Something very strange happened today. I sat down to listen to the radio, and happened upon “You and Yours” on BBC Radio 4. Often, the radio stays on for a few moments before being switched off again as I tire of being lectured by the BBC about climate change, diet, net zero, or any one of a number of variations on those themes. But not today. Instead, I listened with increasing incredulity, as the BBC allowed a viewpoint that has been missing from its TV and radio programmes and its website for a long, long time now. It was an interview with Professor Sir Dieter Helm about the costs and implications of the UK Government’s “net zero” policy, and it can be found on BBC Soundsi, with the interview starting at around 32 minutes 10 seconds (thank you, Richard Drake, for supplying the details during a discussion about this on Open Mic).

It went like this:

Winifred Robinson: Now it’s been a week since the huge rise in energy bills was announced by the regulator, OFGEM. From April the average bill in Britain will rise by 54%; that’s an increase of £693 a year for every household. In the past week, we’ve been hearing on this programme some detail about how the Government plans to cushion this blow with loans and discounts on our bills will work out in practice. But are high energy bills the new normal? Some people are warning that they are. And it’s because of the cost of cutting carbon emissions. Professor Sir Dieter Helm says that. He’s an economist at Oxford University. He’s advised the UK and European Governments on energy policy. He was knighted for services to the environment, energy and utilities policy. I started by asking him why he’s called the current spike in energy prices the first net zero energy crisis.

Professor Sir Dieter Helm: Well, there are two reasons at play here. The first is that transforming an economy which is overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels to one that going to be net zero by 2 50 [sic] and indeed the power sector, the electricity sector is supposed to be completely net zero by 2 35 [sic] in thirteen years is a massive task. And it’s quite naïve to believe that something on this scale could be done other than at considerable cost. We should do it, but it’s going to be expensive. And then there’s the particular issue which comes up now. Yes, gas prices have risen, but there’s a fundamental question as to why the rise in gas prices globally has hit the UK so badly and part of that is because we are extremely reliant on gas to back up the intermittent renewables, particularly the wind, and we haven’t thought through how to do the back-up bit, the security of supply bit, while we’ve been at the same time pursuing decarbonisation.

WR: So that’s why you’re not convinced, then, that even when this spike in gas prices on the wholesale market is done with, our energy bills will be cheaper?

DH: There’s a juggernaut of cost to come, even if gas prices fall back, and there’s no certainty they will, but they might. And if you look at that juggernaut, you can already see it in your bills. £250 is going just on the legacy costs for those renewables in the past, and there’s a lot more of those subsidies and supports to come. And we’ve got to find other ways of doing this and, I’m afraid, more expensive ones.

WR: You believe we’ve been peddled some myths about renewables paying for themselves, even maybe working out cheaper in the long run.

DH: They may well work out cheaper in the long run, but as the famous economist Maynard Keynes once said, in the long run we’re all dead. The question is what happens in the short run, and by that I mean, you know, the next 10, 15 years or so. And when someone puts out a press release which says, you know, new wind farm, enough, you know, to power 20,000 homes or whatever it is, they never say “when the wind blows”. So the critical thing about most of the renewables we’ve got – and we need these renewables – is that you need something else to back them up.

WR: How will we back them up?

DH: Well at the moment the answer’s gas, gas and more gas! Further out in the future there are lots of possibilities about batteries, about hydrogen, and other forms of storage. Lots of technologies are coming, but not any time soon. And that’s again why we have been hit so hard by these gas price rises. You know, most other countries kept their coal – a very bad idea for climate change reasons, but, you know, for example in Germany they’re burning their coal flat out. We rightly closed the coal but didn’t think through that this would make us more dependent on gas than most other countries. But going forward we are gonna have higher costs. We really do have to think through how people can pay, and who pays.

WR: What do you think should happen instead then? How will we pay for all those things that you’ve mentioned?

