John Constable is the director of the Renewable Energy Foundation, a British public charity. In this episode, Constable discusses the ongoing energy crisis in Europe, misconceptions about the Industrial Revolution, offshore wind, why “renewables are a land play,” how increasing energy use leads to greater liberty and freedom, and why “solar and wind energy are a mirage.”
Robert Bryce 0:04
Hi, everyone, welcome to the power hungry Podcast. I'm Robert Bryce. On this podcast we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. And I'm pleased to welcome my guest, John Constable. He's the director of the Renewable Energy Foundation. It is a public charity based in the UK. John, welcome to the power hungry podcast. Thank you, Rob. It's great pleasure. So now I didn't warn you, John. But guests on this podcast introduce themselves. I you have a long CV, you have a PhD have all kinds of credentials, but I put the onus on the guests to tell us who they are. So if you don't mind, imagine you've arrived somewhere and you have about 260 seconds, please.
John Constable 0:41
I'm elapsed, academic.
Robert Bryce 0:45
elapsed academic. I know, I've had 90 some odd guests. I haven't heard that one yet. So good go by
John Constable 0:54
academic in the humanities, I read English at Cambridge. And I've moved off into the philosophy of aesthetics and general philosophy, language philosophy, actually, for a while. And then in 2005, to the great joy of my family, I bailed up and started to write about the energy industry. And I've been writing about energy matters. Ever since that time, I now direct the Renewable Energy Foundation, which is, as you said, a small UK charity, publishing data and analysis on the renewable sector. And I write generally, about energy, and particularly, energy policy. matters.
Robert Bryce 1:34
Good. If you could do me one favor, if you can get just a little closer to your receiver there just so you're a little louder, but you're it's okay, where you are, but just a little more volume would be great. Okay, so well, then what? And I saw that you studied English and you got your, your PhD. So why I'm want to talk about what's going on in Britain now. But first, why the switch What led you to go from English and esthetics to, to studying energy and power systems,
John Constable 2:03
I've always had a very bad case of science envy. I like to study soluble problems rather than endlessly discussable mysteries. And the work that I was doing in the humanities was actually focused on soluble problems, which doesn't go down terribly well. And I didn't feel there was much room for that particular line of engagement in the future of English. And cultural studies get more generally in the universities. And energy came up as an interesting subject. I've been working actually on the mathematics of verse forms with a physicist. And because of that, I've had to learn quite a lot about order and randomness, because those are the features we were studying languages. And so moving across into energy wasn't quite such a big leap as it might seem on paper, it all seemed to make complete sense to me.
Robert Bryce 2:49
Well, I recall in your 2016 essay on if I'm remembering it, energy, entropy and the theory of wealth, you talked about working with a physicist, but let's come back to that. So but the order of the day, the thing that I've been, particularly as a news of the moment is the energy crisis in Europe, tell me what's happening in Britain now, because from all appearances you are approaching the cliff at at at very high speed, and that you're looking at enormous increases in energy costs, etc. What's the latest?
John Constable 3:20
Well, as you can see the lights on at present, the question is whether we will be able to afford to keep them on, prices are due to go up very, very significantly, quite shortly, we have a price cap applied by previous governments very unwisely. But that is keeping the lid on prices at the moment, but energy suppliers are unable to contain the cost. So the cost prices will have to be passed on at some point to somebody. And the difficulty is that government has is that they are intolerably high for consumers and wouldn't consider suppliers that somehow have to pay their costs.
Robert Bryce 3:57
And so and that's one of the reasons why we've seen these what more than two dozen bankruptcies of electricity suppliers in the last went through for four to six months? No,
John Constable 4:06
yes, these were quite small operations by and large, although they were one large one that did go bust. And now that the argument generally offered is that these were less well run than it should have been. And they were not hedging boards sufficiently directly. But of course, when so many of them go bust that cause suggests perhaps the regulator hadn't been doing its work correctly and haven't been checking up on these people. But in fact that the problem is much more general. From this. We have a deeply distorted energy market which is committed to high cost energy, and has made us particularly dependent on one high grade fuel one reliable fuel gas to maintain security of supply, as have many other European states last year was relatively low wind year, and that's unfortunately correlated with international changes in demand for gas but when the gas prices have gone up to extremely high levels, UK is very exposed on this particular point, partly because not an Aussie gas output has been declining ever since 2000. And we have all suppressed the shale gas industry in the UK as have most other European states. There's nothing going on here. In the US, of course, you have a very vibrant shale gas industry, which has increased production, we could have done quite a lot of that we didn't. Consequently, we are important a lot of gas, but are critically dependent on it. The expectation for us, as it turned out from Dublin was that the renewables to which we are very heavily committed, would buffer us against these kinds of spikes and gas plants. Of course, that hasn't been the case. In fact, the renewables industry has an absorbing huge amount of subsidy, about 13 and a half billion dollars a year at present in income support subsidy that's taken from consumers. So the consumer, the consumer headroom for fluctuations in energy costs has already been taken by subsidy to the renewables industry. And renewables themselves are taking up a very large but fluctuating share of the market. Consequently, demand for gas for the electricity industry fluctuates from year to year. So this is an unstable market, we're not very good customer, or international suppliers of gas, we'd be much better off if we had a well engineered and diverse fuel supply system other gas or not coals and nuclear and maybe a bit of renewables at the edge. That's not what we have, we actually have is a system which is dominated by renewables, which is actually propped up and saved by gas.
