Gas is the only thing that can save Britain from blackouts and the environmental damage of “truly evil” coal, the House of Lord Economics Affairs Committee was told yesterday.
Dieter Helm, an Oxford Professor and economic advisor to the Energy Secretary, was there to give evidence on the potential impact of shale gas extraction in the UK.
He said: “I do find it truly extraordinary that people want to ban fracking in a context where they’re not prepared to ban coal… because when one thinks about the relative environmental impacts of the alternatives, coal mining is truly evil in comparison.”
Professor Helm said reducing the amount of coal-fired generation should be the main focus of efforts to reduce climate change but that wasn’t happening: “What’s going on in Europe and what’s going on in the UK is we’re switching from gas to coal. We’ve gone from about 28% of our electricity generated by coal a couple of years ago to about 40% today.”
He said as well as cutting out coal we need to build more capacity fast: “By 2015/2016 the capacity margin in this country will be very close to zero. In fact I’ve done some numbers which suggest it might be below zero.”
Professor Helm claimed if we wanted to move away from coal and keep the lights on, nuclear power and renewables just aren’t practical. They are too expensive, he told the committee: “It’s an enormous investment programme. It’s a massive increase in electricity bills.”
Professor Helm said the public would have to be willing to pay the bills and vote in politicians that would force them to do so, something that looked unlikely in the current political climate.
He added whatever the cost they wouldn’t be able to keep the lights on anyway, as proposed nuclear plants would come online too late and renewable technology isn’t good enough to take over yet.
He had a clear answer to the problem: “It’s inescapable that gas is a transitionary fuel and actually it can make a big impact quickly.”
Professor Helm said gas-fired power stations were relatively cheap and fast to build and although gas wasn’t a long term solution, “it might even turn out to be a more efficient way of reducing carbon emissions in the short term.”
He highlighted the example of the US and its shale gas revolution: “The United States has about the fastest falling CO2 emissions of any developed country without having any serious climate on energy policies I can detect. It’s going from coal to gas.”