DH: Well, there’s no doubt that we’re gonna have to pay for quite a lot of this. But a lot of the costs, that 200, 250 quid on your bill now are the result of what I call legacy subsidies, and these subsidies were particularly high because we were trying to get the offshore wind industry going, for example. So I think those should be regarded more as kind of innovation funding or research and development funding. And those should be paid like other innovation strategies by the Treasury and by taxpayers. That’s what I would do now in the current price shock that people have got.

WR: We asked for a response by the Government about this. They told us, about the green levies that have been added to all our bills, and I’m quoting now: “Environmental and social policy costs currently represent around 12% of the average dual energy bill. However, over the past ten years their net effect has been to reduce consumer energy bills.” Is that true?

DH: Well, you can always come up with a hypothesis which would make that answer add up, but it doesn’t. It’s not true. And, erm, that’s because what they’re doing is just looking at the, er, direct costs of some of these – and even there it’s not really true – and they’re ignoring all the system implications of having that intermittency on the energy system more generally. They’re not looking at firm power, they’re looking at just the cost of, for example, the wind farm itself. And this is smoke and mirrors, and part of the general story that, you know, it’s all pretty cheap, it’s all gonna be very easy. And I think that’s not helpful. We have to explain to people why decarbonisation’s important, why we have a duty to do this, but be honest with them – it’s gonna cost. And not create this world in which they expect it to be cheap, and then suddenly they find they’re paying £2,000 a year.

WR: We’ve also been told that if we do cut carbon, we’ll avoid the costs that come with climate change, you know, the flooding, the storms, all that stuff. Is that true?

DH: It’s complete nonsense, right! You know, the UK is responsible for about 1% of global emissions. Climate change is going to be determined – and I set this out in my net zero book – it’s going to be determined in China, India and Africa. You know, China’s building more new coal-powered stations today than all the coal power stations being closed in the United States and Europe. And this is where future emissions are coming from, and the idea that if we in the UK stop producing carbon domestically in the UK that somehow we’re gonna solve the global problem of climate change, I’m afraid it’s much tougher than that. And so consumers are going to pay both the costs of mitigating emissions in the UK – which I think they should – and, however, they’re gonna have to face up to the costs of a warmer world. It’s going to be at least 2 degrees warmer, you know, the outcome’s pretty clear. And it may well be three or more degrees, and we’re gonna have to both adapt to climate change and face all the costs that go with that and pay for decarbonising our energy systems.

WR: That was Professor Sir Dieter Helm speaking to me this morning.

All of which made a very refreshing change. The question is, why did the BBC allow such views to be aired, especially when propounded by someone so authoritative? One theory might be that it was a response to an articleii today in the Telegraph by Matthew Lynn, headed “The BBC’s bias is making the energy crisis even worse – Broadcaster is pumping out a constant stream of anti-business propaganda”. It’s behind a paywall, but some of it, at least, was aimed at the BBC’s alleged bias in favour of “net zero”. On the other hand, it would have been a very rapid response to an article that appeared on the same day, so perhaps it was already planned.

If so, that might suggest that the BBC has seen the way the wind is blowing, and is recognising the increasing unpopularity of “net zero” as an expensive policy. Nailing the BBC’s colours firmly to that mast is perhaps starting to look like a less than sound policy.

And as Richard Drake speculates on Open Mic: “He does say we should decarbonise, including getting electricity generation to net zero by 2035….The acceptance of the goal of net zero would explain I think why the BBC consensus enforcers let this one through.”

Perhaps, then, the BBC has dipped its toe in the water of scepticism around net zero, while still burnishing its credentials about climate change. Although he bent over backwards to make it clear that renewables are expensive, unreliable and require back-up; that decarbonising the UK economy won’t prevent climate change; that other countries (notably Germany, China and India) are burning coal; and that we all need to get used to expensive energy (thanks to net zero) Professor Sir Dieter Helm did say quite a lot that fits the normal BBC agenda around climate change, e.g.:

Further out in the future there are lots of possibilities about batteries, about hydrogen, and other forms of storage. Lots of technologies are coming…

we need these renewables

most other countries kept their coal – a very bad idea for climate change reasons

We rightly closed the coal

We have to explain to people why decarbonisation’s important, why we have a duty to do this

It’s going to be at least 2 degrees warmer, you know, the outcome’s pretty clear. And it may well be three or more degrees…

There’s enough there to keep the BBC happy, which might explain, as Richard suggests, how this interview got past the BBC consensus enforcers. And it is interesting to see that it happened. Perhaps – just perhaps – the BBC has sensed that the times are changing. And perhaps – just perhaps – we might see a bit more of this over the weeks and months to come. Maybe it’s a straw in the wind.

