‘Britain’s transition to net zero is destined to make us all poorer’
Save money while also helping to protect the world from climate change and defeat Vladimir Putin’s wickedness – what’s not to like about the green transition? Well, quite a lot it turns out.
On the face of it, there can be no objection to attempts to make our houses, cars and lifestyles emit less carbon if possible. Those efforts can, in some cases, even help in the back pocket – particularly if the state is subsidising the high upfront costs.
Solar panels on the roof have saved consumers hundreds of pounds a year as gas and other domestic heating options have increased in cost, while electric vehicles, according to one estimate, could save motorists up to £800 a year compared to the fossil fuel-guzzling alternative.
But supporters (and producers) of green technology should not pretend there are only upsides. For the first time ever, our society is trying to "progress" by embracing less efficient and productive technology.
Until this point, human history has been an impressive arc of discovering ever better and more efficient ways to generate energy. Yet the green revolution will, in order to save the planet, mean our short-term future will be based on less effective production.
Contrary to what some will say, there are significant trade-offs that will come from this. Many consumers may not particularly notice, either because the "unit cost" of these trade-offs does not have a monetary value or because the costs will appear divorced from the green transition.
Let’s start with the trade-offs that you will actually notice. With many new technologies, the cost is not inputs but time or availability. While electric cars can be charged at home, prospective buyers should also appreciate that filling up is not a five-minute nip to the services.
Instead, it represents at least a 40-minute time investment, and that assumes you have immediate access to a fast 43kW rapid charger when you arrive to recharge your vehicle.
With solar panels as well, the monthly saving from your headline energy bill needs to be set alongside the (blindingly obvious) fact that solar panels only work during periods that the sun is shining.
This means that, while you can benefit from almost limitless energy during periods of light, nights and low-light winter days (when you are most in need of heat and light) will put you back at the mercy of the national grid.
Again, solar panels have their benefits. But once you also take into account the high upfront cost of installation, the costs and benefits should be sensibly weighed up: the most common domestic size is a 4kW solar panel system, which comes with a £6,000 price tag (and will cover around 29 square metres of roof).
And as has been well-documented recently, heat pumps also come at a cost, both in terms of time and effectiveness. Heat pumps operate with a lower power output than their gas-fired equivalents, meaning that they generate heat more slowly, and at a lower level (meaning cooler hot water).
Again, this is hardly a catastrophe. But once you take into account the fact that your solar panels are unlikely to be providing power during the longer periods you’ll need to have the heat pump operational, users should not expect their energy bills to be transformed by them.
Then there are the worldwide supply chain issues that you are only likely to see in increased costs of either electricity or other high technological products.
Switching the British vehicle fleet to all-electrics and moving 100pc of domestic heating from oil and gas to heat pumps will raise national energy demand from 279 terawatt hours each year to more than 500, an increase of 81pc.
If we were to do this with renewables only, we would need to more than double the number of wind turbines in Britain just to cover the additional energy usage from electric vehicles and heat pumps.
Unfortunately, production of many green energy products (such as electric vehicles and solar panels) also requires vast amounts of rare and expensive minerals.
For example, if we want to get all 31.5 million British cars electric by 2050, it will require the UK to purchase the equivalent of the entire world’s supply of cobalt for two whole years, not to mention six months’ worth of copper. And that is before we factor in the years’ worth of worldwide copper output to build the additional six thousand turbines that will be needed to power them.
Such demand for these minerals will push up the price, making the upfront cost of green energy more expensive. But it will also push up the price of other goods that use those minerals, particularly electronics, domestic plumbing and wiring.
If the world is moving swiftly down a green transition path, you should expect items like mobile phones, computers and cars to all increase in price as the minerals that make them up increase in cost.
None of this is a definite projection. After all, discovering new mineral deposits or a technological leap forward could radically change the long-term costs for green energy. But those wanting to ride the wave of new green tech should at least be aware that no decision is cost free.
Sam Collins is senior policy adviser at the Institute of Economic Affairs