So what accounts for the irrational rage against shale gas we heard again from Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and WWF last week?
They got too close to the present renewables industries and let governments hand out subsidies without enough competition over price.
It is a noble ambition that we should light and heat our homes and businesses using the bountiful energy produced by the sun, the wind, the waves and the heat contained inside our planet. I share it. I am even confident that by 2050 we may have seen breakthroughs — in solar power, batteries and heat from the Earth’s core, in particular — that could make a serious dent in our use of fossil fuels.
I am equally convinced that these renewable energy technologies of the future will be far better than the ones we have today, if the development of mobile phones and personal computers, which didn’t exist 40 years ago, is anything to go by.
It may well be technically feasible to have 80% of our energy needs taken care of by renewable energy by 2050, as the European greens like to believe. The question is how we get there at a price the public is prepared to pay.
The problem is that existing renewable technologies haven’t been produced on budget or on time. Wind now produces 0.5% of global energy supply and has barely made a dent in fossil fuel emissions. Its biggest problem — that it is intermittent — has yet to be solved. Tidal energy remains at the demonstration stage. Geothermal likewise in Britain. Solar power stations work in the desert — the problem is storage and cost. Biomass — that’s woodchips and fuel crops to you and me — does as well as wind in the UK, but it takes up land that people will need for growing food.
Despite real advances in solar panels and offshore wind, renewables haven’t yet lived up to the confidence the greens have placed in them over the 20 years that the world has been trying to stop climate change. Over that time, the carbon in the atmosphere has increased by about two parts per million each year. That is because renewables are too inefficient and expensive to prevent China and India from burning cheap coal to make things for us that we used to make ourselves.
The rise in the burning of coal is the reason for this 20-year trend in global emissions. But, as Professor Dieter Helm of Oxford University is fond of pointing out, there is a way of cutting carbon emissions immediately in most big economies with no significant extra cost. That is by converting from coal to gas, which produces half as much carbon dioxide as coal.
Until recently we thought that conventional gas was going to run out and the most plentiful supplies of the stuff were in Russia or the Gulf. Now that we realise the rocks under our feet may hold supplies that would last for generations, the world has changed and the greens haven’t caught up.