Whatever the reason for it, the return of balance to the BBC is to be warmly welcomed.

Endnotes

i https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m001471v

ii https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2022/02/10/bbcs-bias-making-energy-crisis-even-worse/

24 Comments

  1. Mike E – good question. To my shame, I hadn’t noticed the omission, but transcribing an audio interview does take a bit of concentration. But to revert to your question, I don’t know the answer. And I don’t know why I don’t know the answer, which is a bit frustrating.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. the first net zero energy crisis

    The first of many, until the policy is abandoned, which it will be. Maybe it will take 5 years, maybe 10. But abandoned it will be.

    Thanks for the transcript Mark – I had half a mind to do it myself, so I’m glad I didn’t!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You should get this guy, Dieter Helm, to post an article on Climate Scepticism. He sounds well qualified.
    But then he is just setting out the same arguments that have been articulated on this site for years.

    Like

  4. I’m a glass half empty kinda guy. It’s good that the transition risks and costs are starting to be recognised for what they are, but the climate change physical risk is still a promoted issue that I would like to see revisited. It is the balance between the transition risk and physical risk that needs to be fairly determined and I still feel that the thumb is on the scales.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Agreed, Ron and John. What one might call a limited hangout for the special agents of climate enforcement:

    When their veil of secrecy is shredded and they can no longer rely on a phony cover story to misinform the public, they resort to admitting—sometimes even volunteering—some of the truth while still managing to withhold the key and damaging facts in the case.

    What follows on Wikipedia could be construed as encouraging but I’ll draw the line with that.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. The BBC is pro climate change alarmism and anti Tory government so this story fit’s it’s agenda perfectly.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Helm is an important energy economist. However, as a retired electrical engineer myself, I think his grip of science and engineering is, as regards future prospects, less sound or perhaps just rather optimistic. So, for example, I expect gas to be a transition gas for decades to come – unless the authorities/authoritarians ban it!

    Helm’s book “The Carbon Crunch” [Ref. 1] is excellent; in it he makes some trenchant comments:-
    1. “… existing renewables cannot make much of a dent in emissions. They are mostly low-density and intermittent, requiring lots of land, shallow seas and water supplies … My critics have failed to explain how yet more wind turbines, solar panels and biomass plants can solve climate change … They can’t, and they won’t.”
    2. “Climate change policies are a magnet for rent-seeking lobbyists and vested interests – especially those associated with current renewables and nuclear.”
    3. “The mantra about the sunny uplands of decarbonization just keeps on getting trotted out. It’s hard to take seriously – that the world’s carbon-based economy can be decarbonized in a few decades without economic pain; that we will all be better off. Even more surprising is that apparently intelligent people actually seem to believe it.”

    Because the transition away from reliable fossil fuels is, as per Helm above, going to be monstrously expensive, I believe that a first necessary requirement is to have a full-scale red/blue team review exercise to check that such a transition is necessary. The IPCC process that we have endured these last 3 decades has been entirely one-sided (and thus contrary to my understanding of natural justice) and been accompanied by so much propaganda and censorship (now called cancel culture?), ably assisted by the mainstream press and the new hi-tech media giants.

    If ordinary people in the West (but probably not elsewhere?) are going to pay for this transition then, at the very least, they deserve to know from unbiased sources what the costs and benefits will be, and what the new world will look like. As far as I can tell, much of the technology for this Brave New World does not exist outside laboratories – if at all!

