PhD, I would not have time to write such an article. If you are looking for those levels of rigor, you will have to look elsewhere, I’m afraid. I am attempting to sumarise the issues and show that we must be willing to look beyond the usual vague green rhetoric. I do not pretend to do more than this. I am happy to debate disagreements over the points I made, as I think has been demonsrated by my comments below both of the articles. I do not know what you would have me offer beyond this. If you think that my articles are so poor as to be of no use or to be counterproductive, then I suggest you take it up with James Elliot and ask him to retract them or issue a disclaimer.

        2. David Pavett says:

          @John Walsh (February 21, at 3:31 pm)
          My God! All did was suggest that you back your claim that Chris M’s view on insulation was “poorly informed”. Intead of that we got a lot of words but nothing setting out your (informed) views on insulation.

          1. John Walsh says:

            Interesting – after all your fine talk about ‘play the ball, not the man’ and then, I question you, and you reply by trying to mock. Well, I’m not going down that particular alley. Instead I’ll try and explain the substantive point raised – namely, is the purpose of trying to initiate policy discussion helped or hindered by the energy article we have here?

            I am arguing that, ultimately, this article isn’t useful which, obviously, is a difficult position to take given that somebody has taken the time to write it. My view is that the wider purpose is paramount. My argument is that the root of the problem is the chosen method for writing the article and that an example of an outcome from that method is the downplaying of energy consumption reduction techniques within the wider energy requirement equation, which would then inform the debate about energy production (not the other way round).

            A recurring problem with energy debates is that consumption reduction just doesn’t sound as interesting as electrification, as inviting as the gamut of boys’ toys new technologies or as important as nuclear power. This is a common problem which helps our common enemy – neoliberal capitalism. Put simply, consumption reduction is not an earner compared to shiny new technology or selling energy. An example of how the consumption reduction argument has been lost is with the ending of the aim to build zero carbon homes. One Government advisory body overseeing the ending of that aim is the Committee on Climate Change, who, for example, blithely announce that efficiency improvements (insulation being just one) will achieve “a 15% reduction in energy used for heating existing buildings by 2030” (p8 of the report CM links to). Later on they claim that smart meters “have the potential to reduce energy use by up to 15%” (p57). So let’s get this right, not only is insulation boring and not very important, the introduction (multi-billion pound rip-off) of smart meters will have about the same effect.

            To anyone working in the industry the claims in the report are ludicrous and worse – politically censored to suit interests. Zero carbon homes would have meant building houses with 80 to 90% reductions in heating need. There’s a small army of green building people (again, not to be confused with the Green Party) who refurbish houses and achieve the same 80 and 90% reduction in heating need – achieved mostly by airtightness and insulation measures. In short, the 15% claim and that smart meters achieve about the same is an example of about as bad as it gets in terms of interests shaping debate.

            Now, if my chosen method of writing an article on energy was to google the bits I know very little about then I might come across the Committee on Climate Change report and quote it – after all, it might back up my predisposed ideas and I wouldn’t know it’s nonsense if my method was based in ‘google research’. But ‘google research’ is an odd thing to see in 2017 on here particularly when considered alongside mid-1990s theory about hyperlinks, from a time when the web was mostly about academic content. In those days, writing essays filled with web links was seen as a new way of engaging – and was possible given that most of the content was reliable. No so in 2017, which means the quality of the article is in many places largely dependant on the author’s ability to choose the right links – I don’t agree that is useful to our purpose and think it is worthwhile to unpick why and the consequences.

          2. C MacMackin says:

            Can you provide references (don’t have to be links) for the ability to achieve such high energy efficiency? I thought that 15% seemed rather low, so I won’t be surprised if more is achievable. Are all houses able to be retrofitted for the level of energy savings you suggest? How expensive and invasive is it to do? The point of this article was to talk about the sorts of measures which should be taken on electrification and efficiency and I supported insulation even when I thought it would only reduce energy use by 15%. I don’t see how the fact that it could do better than this makes me uninterested in reducing energy use.