Robert Bryce 6:38
You know, as you say that John, what comes to mind as a guest, a lovely woman, Meredith, Meredith Angwin. I've had on the podcast now three times and she typifies, what's the big danger? It's the fatal Trifecta over reliance on renewables over reliance on gas and over reliance on imports. And sounds to me like that. That's exactly what you have.
John Constable 6:57
Yes, just you look at the UK fuel mix, and you say, Well, what this country has is a fuel diversity problem. Not enough diversity and supply. And the assumption was a diversity of supplies of gas would be equivalent to a diversity of fields. Well, that didn't seem very plausible when it was first offered in the early 2000s. And it hasn't proved to be the case. And the real difficulty here is that the whole renewables agenda is so expensive and dramatically expensive, that the industry is distorted and chaotic. It's a mess. Nobody wants to build reliable generation in the UK, it's difficult to see any future for gas with current policies. And yet gas is absolutely essential to keep the lights on and indeed to heat homes in the UK.
Robert Bryce 7:40
You know, it's remarkable how you're repeating these things, John, because it's an awful lot like Texas, except with the difference that we are sitting on just staggering quantities of gas, and we produce more net gas than I think any other state in Pennsylvania has been vying with Texas for a while now. But but we've made our grid here or caught too reliant on renewables and you in there No, no power stations are being built that are burning natural gas, we've closed a bunch of coal plants. And so the system has become over reliant on gas. And for to fill the holes when renewables aren't aren't aren't doing anything. And that's exactly what we saw in February of last year. So and the other part that I thought was interesting, and Mark Nelson pointed this out to me, with the radiant energy fund that the UK deregulated its market under Thatcher, its electricity sector under Thatcher in the late 90s. Texas did it a few years later, but both UK and Texas came into crisis at nearly the same time as certainly the same year. But how much of this traces back to that? That deregulated AI market that took place back in the late 90s. How much of this is traceable to that
John Constable 8:55
deregulation phase was absolutely beneficial, largely driven in part by Lord Lawson. Also his reforms. It was beneficial for consumers. And I ended up averaging around about 2000. It was very promising. Things were looking really good. We were on track to build more nuclear power stations, we were moving towards further gas power stations, high efficiency, higher higher efficiencies of gas, and the system was both cheap and indeed increasingly clean. So we were on track with a decarbonizing without even trying. And at that point, when the liberalization move was at its peak, we started to introduce climate policies. And remember that the first cop was in 1995. And so the environmental movement started to really get its teeth into energy policy, and the first player government started to move us towards renewables in the early 2000s. So at the very moment when liberalisation peaked, it was also over because at that point, the Blair government started To introduce highly distorting mandates in favor of renewables, and those have been ramped up all the way through the 2000s. So it's not the liberalisation. That's the problem. It's the environmental policies that were introduced around about 2000 2002. Onwards, that are a difficulty.
Robert Bryce 10:16
And it's interesting, I'm glad you clarified that, because that, again, that rhymes with what we're seeing in Texas, in that under George W. Bush, there was the original target renewable energy. Oh, there was a renewable energy target that was quickly met, but it brought in a whole new big slug of wind, and then led to the construction of more powers, high voltage transmission lines of credit lines, as they're known here in Texas. And that led to a you know, a surge in the build out of wind. But it was also fostered by these very lucrative federal subsidies, the production tax credit, which is still at over $20 A megawatt hour and which is remarkable, because that's roughly the price of wholesale power in Texas. Now, I think in 2020, the average price was $22. So we've just had a completely distorted market with distorted incentives. But But I didn't, I didn't have you on the show to talk about Texas, necessarily. But it just is interesting to see the parallels in the degradation of the grid of the respective grids occurring at the same time of these big slugs of new renewables are added.
