Innovative Excuses: How Boris Johnson Keeps Renewables Expensive

Boris Johnson declared his green plans on 18 November 2020. Johnson is putting £13bn into innovation in nuclear power plants, hydrogen power plants, electric car subsidies, and carbon capture and storage, among other ventures. At the United Nations’ Conference of the Parties (CoP) on climate change, UK industrial strategy has walked onto the world stage; one hopes as a glowing example. And in some ways, things did look hopeful. Johnson’s strategy matches some recommendations from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2018 report. That IPCC report commends carbon capture and storage (CCCS) as necessary to scaling down carbon release merely, rather than restoring the atmosphere totally. Johnson has put 1bn—200m more than his manifesto reserved—into achieving carbon capture machine innovation. Arguably, Johnson’s innovation-orientated industrial strategy nonetheless remains misled. Betting on long-shots is suboptimal when it comes to mitigating climate change. As prior governments have learned in failed carbon capture ambitions, such a canceled 1bn fund in 2015. Hear the case out before jumping to a conclusion, for instance, that one is against climate innovation entirely. On the contrary, innovation is necessary but it has already been achieved. As William Gibson, a sci-fi luminary, wrote, “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed”. The future renewables are already here, they’re just unevenly distributed. 

Given that 65% of air pollution comes from emerging economies and given that number is set to rise to 85% in 2040, developed nations investing in scalable solutions makes sense. Implementing global tech engineering is easier than implementing global social engineering. The optimum might appear, therefore, to be investing in R&D. To slice away the ‘energy’ burden in the global energy use pie, illustrated below. 

Some eminent proponents from Bill Gates and Steven Pinker to Boris Johnson, believe so. Washington, Brussels, and Westminster thinktanks believe the same and invest in green R&D lobbying for optimistic reasons, that new technology can provide the needed solutions. As an excellent report from the London thinktank, Let’s Fund, makes clear: the opportunities appear boundless! 

This solutionist mentality is what right-wing politicians are most comfortable with. The innovation portfolio Johnson and Let’s Fund upholds nonetheless offers technical fixes for nontechnical problems. Clean energy feasibility is no problem: lax leadership is the problem. As Mark Jacobson elucidates in 100% Clean Renewables, Energy, and Storage For Everything (Cambridge University Press, 2020), today’s wind-water-solar is technologically feasible and globally deployable.

“My basic optimism about climate change comes from my belief in innovation. The conditions have never been more clear for backing energy breakthroughs. It’s our power to invent that makes me hopeful.” 

— Bill Gates

Carbon capture sucks carbon straight from the atmosphere; hydrogen offers limitless supply; nuclear energy is dense and safer than accepted alternatives (like gas and its accidents). Nevertheless, narratives about technology amount to stipulated beliefs and preferences for potential futures. To make evidence based choices means extrapolating from available evidence of already existent technologies — rather than hypothetical gains. Johnson has failed to do so, and so has Let’s Fund. Such innovation-mania disguises how innovation, investment, and entrepreneurial zeal constitute part of  “the biggest market failure ever”, as former PM Gordon Brown describes it, with state leadership failing to make success from failure.  

You might think money should therefore go into implementing wind-water-solar, rather than innovating alternatives that are in fact inessential. Want evidence? Examine the price differentials between gas, nuclear, wind, and solar below. 

Solar has plummeted; the graph is disconcertingly long to accommodate that plummet.

For, while R&D seems like a self-evident good in the triage of pressing problems, the innovation cycle of competitive futures betrays the present demands to rectify failures in replacing outmoded technologies, such as updated insulation that is more cost-effective than audaciously hyped cars. Proponents for green R&D lobbying mistakenly assume the role of government is to fill the innovation pipeline with upstream ventures, that are always to research, to seldom develop, and to never deploy. Because recent history in the Anglosphere has pruned back the state to the bare minimum, and grown customer choice to the extravagant maximum. Thus, it is supposedly up to citizens to do their bit in consumer choice (maybe buy an electric car?) and governments to incentivise producers and consumers to make the right choices (maybe make an electric car?) with a few nudges. That is not good enough. As mentioned, the solutions already exist, they just have never been given a chance. Part of the blame rests with governments and industries paying attention and cash to entrepreneurs in return for empty promises. Let’s get real. Let us consider carbon capture, hydrogen, and nuclear in turn. 

Carbon capture advocates have captured the limelight, and Johnson’s trust, but advocates omit how carbon capture facilities are Big Oil companies’. Chevron and Exxon Mobil invest in carbon capture not because it allows for restoration and continued extraction, but because it allows for more deep-earth carbon extraction. Even good-intentioned projects like the Swiss carbon capture company Climeworks, sell carbon dioxide on—to be released again—from Coca-Cola bottles’ fizz or reconstituted fuel, all at a higher price and lower reuptake rate than cheap trees (or peat bogs) that are carbon capture devices with no worker-wage, no machine-upkeep cost, and no machine emission liabilities. In 2020 there were 26 commercial-scale facilities that captured under 40MtCO2, or 0.1% of emissions. Most of these facilities allow Big Oil companies to recoup costs.