            My comment about insulation was restricted to home heating (currently gas, for the most part). I do talk about measures to improve electrical efficiency as well. Smart meters could play a part in this. On the other hand, I would prefer to have abundant energy rather than expect people to lower their standard of living. Where efficiency can be improved, so much the better, but we shouldn’t fall into the trap of asking people to make do with less. On top of all of this, there is the fact that any left-wing government will likely want to rebuild the UK’s manufacturing base. Manufacturing is very energy intensive and could eat away at much of the savings possible in the residential sector.

            Left Futures doesn’t offer the ability to do more than provide hyperlinks. I did toy with using footnotes, but ultimately did not. I don’t know if Left Futures would have wanted them in an article anyway. Hyperlinks may be a technology of the 90s, but they are also the only technology available on this platform.

            Your thinking seems to border on the conspiratorial. You talk about different groups producing reports which are “politically censored to suit interests”. In this article you offer your opinion without citing any sources for it. Hyperlinks may be imperfect and my research may involve Googling, but I fail to see how that is worse then providing no justification at all. I’m not denying that conspiracies exist, but you need to have some evidence when you suggest one.

          3. John Walsh says:

            “Your thinking seems to border on the conspiratorial” – that’s nice, resorting to crude accusations of mental illness. Thanks for that CM. Nevertheless, if you bother to read what I wrote you’ll find justification and evidence. Interesting though and while taking into consideration the likely back-channel conversations with DP (oh – there I go again), you are beginning to look like someone who isn’t exactly as you appear on here. Other commenters please note this possibility.

          4. C MacMackin says:

            I do not mean to imply mental illness when I say ‘conspiratorial’. I’m trying to think of another word which doesn’t have those connotations, although nothing comes to mind at the moment. Speaking as someone who deals with mental illness myself, I would not throw that around as a smear. What I was suggesting is that you are asserting bad faith on the part of some of these reports based purely on the assertion that “to anyone working in the industry the claims in the report are ludicrous and worse – politically censored to suit interests.” Is there anyone in the industry on record of having said this? If so, then you may have a point, but you don’t provide any evidence for that. I note that you still have not responded to my question of where I can read more about the efficiency measures you are promoting. That was a genuine question and I would be happy to learn more.

            I’m not sure what you mean by “back-channel conversations with DP”. He helped to edit my original essays down to a length more amenable for publishing here, suggested better wording in a few cases, and asked some critical questions which I adressed. That was the extent of the communication between us. I’m also not sure how I could be “someone who isn’t exactly as [I] appear on here”. Are you insinuating that I’m a shill for the nuclear industry? I’m not. As I have said, I’m a PhD student studying ice shelves. You can see this from my student profile as well as my personal blog, both of which have pictures of me. (Note that the longer versions of my articles posted on my blog still need to have some of David Pavett’s edits folded into them.)

          5. John Walsh says:

            re references: there’s mention of ‘zero carbon homes’ a few times – the phrase has particular meaning within the UK housebuilding and energy sectors (maybe google it and see?).

          6. C MacMackin says:

            “Zero-carbon homes” is a phrase typically used to refer to new-build properties. I agree that we should be puruing these sorts of efficiency measures in new homes, but even with an aggressive house-building program (which is much needed) it will take decades before these new homes out-number the old ones. There is much less written on improving efficiency of old homes (which is what my 15% stat was referring to). I have found only some vague references to retrofits being able to acheive zero-carbon levels of efficiency, but it seems to be very new and very expensive. It may be a policy worth pursuing, but this is not immediately obvious. Given how extensive a retrofit it requires I would also question whether it could be applied to all housing stock by 2030. Even if it reduced heating use to zero, if we could only retrofit 15% of existing homes by 2030 then the reductions would be…15%. Once again, I ask if you have detailed information you can direct me to.