John Constable 11:16
Yes, it's and we introduced a subsidy system called the renewables obligation that wasn't a tax credit system. It was a certificate system, which applied increased costs directly to consumers. The blog often had an enthusiasm for policies, which redirected funds and resources, but didn't put them on to the Treasury budget. So these were coming out of consumer bills to tap into subsidy recipients without ever going through the Treasury, so kept off the books. And at that early stage, people weren't aware that these subsidies were happening at all, the industry, of course, was very aware, and there was an actual stampede to build wind throughout Britain. And that ramped up very, very quickly. And as I say, now, we have a legacy entitlement to those generators, and many others, which is currently clocking at about 13 and a half billion US dollars per year. Now, in the US, what in the US terms 13 and a half billion dollars is still quite a lot of money. In the UK terms, it's a lot, it's a very, very large additional costs for the consumer.
Robert Bryce 12:17
And those are and those are paid for in a in a direct surcharge on customer bills.
John Constable 12:22
Yes, all consumers in fact, so domestic consumers would pay round about 1/3 of the total cost directly through their bills, that they will pay all the full cost roughly $500 per household, something like that. Because in addition to the direct bill impact, industrial and commercial customers pass on their share of the costs in the cost of goods and services, inevitably, our souls meet all costs, ultimately,
Robert Bryce 12:48
sure. $500 per household per years, the average surcharge then and for this,
John Constable 12:55
all the electricity will be around about $170. I see.
Robert Bryce 12:59
So that the 500 is the total, some of which is indirect, but the 170 is the direct,
John Constable 13:05
right? So you're paying quite a lot of extra for it. When you go to the store and buy a bottle of milk, it's refrigerated, the store has to pay for the electricity, they're not a charity, you're paying quite a lot. So there are a lot of hidden subsidy costs in cost of living and people of course have been grumbling about cost of living for a long time.
Robert Bryce 13:21
Sure. So is I've talked with different people in the last few weeks about the UK relative to mainland Europe is, is Britain in a worse situation than France, Germany, it's the other cousins on the continent. How do you how do you handicap this crisis in terms of who's being hit worst.
John Constable 13:45
And we have particular problems which are special to us being an island grid, in addition to the cost of actually subsidizing renewables. As an investment, we also have increased with management costs, and those have gone up very dramatically. So what about 2000 to three before renewables were introduced, our balancing costs were only about 300 $400,000 per year, they're now around about two and a half billion dollars a year. Now, that sort of additional grid balancing cost doesn't apply so much on the continent, because it's a very large interconnected system. So they can push their problem now their grid balancing problems around and and scale them to some degree. So we have more and more acute balancing problem, then the continent, we're also rather more exposed to gas and many of the European countries because we've converted so many of our domestic hassles to natural gas heating. So the gas crisis was really created in the electricity sector, but it affects the price of home heating for space and hot water. And so we're slightly more exposed rather more exposed than many other European states on that measure.
Robert Bryce 14:52
And when you talk about grid balancing, explain what you mean there please.
John Constable 14:55
Well supply and demand has to meet the grid has to be stable and Wind and solar are very unreliable and the volatility of the system, the randomness in the system, it has increased over that time. So National Grid is intervening in the last hour real time, and buying on and buying off in order to ensure that supply and demand are met, and that the grid remains stable. While it doesn't become unstable, we had a big blackout in 2019, of course, when in fact, an accident occurred and they weren't able to contain the problem. very expensive, very dangerous, naturally enough and extremely controversial.
Robert Bryce 15:32
And so that balancing then, would that include capacity payments into power plants to make sure that they're up and running hot, right, it gets hot, ready, or I've forgotten the term of art for that, but it's payments to generators to be on standby or to be ready to go. If they're the sun stops shining, the wind stops blowing, etc. Is that Is that what part of those costs?
John Constable 15:49
Yes, we do have capacity mechanism. And that is part of the cost. But a lot of is taking place in dynamic last minute adjustments to supply and demand. And for example, a lot of our wind is in Scotland and north have a major bottleneck in the grid network. So that when it's windy in the Scottish wind is generating a great deal they have to export. But there's congestion on the network. So what national grid has to do is to pay the wind operators to stop in Scotland. Oh, that leaves the market short south of the bottleneck so they have to buy on at high cost south of bottleneck knows these sort of bouncing costs have gone through the roof. Since the introduction of renewables, the business subsidy overheated the market, renewables grew so fast, the grid network simply couldn't expand to keep up with it. Right, we ended up capacity vastly in excess of our ability to manage it at a reasonable cost for the consumer.
