Christopher Booker and the mystery of the DECC calculator
- 09 Jan 2012, 00:00
- Robin Webster
Christopher Booker has certainly got panache. His piece in the
Daily Telegraph yesterday, which focused on attacking
DECC's new energy calculator, was headlined "
Huhne piles on the make-believe" - and accused DECC of
publishing "completely dotty and misleading" information. For
anyone acquainted with Booker's writings on climate and energy -
which we have previously examined (for example here,
here) - the words "pot" and "kettle" will spring to mind.
DECC's calculator and the media coverage it attracted at the
end of last week. Booker's piece repeats many of the same
his usual practice of repeating statements made by bloggers who
agree with his point of view - in this case UKIP campaigner
Tim Worstall. According to Booker, Worstall has identified a
"fundamental flaw" in DECC's energy calculator, which he describes
as a "toy computer model":
Worstall was startled to discover that
relying on "renewables" to generate our electricity would,
according to DECC, be significantly cheaper than relying on
conventional power sources, such as nuclear and fossil fuels … the
model had been designed on the assumption that, with wind power,
Britain would require much less energy, because we would have
become more "energy efficient", by insulating our homes and so
forth. Using conventional electricity, on the other hand, would be
much more expensive because we would be less "energy efficient" and
would therefore need more power. As Worstall put it, the model thus
contrives to show that renewables, instead of being twice as
expensive as conventional power, would mysteriously cost only half
The point of DECC's calculator (and the accompanying
wiki, which you can contribute to, should you wish) is that it
allows the user to create different energy scenarios by setting
different assumptions. DECC seem to be viewing the calculator
itself as a form of public consultation - a way of actively seeking
views and expertise on a contentious issue.
However, in launching the calculator, DECC chose to
highlight a few sample scenarios - one of which is a high
renewables/high energy efficiency scenario - and this led to some
media coverage which stressed the relatively low cost of
That such a scenario was highlighted may well indicate some
communications spin from DECC, who have an interest in creating
"low carbon is cheap" headlines. But it doesn't in itself undermine
the methodology of the calculator - it should be just as possible
to use the calculator to create a high fossil fuel/high energy
efficiency scenario, and see how much that costs. Maybe Booker
could have a go?
When we had a go ourselves, placing energy efficiency measures
to the same level as in the 'high renewables high energy
efficiency' scenario, and reducing all nuclear and renewable energy
to a minimum,
makes the scenario cost £4,921, as opposed to £4,600 if the
renewables are ramped up. Adding the maximum amount of coal
(with carbon capture and storage) to it,
makes it slightly more expensive at £4,990.
Shale gas in the UK
Another flaw Worstall noticed was that
the model nowhere seems to allow for the dramatic effect on the
cost of gas already evident in America thanks to the "shale gas
revolution" - the new technology that is enabling vast quantities
of cheap gas to be extracted from shale and coal beds...When I
asked DECC, last week, why all its projections ignore shale gas, I
was given the truly astounding reply that, even if we do begin to
produce gas from shale, "it will all be exported".
Worstall made these arguments in a different blog post
here. When we looked at this last week, we found that the
lowest gas prices which can be fed into the DECC
calculator are 45p/therm in 2050 (explained further here).
These seem to be based on estimates outlined in DECC's
fossil fuel price projections, published in October 2011.
DECC's projections use North American gas prices as a 'floor
price' for the price of gas in this country, "since if UK prices
fall below US prices LNG [liquified natural gas] cargoes could
divert to the US." This is presumably what Booker's quote that "it
will all be exported" is referring to.
The predicted US gas price is based on estimations by the Annual Energy
Outlook, which DECC says is "now judged to be the most
up-to-date and appropriate source for US prices". A summary
presentation of AEO's
predictions (pdf) show how these projections do in fact take
into account the future impact of shale gas on US gas prices.
It seems likely (and various bodies, including the
UK's Environment and Climate Change Committee, which looked
into the matter, agree) that the impact of shale gas exploitation
in the UK will be less significant than in the US. Indeed, shale
gas 'fracking' in the UK is currently
on hold due to concerns about the environmental impact,
although permission to do more is
But maybe the UK will become a shale gas giant, and perhaps the
assumption that cheaper gas will be exported to the US is flawed.
When we spoke to DECC about this, they said the data used is "based
on the most up to date evidence" and that if people can suggest
other reputable work which has been done, they are keen to receive
it - so get in touch. So if Booker is in possession of better data,
perhaps he should do so, or at least link to it in his
CCS and reducing emissions
Booker goes on to criticise:
"[DECC's] insistence that gas and
coal-fired power stations can only be allowed if they are fitted
with "carbon capture and storage" (CCS), the immensely costly
equipment that is supposed to pipe away CO2 and bury it in the
He argues that
"It cannot be stated too forcefully
that, as yet, the technology to do this has not been commercially
developed, for the simple reason that, as various scientific
studies have shown, it cannot work. There is no way in which vast
quantities of CO2 can be injected into rock at the high pressures
necessary without fracturing the rock to the point where no more
can be injected."
As usual, Booker does not cite his sources.
We have no wish to obscure the very significant difficulties of
bringing carbon capture and storage to market, and it's certainly
true that CCS has not been proven at scale, and will probably
significantly increase the costs of energy produced while capturing
But Booker's flat out confidence that CCS 'cannot work' jars with
the facts - the technique of injecting carbon dioxide into rocks
has been used as a part of a well-established process known as
"enhanced oil recovery"
The International Energy Agency
"All technologies along the CCS chain
have been in operation in various industries for decades, although
in relatively small scale. These technologies have only been put
together in industrial scale (> 1Mt CO₂captured and stored per
year) in a small number of installations."
The Norwegian Sleipner
(Statoil) project has been injecting CO2 into
saline rock formations (i.e. deep underground porous reservoir
rocks saturated with brackish water or brine) since 1996.
Technical possibility aside, the point of CCS is to allow
expansion of coal as a fuel source whilst limiting greenhouse gas
emissions. It probably would be cheaper (in the short term) to use
unabated fossil fuel plants to produce energy, but then there's no
way that we would meet the emissions reduction targets we've
enshrined in law.
Of course, Booker has somewhat perverse views on climate science
which probably means that he doesn't really care about reducing
emissions. In which case, no wonder he doesn't like a calculator
produced by a government which is committed to doing so!
Indeed, it's fairly clear that lurking under what Booker's rehash
of technical complaints with an energy calculator is a basic
dislike of government policy that advocates responding to climate
change at all, which puts this latest Booker column firmly in line
with everything else we've seen him write on the issue.