          7. John Walsh says:

            Stunning – I provide you with a reference and you assertively reply with a mistaken definition of what it means. That’s a strange attitude you have, but less strange after consulting the Simple Sabotage Field Manual, in particular the definition and reason for “purposeful stupidity” … consider yourself busted CM …

          8. C MacMackin says:

            Okay, I phrased my first sentence poorly. I should have said “Zero carbon homes are usually spoken of referring to new builds.” Unless I have missed it (in which case, could you direct me to it?), you have not provided me with a specific reference, simply told be to Google zero carbon homes. Given how disparagingly you have spoken of research conducted via Google, I’d hoped you could provide me with a specific source you deemed reliable. I had difficulty finding any substantial information on making homes zero carbon via a retrofit. One of the few references I did find said that the retorfit costs about £100k/house and takes 10 days to complete. This is expensive and time-consuming to achieve, hence my questions on how many houses could undergo such refurbishment by 2030.

            In terms of the definition of zero carbon housing, I note that in addition to insulation and efficiency there is talk of onsite low/zero carbon heat and power. I’ve expressed my doubt about the suitability of photovoltaics for this, as they provide the power at the wrong time. They might mean an individual house has no net emissions, but the house would still need to burn gas or use electricity off the grid at certain times of year (i.e. winter evenings). Meanwhile, what do we do with the solar power which is being exported from the houses in the summer? Wind turbines might be somewhat more suitable, but the intermittancy is still a problem. The other energy sources discussed are heat pumps, solar thermal, and district heating, all of which I spoke about positiviely in my article.

            The current definition of zero carbon (although not the original one from the last Labour government) allows the developer to pay for off-site projects which will reduce emissions. These projects are generally all well and good, but they are not actually adressing the efficiency of the house. Often they are electrical infrastructure (which I’m assuming would be built by a public utility) or measures which I did mentioned in this article, such as district heating or replacing light bulbs.

            I may well have made an error or misunderstanding here, so I stand ready to be corrected. The point I’m making is not that there aren’t good technologies to use, but that I don’t think we can straightforwardly say that they bring home energy use down to 0 and that I have already adressed several of them in this article. Contrary to your view, I am willing to discuss and change my opinions. For example, after a discussion below my last article, I am more positive about tidal power than I initially was and altered this article slightly prior to publication to reflect this.

    2. C MacMackin says:

      I would be happy to hear you elaborate on aspects which you think are poorly informed. I admit to not being hugely knowledgeable about home insulation, etc. I think there should be a campaign to roll it out to existing housing stock and that new housing should be required to meet very high efficiency standards (I am not in a position to know how high is achievable). I tried to consider the details of how we roll out insulation and concluded that there isn’t an easy answer. I would be pleased to hear your ideas.

  4. James Martin says:

    Yes, we need new nuclear stations, yes we need to boost renewables to the maximum possible, yes we need better energy saving and building standards. But nuclear is not a quick or a risk free option, and I will say again that to bridge the gap between energy needs and the hoped improvement of renewable technologies we either have mots of nuclear stations (with lots of highly dangerous waste for our kids to deal with) or we take advantage of the likely large deposits of shale gas via fracking. This is not to say that shale is not without its own potential problems, it is not as low carbon but I can live with that, but importantly if you ask most people whether they want to live a few miles away from a nuclear reactor or to a gas extraction rig I think we all know what the answer would be. The Labour Party jumped too soon to oppose shale extraction, they were wrong to do this as otherwise what is the Plan B, total reliance on Russian gas imports for the next few decades? Seriously?