Robert Bryce 16:44
Well, let me follow up on that part of it because that's the other dynamic that and I just published a piece in Forbes yesterday about this but you know, the EU finally finally finally says oh natural gas or nuclear Yeah, we probably need those yeah, those are good idea there was sustainable now they can be considered sustainable investments. But what we're seeing in the United States and I've written about it a lot but and read about what's going on in Europe and Britain some of that it is the the brake on the development of new renewables and high voltage transmission. Our land use conflicts in Ireland and Scotland in the UK, is this still ongoing? The problem with siting more renewable capacity is that how big of a problem is ladder challenges that in, in the UK now,
John Constable 17:25
renewables are essentially a land play. These are very diffuse diffuse energy forms, they need extremely large areas of land to collect sufficient quantities to make them economically, even barely viable. And, of course, you know, without subsidies, they're not viable. So yes, there is certainly a land use conflict problem. We have intense resistance to onshore wind, when it was growing rapidly through the early 2000s. And David Cameron, to his credit, put a stop to that precedent, we're seeing an explosion in the growth of solar. So there are huge applications going into solar, and 1000s of acres in a single application producing and these are usually associated with batteries as it happens. So and these are becoming increasingly controversial. In addition to the mere in local environmental impact, people don't want to be surrounded by a solar farm of 1000 acres. There's also the concern, of course, that we are losing farmland. And it's not necessarily a very clever idea to become overly dependent on imported food imports are fine trading is good. But do you want to be able to trade not advantage? So you want to be able to say, well, we'll eat our own carrots this year, rather than buying in from abroad. The reason for farmland at an increasing rate and solar and the solar industry is a very large part of that now, we reckon that round about 1000 acres a month is going into the planning system for solar. And this is becoming really quite controversial.
Robert Bryce 18:52
Same thing happening here I just published in Forbes, a letter from a woman who contacted me out of the blue I you know, I've vetted her But Jessica Peterson in rural Iowa, and she and her family, she's a sixth generation Iowa farmer. And they're dead set against this expansion of his big solar project pushed by Invenergy, a big Chicago based private company and but this backlash against wind has become now in the US a backlash against solar. But talk about offshore wind because you said this is now being a big push for solar in the UK. But there's also a big push for offshore and as you know, I've had Gordon Hughes on the podcast, who's been you know, setting offshore wind is I'll ask the question is offshore wind a good deal for consumers?
John Constable 19:37
It's a terrible deal and Siemens Gordon's pump work and we work very closely together. Gordon's big papers on on wind costs are published by Renewable Energy Foundation. It's one of the things we do when we receive a donation that's what how we actually spend our money. We put it into research and publication of this kind, this kind of work sort of thing the industry will not do. Government doesn't wish to see it out there either. But it's very easy in a sense to find the data to actually do this work. We're still a relatively open market, relatively open society, we can find out the real cost of what's going on in the offshore and indeed the onshore wind sector. The industry says it's getting cheaper. Gordon, and we looked at the audited accounts for wind companies, they don't seem to be getting cheaper. They actually have anything their costs are going up certainly offshore. So
Robert Bryce 20:27
when I found that on your website, I think the the graph that I saw, and I think it was in one of Gordon's reports was that since between 2002 and 2020, the cost per megawatt hour nearly tripled. His memory serves something is that is that seen? Does that sound right to you?
John Constable 20:40
That they're suddenly rising and and why is it then that government claims they're falling in the industry dies, and they point to bids made for Contracts for Difference contracts, I'm sure that Gordon talked about this with you. And our view is that these are this is a market acquisition strategy that they're bidding low in order to get the contracts established the market position, inhibit competition, read a lot of good PR for themselves, a lot of bad PR for nuclear. And then where they expect to bail out in due course, when it turns out that these contracts are actually insufficient to cover the cost of capital and also, particularly operations and maintenance costs for wind. So we think this is a new existing offshore wind is very expensive. Two to three times the wholesale price before the current crisis. And the preview of future costs, which are quite soon at something like 50 to 60 pounds a megawatt hour are only half what those sites really need to actually be economic, there hasn't been any dramatic cost reduction to justify these very low contract bids. So they'll need a bailout. So the existing wind is a bad deal, the windows projected is going to be a very bad deal, it will be a bitter pill to have to bail these people out. I got one and I were hoping that we would publicize this matter, and government would therefore be embarrassed and be unable to bail them out. Or indeed, these companies would begin to admit that they've made a mistake, and they wouldn't actually activate these contracts before they become a liability in the future.
