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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, here and here) - the words "pot" and "kettle" will spring to mind.

We discussed DECC's calculator and the media coverage it attracted at the end of last week. Booker's piece repeats many of the same criticisms, following 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 as much.

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 renewables.

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

Booker continues:

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 being sought.

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 column.

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 ground."

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 emissions.

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" for decades.

The International Energy Agency says that

"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.

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