Hydrogen is old tech. Back in 1806, a hydrogen-and-oxygen combustion engine burst onto the scene. In 1937 a hydrogen jet engine burst onto the scene as well. Yet because petroleum and kerosene alternatives were cheaper, petrol and diesel cars took to the road, and kerosene planes to the skies instead and thereby cleaner became synonymous with ‘alternatives’ as oil tech became synonymous with ‘default normal’. In 2013, Toyota released a hydrogen car. In 2020, a UK commercial hydrogen plane took off. Now, despite the technology being around, it is just too expensive at present to become wide-scaled with pumps and compression tanks. Hydrogen energy storage innovation meanwhile is worthwhile. But hydrogen is no feasible panacea for energy woes, on any cost-benefit grounds, as the electrolysis process to convert hydrogen entails emissions. To prevent emissions in electrolysis means using wind or water or solar to generate the energy for it rather than non-renewable energy sources.

Nuclear is praised by Gates and Pinker and Let’s Fund, but it has a dubious future. In democracies, except France, too few citizens can accept nuclear power near their homes. Nuclear advocates need to get over that. Drawing attention to data, as Gates and Pinker like to do, does not solve the opposition problem either. Because, first, citizens dismiss the fact that nuclear has lower risk than natural gas, second, solar and wind have fewer injuries and deaths than nuclear does. 

Nuclear is, moreover, not a renewable technology: it requires refueling and only some of that fuel is reprocessed for re-use. And despite failsafes, empowered nuclear does certainly raise the odds of nuclear weapon proliferation if scaled as a worldwide solution or part of the energy-mix in unstable (or one-day unstable) nations. More people learning how to handle radioactive materials is no low-risk and low-uncertainty endeavour. China choosing to spend its money on nuclear instead of on wind also cost them more money and emissions in 2017, than otherwise (Jacobson, 2020, p.113). Nuclear whilst better than fossil fuels is worse than available alternatives and if nuclear is invested in above other renewables, it poses a missed opportunity, ‘an opportunity cost’ in economic jargon.

So, these innovation pipelines don’t work then. Sure, they might work out in the long-run (215 year old hydrogen engines be vindicated say) but don’t presently contribute to reversing the 51bn of carbon emitted each year. Commentators like thinktank Let’s Fund, however, rejoinder that rich nations’ investment in innovation is likely to have technological spillovers and technological transfers. But, again, the technology and talent pool already exists, it just has not been deployed yet. Biding time for better technologies is illogical. While it might seem that biding time could allow developing nations to leapfrog onto carbon capture or hydrogen or nuclear bandwagons, there is no solid evidence for that. For instance, the EU setting a domestic carbon reduction target triggered other blocs to do the same; the EU prioritising a raised innovation budget without any domestic deployment targets, has no such binding effect – nor peer pressure example. 

Contrary to long-tail or breakthrough innovation hopefuls, innovation mania serves as a foil for politicians’ negligence. Innovation mania under-estimates arduous incremental development and deployment of technologies in the real economy. 

I name this the ‘out-the-box’ or Promethean fallacy: inventing a technology and improving it, amounts to nothing unless it becomes widely used. For example, video calls were a theory in the 1880s and made reality by Nazi Germany’s Post-Office in 1936! People like Pinker, Gates, Johnson, and Let’s Fund seem to think that if developed nations invent super technologies through cutting-edge innovation, then developing nations can gain the devices at cut prices. On the contrary, innovation is but a modicum of distributed technology in practice. States prioritising greening technologies that are already proven is a more evidence-based means to foster competitive markets. Consider how the mere invention of hydrogen, nuclear, or carbon capture has done so little in the time it has had; putting plans into practice has more utility than holding-off for cushier tech. The history of innovation shows it takes far longer and far more revision of tech in practice, and the heavy hand of states, to change the world; merely inventing solutions in labs never cuts the mustard. The 200 year old hydrogen and electric car tech makes this obvious — if states chose hydrogen or electric then history would be different. Johnson even cited the alternative electric car history at the launch of CoP26 without learning the humble history lesson it contained; Johnson blames entrepreneur Walter Bersey for “giving up” on electric taxis in the 1890s rather than the complexities of bottom-line, albeit ignorant, demand for cutting edge petrol cars. Promethean innovation is no use on its own, but requires downstream integration and a virtuous circle of consumption and production facilitated through selective state policy to achieve economies of scale. 