Robert Bryce 22:15
But you haven't been able to embarrass the government. And embarrass bubble, I think is the Yes,
John Constable 22:24
yes, it would appear to be the case. Well, it's over the political horizon. So many of these projects are unlikely to be built until the middle 20s. And by that time, the current politicians will be out of office and someone doing something else.
Robert Bryce 22:39
It's going to be someone else's problem to deal with them all
John Constable 22:42
Robert Bryce 22:43
So one of the things that has been remarkable to me and watching this, obviously from the States, but I did testified before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in November, and pointing to the the number of industrial plants that are closing in Europe, and particular the fertilizer plants, which which bodes very ill for food prices and food production, productivity and so on. But is this all asked the question directly, are these high gas and electricity prices? Are we seeing the deindustrialization of the UK and Europe?
John Constable 23:13
It's been going on for some time, actually, you will have heard over and over again, of course, boasts that we've reduced our emissions dramatically against 1990 levels. While all we've succeeded doing actually is exporting those emissions to Asia. Carbon dioxide is one of the United Kingdom's most successful exports in recent years. We don't
Robert Bryce 23:34
it's not Jaguar thing.
John Constable 23:37
I did not quite all together. So we've, we've actually de industrialized to a degree, and we borrowed money to buy imports from Asia. So our production emissions may not be as high as they were, but our consumption emissions are, relatively speaking unchanged. It's it's not quite the rosy story. That is predicting carbon leakage is a very big problem. And if you have a surcharge on total electricity consumption in the region of 13 and a half billion dollars per year, you know, it's going to have an effect on your manufacturing. So we've been pushing such companies out of business and into other jurisdictions where energy is cheaper.
Robert Bryce 24:19
And idea of carbon leakage. I want to come back to that because the more and more about the geopolitics of what's going on in Europe, in the United States, relative to Russia and China, but let me let me maybe come back to that. So I was also looking at your your 2020 paper you've written you've been very prolific lately, and I want to talk about several of your essays. But you wrote in in 2020 paper called brink of darkness, Britain's fragile power grid. On the weakening of the grid, you said it's becoming weaker as progressively larger volumes of electricity from renewables such as wind and solar are forced into the system, the system enfeeblement I like that word is happening in spite of substantial increase in increases in the cost of the system. So is that what must have And then to stop this enfeeblement what is the what is the what is the next step? What what must the UK do to pull itself out of this? This the no disaster?
John Constable 25:12
Oh, well think of it physically, what we've done is we've increased the randomness in the UK electricity system, but that's why it's becoming casual. We've introduced unreliable and high entropy resources such as wind and solar, they're barely energy at all. And we've made it impossible for high quality energy sources to actually exist in the UK markets, what we have to do is reverse that. We have to accept that the physics of energy is important, and to introduce and reintroduce and to make it possible to run a combined cycle gas turbine economically. And we may even have to build a coal plant. I'm embarrassing, though that may be that is not completely off the table, we may have to build a coal plant in order to restore inertia to UK system. Nuclear, of course, is a highly desirable generator, but it is a longer term option. It takes longer to build a nuclear power station, gas and coal will be done quite quickly.
Robert Bryce 26:05
I'm interested that you said that about coal because that was one of the headlines. I think just yesterday, the day before that. Now France is saying that they may be burning more coal. I mean, it just is. I mean, of all the remarkable headlines I've seen on
John Constable 26:17
this. Yes, well, we still have some coal left. And it's it's pretty busy on low wind days, and not desirable to build an inefficient coal station. But a supercritical coal station might make sense. I would prefer a gas to nuclear strategy. Myself, I think that would be much more sensible, that we go for combined cycle gas turbines in the short term, stabilize the system, make it robust, and get the renewables off the system, cancel the levees and subsidies, buy them back at a discount, reduce the system balancing costs, and start thinking about a longer term project for nuclear power, not just for electricity, of course, one of the points we've made repeatedly is that nuclear for heat is increasingly interesting. Now there's more to the energy in an economy, of course, than electricity. And heat is a really crucial politics and low cost heat enabling us to reindustrialize will be a very good idea indeed.
Robert Bryce 27:13
Well, God bless you for saying gas to nuclear because this is we're singing from the same hymnal here. The issue I've been talking about now for more than a decade into n is what I call a natural gas to nuclear. You report though brink of darkness. I was intrigued by the the painting on the cover of that report. And I looked forward. What was the source of that? Do you know who painted that image? It's very, it's quite striking.