    1. C MacMackin says:

      Actually, when there is political will, nuclear can be rolled out quite quickly. See France in the 70s and 80s. To my knowledge, that was the fastest ever roll-out of low-carbon energy, certainly if you ignore hydro (which Britain doesn’t have much capacity for). In absolute terms I suppose China might be doing better today, but with a far far larger poulation and while simultaneously building one coal power station a week. Gas is not safer than nuclear, whether it is fracked or not. I fundamentally disagree that it is better to emit more carbon dioxide than to produce nuclear waste. Whatever (very small) risks exist with nuclear power and waste, they are risks to the country producing and benefiting from the energy. On the other hand, the effects of climate change will disproportionately impact those in poor countries, such as Bangladesh. I think it is unconscionable for us to export the damage of our energy production so as to appease people’s irrational fears.

      I also don’t think that it is simply a matter of “bridging the gap” before it is possible to get all energy from renewable sources. The only ones which might be able to do this are solar power in deserts and solar power in space. The first would require political stability in Northern Africa, which I don’t think we’ll be able to count on for a long while. The second would require at least a few decades of research and development. It is vital that the developed world decarbonises before then.

      As for the NIMBY issue, that is a real problem. It is a problem for nearly all forms of clean energy and I’m sure would even be a problem for new gas plants. People don’t like living near wind mills either. But far fewer people would need to live near nuclear power plants than would need to live near wind mills if they were to power the country. I’m under no illusions that what I’m proposing won’t be a difficult sell, but I honestly don’t think that any other decarbonisation plan is workable and I will always side with what is possible over what is popular.

  5. John Penney says:

    Whatever the technical/expertise shortcomings may be of C,Mack’s two articles (with one still to come) , and I, as a total non expert in this complex area, am not a judge, he has at least stepped outside of that dreadfully restrictive “Left comfort zone” to ask serious questions, and posit serious possible answers. Actually to dare to consider nuclear power as a viable energy source – rather than just tail the holy writ Green Party-ist unconditional hostility to this technology ! Whatever next !

    And thank goodness for that ! The Left today seems trapped in a series of “received wisdom” , unchallenged “groupthink” certainties on a wide range of key issues that are debilitating in the extreme in responding to a fast changing capitalist world in crisis.

    The articles by C.Mack on energy policy, mine on comprehensive economic planning and Defence, David’s on Education Policy, and on Freedom of Movement, and our various challenges to the dominant Left enthusiasm for the neoliberal EU, are surely what Left Futures needs to be about ?

    One thing is certain , neither the Corbyn leadership circle, or the NPF process looks likely to develop any serious radical Left policy in the foreseeable future. To steal and amend that old quote from Lenin : “without radical transformational Left policy development there can be no radical Left political action”.

    1. C MacMackin says:

      Thank you for the defence, John. While writing this article and thinking about the need to electrify transport and heating, a modification to a different Lenin quote came to mind: “Ecosocialism is Labour in power plus the electrification of the whole country.”

  6. Bazza says:

    I support public transport for political reasons (especially for buses) and why do we subsidise employers by paying our own fares to work (or buy cars and petrol to get there?
    It would help the transport poor, would be more efficient, could attract people out of cars but is not anti-car as someone said in a discussion, he drives to work in 20 minutes and would take over an hour and 10 minutes on two buses, could mean safer, quieter roads, could help the environment and mean fresher air, less stress on bus drivers but have couriers on board too to help passengers and for passenger safety, less cars could encourage more people to cycle.
    But overall we need a decarbonised socialist energy package and perhaps as a socialist society we would fund this and scientists and R&D to come up with new ideas.
    Pehaps we should also have the democratic public ownership of the utilities.
    I think I read that one ne country was looking at trying to get heat from volcanoes and one I think Iceland was looking at geysers so as well as perhaps overcoming our concerns on nuclear (if we can crack the concerns over toxic waste) then let a thousand ideas bloom – could some countries capture some of the power of hurricanes? could we capture some of the power of rain (we have no shortage of this)? lightning etc – we need to perhaps also think outside of the box and in hot countries to tap the free energy of the sun – solar panel farms, cars with solar panel roofs, solar powered greenhouses and refridgeration for parched agricultural land???
    Very thought provoking pieces which hopefully will help us to identify a left energy policy.