    Reference
    1. Dieter Helm, “”The Carbon Crunch”, Yale, revised & updated edition, 2015, especially at pages xi, xii, and 22.

    Regards,
    John.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. Sorry to take a trivial element out from a serious comment (one of my many bad habits; sorry), but:
    Quote:
    “Because the transition away from reliable fossil fuels is, as per Helm above, going to be monstrously expensive, I believe that a first necessary requirement is to have a full-scale red/blue team review exercise to check that such a transition is necessary.”.

    I’ve been out of the world of work for too long, I suppose, and am not up to date with the latest ManagementSpeak, but I’m unfamiliar with the phrase: “red/blue team review exercise”, so I ran this up a flagpole, but my wife didn’t salute (you can see which is my generation of ManagementSpeak). Neither of us knew what it meant, although we guessed “debate” might come close.

    To make a slightly more serious point, it seems that Helm really doesn’t like nuclear.

    Like

  9. Hello Mike,

    I am sorry that the term “red/blue team review” was unfamiliar to you. I had understood that it has been around for some time in climate/energy circles. If memory serves it originates from the military with their war-gaming exercises. Anyway, I understand it to mean an undertaking similar to (but not identical to) a legal process wherein both sides present and cross-examine the evidence in such a way that the jury (i.e. the public) have the best chance of teasing the truth from the lies and PR/wishful thinking .

    As regards nuclear, Helm writes at page 134 of “The Carbon Crunch” that, “On almost any ethical basis, it is beholden upon those who create such waste to come up with a solution for dealing with it, and the principle stated in the Flowers Report way back in 1976 is a good one to work with: There should be no commitment to a large programme of nuclear fission power until it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that a method exists to ensure the safe containment of long-lived, highly radio-active waste for the indefinite future.”

    Regards,
    John.

    Like

  10. As I just posted on Open Mic, today local BBC is doing PRasNews for a battery corp that makes it sound like batteries could save us
    Clip : Peter Kavanagh CEO of Harmony Energy
    “It would power 0.5million LOCAL homes for 2 hours”

    Is that a lot ?
    0.5million LOCAL homes for 2 hours = 1 million for an hour
    Is 200MWh is enough to cover a million home’s average hourly EVENING demand in winter
    What do you reckon commenters ?

    Outputting at 200MW is 0.4% of a 50GW grid demand
    Outputting at 100MW is 0.2%
    so the plant is not very big.

    Like

  11. Oh so now we scuttle sideways into the question of radioactive waste disposal and the suggestion that this problem has not been solved. It puzzles me that someone as erudite as Helm holds such views. As long ago as the 1970s it was agreed that a multi-barrier scheme involving geological burial as the ultimate barrier was the route to take. Burial in salt formations was considered the ultimate repository site. However, at the time there was also the requirement that waste should be recoverable (and possibly transformed into new fuel). This meant that in buried salt formations, caverns needed to stay open. Unfortunately the salt surrounding deep caverns creeps and flows over time and the caverns close up. Thus buried salt did not meet this additional requirement. But otherwise salt is a nearly perfect geological host. The continued existence of Palaeozoic salt means that that part of the subsurface has been isolated from moving groundwaters for hundreds of millions of years. In the mid 1970s I realised that rocks above or below salt beds which had all their porosity filled with salt would behave in exactly the same way to water entry as bedded salts. However salt-plugged rocks would be strong (confirmed by rock testing) and caverns would not close. Later I discovered that an American geologist had proposed constructing a repository site within igneous intrusions within salt -a somewhat similar concept to mine.

    Thus if someone like Helm was worried about nuclear waste disposal, he should have known that salt or salt-associated rocks would have fitted the bill. He also would have been aware that extensive modelling had shown that just the geological burial was sufficient to isolate the waste, the other barriers would have been superfluous. Finally geological storage was proven to be effective at several sites around the world where during the Precambrian natural nuclear fission reactors occurred. Formerly highly radioactive byproducts can be shown to have hardly moved away from the reactor sites over periods of up to a billion years, despite the surrounding rocks not have been selected for their impenetrability.

