My interest in the energy debate knows no bounds. I have recently dedicated at least four lengthy train journeys, pouring over my trusty iPad, to reading two newly published pathways and trying to make sense of them.
I feel I deserve a medal. This stuff is not easy going and, as I look around the carriage at other people reading novels or magazines, or staring vacantly at the passing countryside, I sometimes wonder why I am doing this. I'm certainly not getting paid for it and every now and then I get overcome by the urge to doze off. Nevertheless, it is interesting, sort of, and I have a feeling that if I don't do it, no one else will.
First out of the traps is the delightfully named Less is More which, as has already been pointed out on Twitter, weighs in at an ironic 282 pages. The document - it's basically an ebook - has the imprint of the AECB. It has a foreword, an executive summary and then, on page 22, a preface by AECB chairman Chris Herring. It's principal author is David Olivier, who I have known for 30 years, and the whole project has the feel of being his magnum opus. It's full of fascinating insights and little-known facts. For instance, did you know that:
Energy efficiency measures can reduce a tram's electricity consumption by some 75% from 4 to 1kWh/vehicle.km, although doors are opened so often that winter space heating is likely to take another 0.5kWh/vehicle.km, even with reversible heat pumps.
or that Chaudes-Aigues in Central France has had geothermal district heating since the 14th century?
Less is More is full of these little teasers that make energy wonks like me trill with delight, and make you marvel at a life spent collecting such gems. But this great strength is also its weakness because somewhere in all these pages you become aware that the bigger picture is getting lost and that our pathway through the woods has become obscured by all the fascinating discoveries we have made along the way.
Because the destination of the pathway is to get to 2050 with the lights on, our homes warm and almost no carbon getting released and, in this respect, Less is More doesn't convince. It's future is something pretty similar to the one that Denmark has mapped out — there are lots and lots of references to Denmark — which involves no nuclear power and not that much in the way of renewables, but lots and lots of energy efficiency and piped heat networks. But nowhere is there an explanation of why Denmark's pathway is the one we should follow and nowhere is there an examination of whether Denmark has got it right.
Nuclear power is dismissed because the risk of an accident is uninsurable and therefore this constitutes a hidden subsidy which makes it, in turn, uncommercial. I'm not convinced by this argument either. But it's arguably beside the point, because the whole thesis is based on the idea that we simply don't need very much energy by 2050, and certainly not very much electricity. The government line — broadly speaking that espoused by David Mackay and the 2050 calculator project — is that we should decarbonise the grid and move everything towards electric powered this and that. Less is More doesn't buy into this, and pushes towards using a combination of waste heat, liquid fuels derived from surplus windpower and concentrated solar power, and a world dedicated to energy efficiency. Or negawatts, to borrow a term from Amory Lovins.
Less Is More sets out to show that negawatts are cheapest and best, and is at its strongest when describing how a future built environment might work. But negawatts will only get you so far and, for one thing, you can't really do a convincing pathway without dealing with the transport sector. If you don't electrify transport, it's hard to see where you will get the carbon savings from. Transport does get dealt with in the appendix, but the electricfy-it-all option is dismissed in favour of making what we have more efficient.
The reason for our coming to this view is that none of the post-oil options for road, sea and air transport appear attractive.
Maybe this is true, but a pathway still has to deal with this. And if it's not a complete pathway, what is exactly is it all about?
The same criticism applies to Achieving Zero, which emanates from Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute, although it too bears the hand of an author, Brenda Boardman, who will be familiar to all who trawl these areas. Achieving Zero is subtitled Delivering Future-friendly Buildings so you can at once see that, like Less is More, its solutions will be somewhat skewed towards buildings — transport doesn't even get a look in here. It's also been supported by Greenpeace which may have helped with the production costs but doesn't do a great deal to establish its independence.
Not that it's slavishly following a Greenpeace line. Like Less Is More, its future scenario is non-nuclear, but it doesn't make a big thing about it because the emphasis is all on energy efficiency in our buildings. Where it differs from Less Is More is in its emphasis is on policy levers, such as using Energy Performance Certificates as both carrots and sticks to encourage building owners to undertake refurbishments. And there is an examination of Personal Carbon Allowances which just about everybody interested in this field sees as a really good idea but politically would seem to be a complete non-starter.
Achieving Zero falls into the trap of assuming that the existing housing stock can be upgraded easily. "Beyond 2025, the need for any space heating will disappear as properties are made low-energy or brought up to Passivhaus standard." I wish. This is no mean feat and I fear it would take rather more than the odd council tax rebate or stamp duty holiday. It would be simpler and possibly cheaper to demolish and rebuild every house in the UK - at a rate of around 750,000 houses per year. (Last year we built just 100,000 new homes, by way of comparison.) Methinks she underestimates the size of the task in hand, let alone the complete impracticability!
The main problem with both these publications is that they are painting a nuclear-free, energy constrained 2050 when it's now beginning to look that this may not be such a great idea. If you replace difficult to manage renewables (farmed electricity) with a steady flow of low carbon nuclear power, then the actions needed to meet 2050 obligations change drastically and the scope and depth of energy efficiency measures becomes much more manageable. With nuclear, we don't have to dig up every road in the country, we might not have to rebuild every house, we may even get away without carbon rationing. Whilst it may not be what green builders want to hear, the nuclear option is beginning to look far more achievable, far more acceptable. To my mind, this is now the big question to address and any pathway that choses to ignore it is starting in the wrong place.