According to government figures, every person in the UK will have to pay around £5,000 a year between now and 2050 to rebuild and use the nation’s entire energy system. However, the cost of developing clean and sustainable energy, heating and transport could be the same as replacing ageing and polluting power stations.
This forecast comes from the “2050 pathways calculator which was created by Professor David MacKay who is the chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate change.
It is supported by a major EU project that found developing renewable energy was no more expensive than alternatives.
“The calculator takes the poison out of the debate,” MacKay told the Guardian. “The key thing is that any scenario you choose has to add up.” He said the tool, constructed with the help of hundreds of experts and a thorough literature review, is used to enable “open source policy making”, where anyone can see and challenge the assumptions made and the data used. “You can play at being secretary of state, and you have to make a plan which is not too unpopular.”
3 scenarios were created by the calculator which were set out in the government’s official carbon plan that shows how the UK could meet its emissions targets by 2050 while keeping the lights on, and to test a “cost-optimised” scenario, ie the cheapest.
If we did nothing to develop low-carbon energy systems, this would cost £4682 a year and would be spent on imported gas for electricity generation and heating and oil for all vehicles. The average salary is £35,000, so that’s 13%. In comparison the lowest cost scenario is £84 (1.8%) per year less expensive and this envisages a mix of electricity generation comprising of 42% renewable energy, 31% nuclear power and 27% gas plants with the carbon captured and stored underground (CCS). Energy efficiency will improve as the demand from lighting and appliances has fallen 60% since 2007.
The government’s “higher renewables, more energy efficiency” scenario, in which wind delivers 55% of the total electricity supply and all cars and buses are fuelled by batteries or hydrogen fuel cells, is forecast to cost £368 a year (8%) more than the “do nothing” scenario, if climate change damage is ignored.
The “higher CCS, more bioenergy” scenario is £470 (10%) more than doing nothing, and assumes the successful deployment of CCS technology at commercial scale, as well as being used with sustainable and plentiful biomass supplies to generate “negative” emissions.
Professor Dieter Helm from Oxford University, is not convinced that the costs of low-carbon and high-carbon energy scenarios will prove to be similar. “This [similarity] 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.” He says that gas may turn out to be cheap and abundant, but also that technology advances in batteries, the electrification of transport, breakthroughs in solar power – such as the harnessing of photosynthesis and the use of smart grids could cut the cost of low-carbon energy too.
The new version of the calculator is the first to include costs, an essential component, says MacKay: “You can’t have a grown up conversation about this issue without costs.” He says the tool is now being used as the basis for equivalents in China, Portugal and Belgium.MacKay believes the calculator has an essential role to play in assessing the feasibility of different energy choices. He describes the government’s current policy of backing multiple technologies as a sensible “hedge”. Groups from National Grid to Friends of the Earth have already posted their preferred scenarios on the calculator website.
Shale gas, which is currently being explored in Lancashire and has driven prices down in the US, is not explicitly included in the calculator. But can be easily incorporated, says MacKay, by choosing a low gas price in the model. There is a possible “positive future” when domestic shale gas cuts prices and CCS is working, he says.
MacKay, a professor of physics at Cambridge University, was appointed to government in 2009 shortly after publishing a surprise bestseller book called Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air. “I was irritated by all the twaddle being talked about energy and the misleading comparisons made. I just wanted the numbers without the hype,” he said. “I am just the numbers guy, trying to be helpful.”