    For those wishing to oppose nuclear power, the problem of disposal of waste is an extremely poor argument.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Plus of course, “modern” style fission reactors (e.g. Molten Salt) can (in principle) use existing waste as fuel. They still produce waste, but it decays over hundreds, rather than thousands, of years.

    Like

  13. Richard, another reference to “limited hangout” regarding climbing down from covid policies. Thomas Harrington advises not to be misled by officials apparently lifting some covid restrictions. The behavior is insincere posturing, offering a temporary reprieve in order to retain emergency powers against citizens’ freedoms. His article at The Brownstone is The Limited Hangout of the Mandaters.
    https://brownstone.org/articles/the-limited-hangout-of-the-mandaters/

    My synopsis is

    Beware Covid Tyrants Pivot Without Apology

    Liked by 1 person

  14. It’s a powerful phrase Ron. Liberty and eternal vigilance can often find it useful. Though the Nixon example shows it doesn’t always work out for the would-be agents of doom.

    Like

  15. the Beeb are happy to support his thinking –
    “Professor Sir Dieter Helm: Well, there are two reasons at play here. The first is that transforming an economy which is overwhelmingly dependent on fossil fuels to one that going to be net zero by 2 50 [sic] and indeed the power sector, the electricity sector is supposed to be completely net zero by 2 35 [sic] in thirteen years is a massive task. And it’s quite naïve to believe that something on this scale could be done other than at considerable cost”

    so get used to higher bills/taxes to save the planet (and I’m not naïve).

    Like

  16. In North Yorkshire there are are the well known potash mines. These are 4000 ft deep and extend over a wide area even under the North Sea. I pointed many years ago to the Atomic Energy Authority that these tunnels provide an ideal place to store radio active. waste. I did not receive a reply. I once had the opportunity to visit those mines and explore the various tunnels in mini bus and saw how extensive they are , We were transported back to the lifts on conveyer belt quite an experience.

    Like

  17. Ken Ferrari. I visited the potash mine back in the 1970s just after they began mining. What I still remember vividly was being taken to an area where a new gallery had been cut. After the machinery had been shut off, we waited and after about 30 mins, in complete darkness and silence, there was an enormous and deafening crack. When the lights were turned on, we saw that just above a thin shale band the salt above had suddenly moved into the newly cut gallery a full six inches (I.e. the cavern width had shortened by a foot).. Over time the walls progressively move inwards and old galleries had almost closed up. This creep would be perfect for permanent storage of radioactive waste, however most storage must include the possibility of retrieving the waste. Because of the closure of mine openings by salt creep, rendering them inaccessible, the potash mine in Yorkshire was not consider a suitable waste disposal site. Things may have changed. There are shallower openings in salt that might be more suitable.

    Like

  18. Sorry evil spellchecker surreptitiously converted your surname Ferrar into a world renowned sports car manufacturer. Hope you are not offended.

    Like

  19. Alan K: thanks for those comments about geological storage of nuclear waste. I worked in the nuclear power industry a long time ago and had a memory that this is a non-problem but had forgotten the hard facts which you supplied.

    Like

  20. The latest from Helm is called simply Energy policy and is dated 31st March. H/t Dominic Cummings two days ago, who comments:

    Dieter Helm on the cross-party fiasco of energy policy for 20 years

    The extent of failure here from politicians and officials is hard to exaggerate. There is no chance of this No10 doing anything other than a few gimmicks to try to punt problems a few years down the road.

    Among many things, a new PM should abolish the ‘Climate Change Committee’, another bad institution contributing to the disaster. Almost everything pushes towards increasing complexity but the goal should be a radically simpler framework.

    >”The conclusion that follows is that it is very hard to think of any worse way of taking nuclear decisions than the recent past in Britain. It maximises the cost of capital without complete risk transfer, and it minimises the supply chain efficiencies.”

    Yup. And the Tories have been pretending to ‘be in power’ for 12 years.

    https://dominiccummings.substack.com/p/snippets-3

    Like

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