Book Review: Is renewable energy affordable?

Book Review: Is renewable energy affordable?

by Murdo Fraser
article from Wednesday 23, January, 2019

THE OTHERWISE estimable Michael Gove’s infamous dismissal of the views of ‘experts’ during the Brexit referendum was indicative of a mind-set of too many in the political sphere. Thus we have a policy which is driven by political considerations, and populist short-termism, rather than being based on evidence, science, and expertise.

Nowhere is this failure more evident than in the area of energy policy, according to this new book: Is Renewable Energy Affordable? In a little over 100 pages, Derek George Birkett sets out the basis for our energy systems, both in terms of generation and transmission, and calls for a new approach to ensure the delivery of affordable, reliable power to the consumers.

Mr Birkett writes with a lifetime of experience working in the energy sector – not in the area of policy, or as a lobbyist, but as an engineer. He is a retired grid system controller who has worked both under nationalisation and private ownership, having previously been employed on both coal and hydro power stations. He also had project responsibility on installation and commissioning at five major coal and nuclear power stations across the UK from which chartered status was awarded. Clearly, this is someone who writes as an ‘expert’.

It is this background and expertise which informs the conclusions in this book, which is intended as helpful reading for the layman without detailed background knowledge of energy systems.

Mr Birkett analyses the overall costs of different methods of energy production – coal, gas, nuclear, hydro and wind. He criticises the prevalent approach towards assessing the relative costs of different technologies, pointing out that: “What needs to be considered are the costs involved when accommodating each technology onto the electricity network”.

So intermittent (and unpredictable) sources of power, such as wind, require to be backed up with another source, and the cost of providing this alternative has to be factored in. This effective dual provision drives up the overall cost. It is, he writes, no accident that Germany and Denmark, whilst having the highest level of renewable penetration in Europe, also have the highest electricity tariffs.

The development of dispersed sources of electricity production also require substantial investment in infrastructure in electricity transmission. The writer states that there is an estimated £9 billion charge for transmission investment up to 2020, where almost three-quarters of the sum is to allow renewable power from Scotland to be transmitted south. These additional transmission and infrastructure costs have to be added when considering the overall burden of various technologies. 

With his background in energy generation from both fossil fuels and renewables (particularly hydro), the author sees a continuing role for the former. He deplores the retiral of existing coal burning capacity for electricity generation, when we have plentiful and cheap supplies of this fuel source. Of necessity, this would require repeal of climate change legislation, but Mr Birkett is clearly sceptical of its benefits. He also points out the economic opportunity in building power systems not focused on meeting climate charge targets.

The author answers his own question posed in the title of this book: in his view renewable energy is not affordable, it drives up fuel costs and increases fuel poverty, it hampers our economy, and it puts at risk energy security.

There are many in the world of politics today, and energy policy, who will disagree with his conclusions, but this is an informative, well-researched book based on the author’s expertise and extensive personal experience. He writes as an expert, and his opinions deserve a serious response.

Is renewable energy affordable?, Derek George Birkett , Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019

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