John Constable 27:35
I don't actually leave the production team found those pretty pictures I'm or the only things I'm responsible for the text and the charts and slight?
Robert Bryce 27:43
Well, so I don't have it at hand. And I don't can't flash it on the screen here. But it's a it's a it's a it looks like from the Netherlands maybe maybe 300 200 years old, the painting but a young woman's sitting sitting next to a candle. Let me let me ask about the two events that you wrote about in the brink of darkness I think you've already mentioned one is that there were two events that really catalyzed you made you write that report, which now seems to be You really did look at the future and see what was likely to happen. But one of the things that made you is I recall made you take that write that report was the blackout in 2019. How extensive was that blackout
John Constable 28:27
affected large part of London area, but also certain parts as far as Northern Newcastle airport. It was widespread, but the London area is the crucial consideration. I mean, it's so it's not an exaggeration to say that London or Britain is a city state. It's London and it has a rural hinterland around it. And that's unfair on some of the bigger cities. But electrically it's not very far from the truth, actually. So the blackout in London, that's very high profile news. And it affected a lot of people traveling because trains tripped and then couldn't be restarted. So there were people stuck in carriages for long periods of time. And this was very embarrassing, and indeed dangerous. It was so very close thing. The causes, well, very complicated, largely due to poor fault right through from renewables, there was a lightning strike. And it took some people off the grid. And that caused a perturbation in the system. And then there was a cascade of tripping elsewhere. Some of them were fossil plants, in fact, but they weren't actually the core problem. The core problem was embedded renewables and a large offshore wind farm, which is sort of covered in the official reports. It isn't a good example of just how the system has become fragile. It ought to have been able to take that kind of bump in its stride, and it couldn't it fell over.
Robert Bryce 29:51
Well, you mentioned the word inertia before and it's one that I've been intrigued by and I was in Australia five years ago and this was when they were having a lot of power problems and The issue of grid inertia was one that we're talking about on the front pages of the papers there. And it can you describe that? I mean, I could take my shot at it, but it briefly it's the grid inertia, is that the amount of momentum, I guess, in the electric grid itself? Is that it? Can you explain that, please,
John Constable 30:19
I think helpful way to think about think the rotating mass of the turbine shops is where storing energy, they're rotating at a tremendous rate and a very heavy, so the stored energy in there is considerable, they have gyroscopic stability of the light. And that stored energy can absorb quite a lot of fluctuation in the grid. So fluctuations in demand, can draw on necessary, be rotating energy
Robert Bryce 30:47
in the shops that can the kinetic energy there
John Constable 30:50
an ASIC energy, yeah, in the shops. So it's like an energy storage system is a little fast. Now about storing energy in batteries. Well, a well run traditional system actually has quite a lot of energy stored in the rotating mass kinetic energy of rotation shocks, it makes system very reliable, and sensitive can take a bump, or pump can fall off the system. But the rest of the system is so strong, it can hold it engineers sometimes referred to as a stiffness, which is quite a nice way of thinking about it wasn't just bend over under impact. I and renewables, of course, don't provide any of that they don't have inertia. And consequently, they provide no stiffness to the system.
Robert Bryce 31:32
I think you said it. Well, I liked that way of thinking about it. But there's that that kinetic energy of the spinning shaft that provides the ride through that would allow it to overcome these these interruptions, as you said, it's something that, in fact, I moderated a panel now, three or four years ago, and Bill Magnus, who is now the former CEO of ERCOT, I asked him about these asynchronous generation issues in Texas, because we're adding a lot of wind and solar and, and he said, and I'm going to quote him almost exactly, he said, at a certain point, he said, I just want a big spinning piece of steel. And so to that point,
John Constable 32:05
it's like it's just energy storage device. I mean, a motor vehicle needs that to call has a flywheel for a reason. It needs something to store energy and smooth it out.
Robert Bryce 32:15
I hadn't thought about it that way. Yeah, that's, that's interesting. So let me turn to some of the other work that you've done, John, because I'm fascinated by it and hear some of your thinking on this. I think it's quite original, in 2016, and this is the lecture that mark, my friend Mark Nelson pointed me to and I think he attended the lecture that you gave in Northumberland. On this, the lecture was energy entropy and the theory of wealth. And you neatly summarize this idea about energy. And you dismissed very clearly this idea that we can decouple the economy. From the energy sector, you wrote, We never escaped from the need for energy. Whatever the short term variations might look like, the trend over time is for greater energy is to deliver and crucially to maintain and replace a human sphere that is progressively further away from Dynamic thermodynamic equilibrium, there is no point at which you sit down and have a rest. Attempting to reverse the process observed in history by returning much or all of the energy system to low density, high entropy flows, which you've been talking about already means handing over to those who control the renewable energy sector, the majority of the potential for change available to our society, you're making some connections here that I think are really quite important than ones that I haven't seen anyone else making. But this idea, can you explain it, I read, I think one of the key points that you're making, but if I were to ask you to summarize your lecture on entropy, and in energy entropy, and in the theory of wealth, how would you do it?