    1. C MacMackin says:

      I’m trying not to be completely anti-car. I would say, however, that a situation where a 20 minute car journey takes 70 minutes by bus to me represents a profoundly dysfunctional public transit system which needs to be improved. Another thing which comes to mind with is that reduced traffic tends to increase the speed of public transit, so there is the potential for a virtuous spiral.

      I agree that the energy system needs to be publicly owned. I discuss this in some detail in the next instalment. It’s something for another time, but we should also discuss what we mean by “democratic public ownership”. The Left loves to use phrases like this, but I don’t think we have much idea of how to achieve it in practice.

      Using volcanoes (or geysers) for energy sounds to me like geothermal. This is all well and good in places like Iceland or Hawaii with the correct geography, but it’s debatable whether or not it would work in Britain. The energy of hurricanes is essentially wind-power. Currently wind-mills have to be clamped off during winds of that strength, or they’ll be damaged. There are pictures online of wind-mills which have caught fire because the generator overheated in high winds. Furthermore, hurricanes are sporadic events and not something which could provide a steady supply of electricity. We currently lack a good way to store that much energy. The same issue would apply with lightning strikes. It is possible to capture some energy from rain using what are call piezoelectric materials. There have been some proposals to incorporate these into solar panels. A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that, during a heavy rainstorm, this might produce similar energy to a solar panel on a cloudy day. If this can be added to solar panels cheaply and without impacting on solar efficiency then it would be worth doing, but it won’t produce massive amounts of energy. Solar panels on car roofs are potentially a good idea. Not only could it help charge the car battery, but it could provide power for the car’s air conditioning (which would otherwise be a big drain on the battery). This works especially well because air conditioning use and solar power are correlated.

      Using solar power for greenhouses or refrigerating arid land is dubious in my opinion. (Pedantically, greenhouses are already heated by solar power, with the glass preventing the heat from being carried away be evaporation.) Shipping is actually very energy efficient, so it would probably use less energy to import food from a place with a better climate than to heat greenhouses. If the greenhouses were to use waste heat from a power plant then perhaps they might be viable, but I’m speculating wildly here. I suppose there could be some value to this if it allows us to bring currently non-arable land into production without cutting down forests. Something similar which you do hear discussed sometimes is “vertical farming”, although I don’t think the technology to do it economically is there yet. We’ll have to see how far advances in biotechnology can push crop yields to know whether we’ll need to resort to such solutions.

      1. Bazza says:

        Yes my view of democratic public ownership is the opposite of the old nationalisation – top down, distant, bureaucratic, same bosses in control, communities having no say.
        And Foucault was correct, words are powerful and perhaps we need some new language for 21stC socialism to counter the Neo-Liberal narrative.
        So perhaps we have the staff electing qualified boards, organisations which are closer to communities, democratic, and communities having a say.
        We could look at different models – some break even like mail and rail but some say like public utilities could pay a community dividend like the old Coop Divi which could be taken as cash or used to offset against bills which could help to address fuel poverty.
        Whatever models we use we need people to think that they are theirs (like the NHS) so they are nailed down in case future right wing carpetbaggers try to come for them.

  7. Bazza says:

    Opening line should be -I support free public transport!

  8. Rob Green says:

    The car which promised so much: the open road, democracy, freedom, has become its opposite. An isolated tin can going nowhere whilst the planet burns. The dictatorship of the proletariat will over as short a period of time as possible put an end to commuting by car, train or bus. Workers and managers will be obliged to live where the work. That will also give them an incentive to ensure they don’t pollute the crap out of the place.

    1. Rob Green says:

      Oh and we would immediately cancel HS2, Heathrow 3 and Hinkley Point C not to mention fracking.

      On nuclear power: any country that is prepared to take the risk however small of rendering huge swathes of its territory uninhabitable for centuries to come deserves to perish.

      1. John Penney says:

        Never a good sign when someone announces themselves as the Voice of the dictatorship of the proletariat, David.

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