The Virtuous Circle of Innovation Use

For proof of concept, consider how vaccines have been necessary for COVID-19 recovery, but the super-tech is useless unless shared into the arms’ of everyone. As former prime minister Gordon Brown points out, developed nations giving the technology to the developing world for free is a cost-saving, an opportunity, for the developed world. Because rich nations thereby protect themselves from further expenditure. But the complexity and incremental reality of the real economy and hesitant states, stands in the way of global distribution and production of the advanced vaccines. (And yes, developing nations’ have the capacity for safe vaccines: most vaccine ingredients and vaccines themselves come from developing countries).    

If such an urgent issue as innovative and mobile vaccines is hard to distribute as a public good, we better get started distributing what we already have in the way of proven renewables. To not do so is to permit 7-9 million and 200k deaths each year, and political strife that risks international instability. A gamble that is hardly worth it, on any ‘evidence-based policy’ grounds.

The idea in the eyes’ of R&D proponents, nonetheless, is that holding off for a breaking advance in hydrogen or nuclear avoids the opportunity cost of implementing less effective tech in the short term, only for it to be ousted by super-alternatives in the long-run. That way, too, developing nations can jump on the bandwagon with carbon capture and most efficiently cut through their emissions problem. However there is already opportunity and literal costs in holding-off nations greening in favour of long-tail R&D: 7-9M die from air pollution each year (2.2 times the confirmed COVID-19 deaths as of writing), 200k die from climate change, and runaway effects from today’s carbon staying in the atmosphere may, in the unlikely upper-bound scenario, mean global cataclysm in water shortages, refugee strife, geopolitical conflict. 

That upper-bound scenario is as real as a weighted die; the risks look like a non-trivial gamble. Cost estimates, moreover, from stymied job creation, illness, premature death, wasted energy, and climate damages suggest that $20-25 trillion is lost to air pollution each year; an amount equivalent to 23-28% of world gross domestic product for 2019, or 2.6 times global healthcare expenditure (Jacobson, 2020; The World Bank, 2020; WHO, 2019). Spending on renewables, therefore, is not expenditure but a long-term investment return. New state-led technology innovation is a growth opportunity and countries’ economies have grown whilst emissions have waned already. 

Contrary to R&D proponents, therefore, holding off implementing the innovation pipe-end, with the state precluded from being a buyer and employer for green energy, stifles the innovation economy. Innovation certainly happened during the world wars, for instance, when states were buyers and sellers. Strong statist support allowed New York City to vaccinate 1.5M people-a-week afterwards, in 1947

If markets can create better alternatives it seems feasible that:

  1. The alternatives can be incremental improvement on already proven wind-water-solar
  2. Developed nations’ competition on proven tech and later disruptive tech allow or dynamic progress in real time in the real economies of developed nations and eventually, developing, if cheaper alternatives arise
  3. Opportunity cost and literal cost of waiting to implement long-shot tech instead of short-shot tech suggests short-shots are the better opportunity
  4. Developed nations can compete and refine proven tech that the developing nation suppliers can then benefit from and instrument as it becomes more onerous that they do so.

One could ask ‘Eddie, what if you’re wrong’? It’s possible that carbon capture or hydrogen could well be a saving grace and we will be thankful to Johnson in retrospect. True, it is possible that could happen, but it is also true that it could not and it does not look like it will and there is more evidence that points the other way. Even if this line of argument comes to be wrong through chance, in hindsight, it is not wrong in logic for the demands of today. Scotland, for example, had 98.6% renewable electricity in 2020, mostly from wind (Quarterly Energy Statistics Bulletin, 2021.). A fact that is dissonant with the futurism of the UK’s Ten Point Plan for A Green Industrial Revolution and its innovative excuses whereby invention saves us from the hard work of implementation whilst implementation is already partly achieved for the UK. A UK-wide collaboration is likely to work best given that Scotland still contributes emissions through selling non-renewable electricity sources to other nations. Contrary to Nicola Sturgeon claiming “Just short of 100% of all the electricity Scotland uses is from renewable sources”, that figure fancifully assumes the electricity Scotland uses is somehow all clean but its exports dirty. 61% of domestic electricity generation is renewable and the rest greenhouse gas emitting, albeit ‘low carbon’ in the Scottish government documentation.

However, to draw to a conclusion, the counter-intuitive 3 – in the above list – rests on the fact that implementing far better tech in the far future has more cost than implementing good-enough tech in the now; given that carbon emission has knock-on effects and runaway risk potential. Instead of a problem of lacking innovation and lacking tech, the climate crisis is a crisis in leadership and state efficacy, or lack thereof. Although a complex problem like climate change invites complex solutions and opportunities, the biggest problem is not technical means but political ineptitude. Nations employing and buying renovation is what a Green New Deal demands, not boundless innovation. Putting your vote, your lobby dollar, your investment where it counts means impressing statist policy and wielding reliable tools we already have in our toolkit. That is more rational than industry and government pipe-dreams in speculative innovation futures. If wind-water-solar are instrumented in developed nations then technology transfer and tenable carbon taxations are more likely to follow. And the earlier, the better.

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