John Constable 33:39
Energy matters much, much more than economists realize. Uh huh.
Robert Bryce 33:46
And you, your friend, the physicist who said, Well, the problem with economists is that they don't know what they're talking about what we
John Constable 33:54
mean it a dismissive way. He meant very literally, they're not thinking about the ontology, the physics of the situation. And what is wealth? Well, it's an improbable state of matter, in relation to a human requirement. How do you achieve in probability through energy. So everything all wealth states are created by energy. And everything in the room behind you is a highly improbable object, same in my room, so in our economy is exactly the same. And much of that was created in the deep past. So we're still benefiting from energy conversions, creating improbable states of matter, going back 1000s of years. And you can give very strange curious examples of this to show just how much it matters. Dutch cities are built on piles driven into the mud in the 15th and 16th centuries, were roads in Britain running over very wetland areas, which are still held up and supported by bales of wool put down in the medieval period. We are about a whole economies rest on all the energy conversions that we've accumulated over our economic history. And of course, we We replace and we renovate on the hoof all the time. So the instantaneous energy conversion in the economy, which is roughly about five to 10% of the cost of anyone, anyone a year is only part of the story. The whole economy is energy over time. So you have to be very careful what you do with your energy supply. Your if not something that it's trivial, even economists sometimes say it's only five or so percent of the economy, we can get away with an increase in cost, you can't, because what you're doing is storing up trouble for the future. So I wonder whether economies that have been heavily committed to renewables will have increased their costs and in creating capital, high cost energy, will start to see signs of increasing costs that they can't completely understand or explain Germany, for example, has the German economy being poisoned by all these years of renewable energy? Well, we shall see. I want us to stop as soon as we can in the UK. And to get us back on to an economically sustainable path. That is we're heading a situation right now where you may not be able to maintain our position. We're very far from thermodynamic equilibrium, and we don't want to slip back and slipping back may be hard to arrest. Once you start moving back, you may very hard stop it slipping further and further back.
Robert Bryce 36:15
You put it in some very, I mean, which what I take from your your that essay from 2016, as well as this one that you just finished. I don't know if it's been published yet on the internet. But it's misconceptions of the Industrial Revolution, prospects, prospects for individual liberty in the post pandemic era, you make similar point some similar points to your 2016 lecture. But at route you're saying that it are the thought that comes to mind as you're saying that is something art Berman, who's an oil analyst in Houston, and he's been on the podcast, he said energy is the economy. Oil is the economy and that you cannot separate them. And that I think what I hear you saying or to paraphrase what you're saying is, you monkey around with this system, and you introduce low in random energy sources into a system that is this complex, and you become more reliant on the randomness then you imperil the whole system? Is that would that be a fair? Fair summary?
John Constable 37:13
Yes, if you start to degrade the order and your energy supply, you're going to be doing something very harmful to your overall system. And it may start to become unstable, to be very undesirable. I think the problem here, there is actually something very fundamental in the philosophy of economics, which is that economists tend to think of energy as if it's a straightforward commodity for which there are substitutes. But you see, in a subtle sort of sentence, I'm a philosopher or for energy doesn't exist at all. It's not actually a substance. It's a character state, which all substances have the ability to cause change. And this means that all inputs to the economy have an energy state, which is relevant to their utility to human beings. And so
Robert Bryce 37:59
to see that again, John, because I'm, when you're saying that I'm thinking, you say, We energy as a character, state, I'm thinking about energy flow, I'm thinking about energy versus power, right? We care, we don't care. I've said it this way, that we don't care what energy is, we care what energy gives us and what we Energy Energy matters when we only when we can make it flow. And if we can't make it flow, it is useless to us.
