Poppy Coburn is a journalist.
Over the past week, Dale Vince, the ‘green industrialist’ millionaire and Labour Party donor, has firmly marked himself as a figurehead in the anti-Conservative green coalition. This was a long-held ambition for Vince: he announced last year that he would be stepping down from his role as owner of Ecotricity, the pioneering British renewable energy firm he founded, in order to exert influence over the political sphere.
He explained his reasoning as follows: “We have everything we need to get to Net Zero as a country, we have the technology, economics is on our side, as are the public… what we lack are politicians that get it and the policies that will help make it happen – faster.”
Vince’s need for speed might be behind his decision to back another group – the deeply controversial Just Stop Oil, who have made headlines for their relentless campaign of road-blockings and public vandalism.
The temptation to condemn the self-described “econaut” – and by extension the political party he has so generously bankrolled for the past decade – proved too much to resist for Greg Hands, the Conservative Party Chairman, who demanded that Labour return him £1.5 million. Hands also attempted to link Keir Starmer’s intention to block all North Sea oil and gas projects if Labour wins the next electiom to Vince’s influence, raising “concerns” about “the influence of this money”.
Vince hasn’t been shy about his ambition to influence British politics. So what’s the problem? Indeed, laying the blame for Labour’s turn away from North Sea development projects on one man misses the picture. It’s highly improbable that Vince’s phone calls to Starmer influenced Labour policy, because the idea has long been floated by senior party members.
Starmer had already raised the possibility of divestment at Davos in January, and made green industrial strategy a key plank of his 2022 party conference address. Besides, Vince’s Ecotricity received £179,743 of government grants in 2021/22. Following the same logic, one might accuse the Conservative country of indirectly funding eco-extremism themselves.
Nonetheless, Vince and his vision for a Net Zero Britain is worthy of our attention, if only to better understand the degree of wilful ignorance within the eco-activist sphere. That he, whose estimated £100 million fortune came from the initial green energy boom, would support 100 per cent renewable energy is unsurprising. A renewables business is naturally going to try to gouge the taxpayers for subsidies – that’s been their business model from the start.
Ecotricity is a boutique energy firm, granted a permanent exemption (alongside two other firms) from the price cap on its ‘deep green’ tariffs. It can agitate for 80 per cent renewable energy production by 2030, an end to no-electric vehicles, a sizable tax levy on meat, and ‘quantitative greening’ by the Bank of England giving money directly to renewables producers (like themselves). That is their prerogative. But the Government cannot indulge in such fantasies.
None of Vince’s presuppositions about Net Zero – that we have the technology, the economy, and the public on side – stand up to scrutiny. Let’s start with the technology. Ironically, renewable energy isn’t sustainable – at least on a national level. As described by James McSweeney, our de-rated energy capacity following the phase out of oil, gas and coal in 2035 will hover at around 15.4GW, leaving us with a supply shortfall of 43.6GW from based off of peak demand.
Scaling up renewables to plug the gap would require a monumental change to our energy grid, even if isolated to storage capacity. Britain has successfully increased renewable energy production, currently at record highs, but overall production still remains down 14 per cent on pre-pandemic levels. Non-nuclear renewables also suffer from an intermittency problem not found in fossil fuels or nuclear.
It’s all well and good to frame Net Zero as an opportunity rather than a challenge for Britain, but positive thinking can’t replace hard reality. The consequences of rapid movement away from fossil fuels are already reflected in our electricity costs, some of the highest in the developed world.
High energy costs have created a decarbonisation paradox, as seen through the struggling British battery industry. We need batteries to absorb the oversupply of energy from renewable sources to prevent the frying of dump load systems – even tiny fluctuations in current can inflict meaningful damage – as renewable energy like wind lack the failsafe of inertia in rotating generators.
So energy storage tech will be vital to Britain if we are to go down the path of non-consistent renewable energy generation, but we’re failing to nurture our domestic battery industry already. Why? Because making batteries is extremely energy intensive. It’s not like we can bribe producers with big subsidies, either. We simply don’t have the capital.
There are other problems. As the CPS’s Karl Williams points out, the energy transition relies on the rapid expansion of technologies like carbon capture that are still in their infancy. The phase out of internal combustion engine vehicles in favour of electrical vehicles (EVs) by 2030 may not be quite as ‘green’ as promised. EVs have the same particular pollution issues as petrol and diesel fuelled cars, and also rely on dangerous practises like deep sea mining to obtain the necessary raw materials. From a domestic standpoint, the mass roll-out of EVs will necessitate a massive infrastructural project to install charging points up and down the country.
Another silver bullet strategy to reduce emissions, encouraging the mass uptake of heat pumps over conventional boilers, already shows signs of falling apart as demand stagnates. The Financial Times now reports that the Government is considering fining companies next year unless they meet quotas, attempting to regulate the problem away. And again, EVs and heat pump uptake will place undue strain upon the National Grid. According to modelling by UCL, 90 per cent heat pump uptake would require a 70GW greater energy investment than gas boilers.
The technology our Net Zero targets are based upon are wobbler than they should be. We can blame this on how the Net Zero Bill was introduced in the first place. In the final weeks of her premiership, Theresa May rammed through Parliament a legally binding commitment to Net Zero emissions by 2050 without proper scrutiny. This legal commitment allowed another activist group, Friends of the Earth, to demand the government produce a strategy plan – and then sued them for not being stringent enough.
Public support for Net Zero is indeed high, cutting through every section of the Conservative electoral coalition. But the societal consequences of rapid decarbonisation, especially if predicated on currently unreliable energy sources and crackpot consumer policy, will be disastrous for the people of Britain and the Conservative Party. Support for the government’s handling of Net Zero has yet to be properly put to the test, but if our energy woes continue to compile it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that we will see an anti-Green backlash.
Britain may be legally strapped-in for Net Zero 2050, but that doesn’t mean we can sidestep awkward questions about how we’re actually going to get there. A millionaire activist-supported rush job makes more likely the possibility that we encounter major setbacks, whether that be in the form of multi-day national blackouts or consumer backlash against bans on day-to-day necessities.
It’s hardly a novel suggestion, but we can all guess the reaction of the media should it come to light that a millionaire oil baron had given millions to the Conservative party, while also providing patronage to a radical activists marching under the banner of ‘Just Drill Oil’. At least that influence might benefit the British businesses and consumers, rather than potentially impoverishing them.