by Dustin Benton, Senior Policy Officer, Campaign to Protect Rural England
Summary: Offshore renewables, solar, geothermal and electricity imports. Ambitious demand reduction.
The big question posed by the introduction of cost estimates into the 2050 calculator is what this made me change, and why. No one wants to pay over the odds for decarbonisation, so I've cut back on CCS, offshore wind, wave, tidal stream and tidal range and decided to forego fuel cells in favour of battery-electric cars. Doing so has reduced over-generation and saved around £230 per person per year - a modest saving of around 4% - compared to the first pathway I created.
But these choices highlight two of the limitations of an analysis which just focuses on costs.
First, by reducing over-generation, I've also reduced the UK's ability to sell zero-carbon electricity to our European neighbours, depriving us of a source of foreign exchange earnings to replace that provided by North Sea oil and gas. If most of this reduction comes from offshore infrastructure with low environmental impacts, choosing to cut costs might also cut opportunities for green growth without dramatically improving the impact on the natural environment. Similarly, selecting continued growth in green industry has added over £100 to the cost of the energy system, which ignores the potential upside of having offshore wind, marine and tidal industries based in the UK.
Second, as switching from fuel cells to batteries for electric vehicles shows, the model tends to encourage conservative choices. Fuel cells might be cheap in the future, but they add close to £200 to my pathway, dwarfing the cost savings from salami slicing generation.
Overall, I was surprised about how much cost I couldn't control - the biggest single sector was transport, and even though I've opted for as much demand reduction as allowed, this still dominates the cost of the system. This shows that assumptions matter. In fact, assuming zero cost finance and lower-cost insulation brings my pathway to within £100 of doing nothing and suffering the economic and environmental consequences of runaway climate change. Further assumptions about electric and conventional car costs, oil and gas prices, and offshore wind could make my pathway over£500 cheaper than the do-nothing option.
But the biggest limitation of looking at cost alone is that it ignores costs to the landscape and environment. Above I said that cutting energy system cost for marginal gain to the environment is a poor trade-off if it undercuts green growth. The same is true in reverse: cutting costs by overusing land-hungry bioenergy or onshore power stations, pipelines and pylons is a false economy if it deprives us of a beautiful, biodiverse countryside.