As the prospect of a fuel-starved winter becomes ever realer for the United Kingdom, enquiring minds have begun to wonder, how did such a precarious state come to pass? And how did those in government charged with managing UK energy security get it so wrong?
One man with greater insight than most is Philip Lambert, the head of Lambert Energy, a discreet but highly influential energy advisory firm that has consulted to governments and the major energy corporations on some of the biggest energy market deals in history.
“I have no pleasure at all to be a Cassandra for the same perpetual warnings,” says Lambert as he ponders the fate beholding the UK and the rest of the northern hemisphere this winter. He believes the crisis, which is only likely to get worse, is the product of a “monumental misallocation of capital” and many years worth of underinvestment in natural gas capacity.
Until this week, Lambert has been wary of speaking publicly about the matter, noting that anyone daring to go against the religious-like sentiment of the net-zero carbon lobby risks vilification and intimidation.
But behind closed doors, Lambert — a staunch believer in the need to decarbonise the planet as quickly as possible and about as far from a climate change denier as you could find — has been quietly warning that net-zero policies will trigger an energy poverty crisis so great that it could derail climate action progress by inducing greater dependency on dirtier fuels like coal and wood.
By the time the impact is felt — especially if a reluctance to address underinvestment continues — it could take years to reverse the problem. In the meantime, Lambert says, the UK’s average standard of living will be hit and many lives will be put at risk, as people struggle to heat their homes in winter. Politically, a popular backlash could then manifest, pushing belief in climate change action backwards, not forwards, to everyone’s loss.
With soaring prices now forcing the UK to fire up the very same coal plants the country was planning to decommission by October, climate lobbyists such as Dave Jones of Ember argue the setback is only a temporary one. In time, they say, high prices will drive more investment in renewables which will help plug any ongoing winter deficit.
But that’s a perspective, Lambert says, that ignores the intermittent nature of renewables and their ongoing inability to meet demand for firm, rather than sporadic, power supply — no matter how much investment flows into the sector.
It could all have been so different too. Until 2016, the UK’s decarbonisation policy was producing enviable results, having accepted the importance of retaining natural gas as essential transition fuel in the journey towards a decarbonised energy system, as can be seen below:
The dependability of natural gas was seen as an essential offset to the intermittent and unpredictable nature of renewables, which — bar a major technological leap in electricity storage — continue to put stress on any system that does not have a reliable buffer fuel as a failsafe.
All that, however, changed when ideological compulsions centred around net-zero carbon policy began to override practical considerations, says Lambert. As a result, natural gas infrastructure was starved of essential investment, generating the conditions that now place Britain in its most precarious energy state since the 1970s. The decision to centre UK energy policy around a net-zero carbon target, meanwhile, warranted very little debate in the House of Commons. Nor did it merit any public consultation.
Those who knew of the dangerous consequences of depriving the system of 80 per cent of its lifeblood so quickly were frozen out of advising on the transition process. Other critical institutions, such as the International Energy Agency (IEA), became captured by the net-zero lobbyists, says Lambert.
The widespread rejection of what Lambert calls basic “energy literacy” culminated on May 21 this year when the IEA published a controversial roadmap for achieving net zero by 2050 that recommended a suspension of all new exploration for oil, gas or coal. While many in the oil and gas lobby did speak out, the message about the potential humanitarian impact of a rejection of natgas investment failed to penetrate the corridors of government.
Incensed by the lack of practical thinking, Lambert took pen to paper just after the IEA proposals came out setting out his own view about how wrongheaded current policy was and how likely it was to lead to disaster. The letter was discretely but widely circulated.
In it he warned:
…as with so many previous, state-led utopian revolutions in the 20th century, the road to promised utopia (in this case “net zero carbon”) is littered with the likely reality of a dystopian nightmare with similar traits:
*State-led polarising “fear-based propaganda campaigns” and intolerance towards fossil fuel producing nations and companies maybe in future, fossil fuel consumers too.
*Colossal intrusion by the state on ideological grounds into every area of economic activity will risk deep economic upheaval which can create the risk of deep impoverishment and misery for billions of people and..
*Unforeseen consequences for the fragile global geopolitical system, which has somehow given us nearly 80 years of unprecedented peace between the major “tribal blocks” in our world, partly as a result of unprecedented aviation-led mobility between different peoples.
Lambert further argued that “if you are going to ‘kill’ today’s energy lifeblood, it is imperative that you have at least 100 per cent certainty of affordable, reliable replacement ready today” while highlighting that 45 per cent of the IEA’s emission reduction by 2050 was set to come from energy-related technologies and supply that were in the prototype or demonstration stage.
Another critical point was that it would be the biomass and coal industry that would benefit from the 2050 net zero carbon framework due to being “endemically cheaper to keep running than gas”. The coal industry only needs $50-100bn per annum to maintain its current production while the natural gas industry needs closer to $250-300bn worth of investment. A switch to biomass, on the other hand, is even cheaper to exercise for energy-starved individuals and even harder to control against, as it comes as a result of cutting down local natural habitats.
The final paragraph of Lambert’s letter concluded (our emphasis):
The final environmental concern we derive from the IEA report is that in damning all new gas developments, the IEA may paradoxically constrain the efficient evolution of scalable renewables. As has been proved so successfully in two of the fastest decarbonising nations in recent years (US and UK), it is the combination of “dispatch-able, flexible, gas fired electricity generation” and intermittent renewables that creates a “firm power” Mix that can really provide an effective cleaner energy mix quickly, affordably and reliably. In the absence of a technological breakthrough in long duration large scale battery storage, this symbiotic mix of mass renewables and mass gas fired back-up generation will be critical for national and regional power systems. If in the future, renewables providers have to provide a “firm power” product into the grid (i.e. they have to pay to provide back-up to their own intermittent product, a cost currently primarily borne by electricity customers), there may be much regret in the “new energy” world at the IEA’s call for natural gas’ premature demise!
The question worth pondering is whether that regret could come as soon as this winter?