Various arguments — some exaggerated, some plainly false — have been made over the years by those opposed to rapid expansion of renewable energy. They say solar and wind energy won’t work, or that they can’t supply consistent power, or that they can’t be expanded fast enough to meet our needs. Fortunately, one by one, improvements in technology have proven these arguments to be untrue.
Recently, though, another argument has been frequently heard: that renewable energy is too expensive. At a time of squeezed household budgets and rising fuel costs, support for renewable energy — whether through direct government subsidy or through feed-in tariffs that are effectively paid for by energy consumers — can be placed at a lower priority than keeping costs down. That’s at least part of the reason we’ve seen subsidies for renewable energy cut in Britain, the Netherlands, and elsewhere.
But according to a new study by the UK government’s chief scientific adviser on climate change, Prof David MacKay, switching wholesale to renewable energy won’t be any more expensive than replacing aging fossil fuel-driven power stations.
Prof MacKay, who’s the chief scientific adviser to the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, made the calculation using a nifty open-source analysis package he created called the 2050 Pathways Calculator. He estimates that the cost of converting the UK’s energy infrastructure to low-carbon sources by 2050 would be around £5000 per person per year. A more ‘business as usual’ approach, based on upgrading existing fossil fuel power stations and importing large amounts of gas and heating oil, would cost around £4600.
The calculator also lends some support to the argument that nuclear power is too expensive. A scenario based largely on expanded nuclear power costs around £5500 per person per year, making it amongst the most expensive scenarios.
But, of course, the UK could take the low-carbon route and still face the additional climate change costs if other nations don’t do the same.
Then again, the calculator also doesn’t take into account other health and environmental costs that UK citizens have to pay for going to high-carbon route.
It’s ironic that David MacKay should be the brains behind this strong evidence in favour of strong support for renewables. He’s best known for a 2009 book, Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air, which itself argued that the UK couldn’t meet all its energy needs with renewables and needed to expand nuclear energy.
In fairness, though, it’s worth noting that other energy economists have questioned MacKay’s approach. Professor Dieter Helm, of Oxford University, told The Guardian that the similarity in costs between low- and high-carbon approaches that MacKay predicts “is indeed the result you get if you take conventional wisdom on fossil fuel prices and assume no major technical progress. But these are precisely the two assumptions which would make a difference.”
You can come up with your own carbon pathways for the UK at the Carbon Pathways Calculator website.
Rav is a London-based freelance journalist passionate about climate change, development and technology. He has written for the Daily Express, Excite.co.uk and the Fly. He blogs at ravcasleygera.wordpress.com.