John Constable 38:19
So oil is a substance, it happens to have very high grade energy properties, it can cause change, it's the ability to cause change. And it has great potential for change in oil and coal. And in gas, there's much less potential in solar and wind, they're much closer to random heat. In fact, they're nearly useless. So you think of it like this, you think of the wind and the sun coming into the solar panel or the wind turbine, and then you think of the electricity being supplied to the consumer, you've got something very random, on the one hand, the wind and the sun, you've got something highly ordered, very, very useful, as you say, coming out of the socket. Well, obviously, something's happened in between, to convert the highly high entropy to the low entropy of the service, what's actually happening is that a lot of correction is taking place. It's taking place through the winter bins and the solar panels themselves. It's taking place through the system management of the electricity grid operator, and then it's termed given to the consumer to make use of so there's a big flow of negative entropy going in there to rectify the defects of the solar and wind input. Question is, and I think the answer is no can wind and solar correct itself, oil and coal and gas and nuclear are all such high grade sources that they can provide and pay for their own channel to carry themselves to the consumer, wind can't do this. And seven son can't do this. The entropy is too high. They require correction from another source of precedent. They're parasitic on the wealth created by high grade fuels such as coal and gas and nuclear and oil indeed.
Robert Bryce 39:59
So with You say that I was thinking, Well, my rejoinder would be something to the effect of we don't make solar panels with solar panels.
John Constable 40:06
You don't. And when we get to the stage where renewable energy inputs are the principal energy input to the manufacture solar panels and wind turbines, then we will see their costs go through a roof. They're only relatively cheap at the moment because they're made with fossil fuels.
Robert Bryce 40:22
Well, and to follow on that, that is one of the issues that I've written some about. It's not gotten the kind of press here in the US that I think it certainly deserves, but the US government sanctioning imports of poly silicon makers in in Xinjiang. So it's not just that the the poly silicon in Jin Jang in China is being refined with coal fired power plants. It's being it's being made in many cases by slave labor from Uighur Muslims, which just is incredible to me. I mean, it brings to mind this question. It's not a rhetorical one, but how much slave labor is okay for you to consider this clean energy? Still? I mean, what was the how much is how much? How much slave labor is okay with you, I guess is another way of saying
John Constable 41:03
this question is on my conscience. I've been arguing against these things for a very long time. You should get the director of Greenpeace on and asked him about that. I think it's an important question. But what is actually creating the renewable industry, it's effectively created by cheap coal in Asia at present. And we know that the renewables industry that were created by subsidy in Europe have all failed. Vestas has not yet failed. But it's in trouble. It's an interesting company. It has periodic problems, the European solar industry collapsed. And it's all gone to China, we suspect the same will happen to the wind industry, what is left of it. In Europe, the manufacturing costs are very high in Europe, they're obviously very much lower. In in China, and in Asia, generally, there's been a periodic attempts to reintroduce manufacturing, say to to Scotland, they come to nothing. The industry is under a lot of pressure to reduce its costs, it cannot reduce its costs by making wind turbines here in Europe did that their costs will rise dramatically.
Robert Bryce 42:11
If there's, I don't know, I've studied this for a long time. And I still can't quite get my mind around how this this this blind ignorance of this, these issues have been allowed to pervade the system and in the way that they have. But let me go back to your your essay for the month parallel Mont Pelerin Society. And you made this really remarkable point that you said that Liberty doesn't create wealth, you kind of turned this idea about human liberty. And you talked a lot about he wrote a lot about the Industrial Revolution. He said that Liberty doesn't create wealth, it's the other way around. And that wealth, when society was constructed for millennia, because we were solely dependent on these random sources of energy, but it was the ability you wrote here it is, it is. It is wealth, therefore, that is necessary to create freedom. Subsequently, the process is autocatalytic, which is very good word, greater freedom, leading to still greater wealth, I still suggest that there's consequently a realistic threat of deep and enduring reductions in aggregate national, regional and indeed global wealth, reductions that will lead as implied by the XM two reductions in freedom. And that these reductions in freedom will be because we're constricting the society restricting the economy to renewables, am I am I have I stated this correctly?
John Constable 43:29
That's correct. I'm just talking to classical liberal economists, many of whom, of course, believe that wealth grew in Europe, particularly in Britain in the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly in the 19th century, because of liberal institutional and economic regulations. Now, there is some truth in that. But my argument is that actually, those that liberal liberal societies emerged out of the wealth that had already been created by the increasing use of fossil fuels first compete in Netherlands and the Netherlands, then increasingly coal. And indeed, coal consumption predates the what's classically referred to as the Industrial Revolution 1750 to 1830. So coal consumption was 50% of British energy as early as 17 116. A very large part of British energies. They weren't like we're a diversion economy long before what people think of as the classic Industrial Revolution. And that tells you that something that was going on other than simple, liberal, societal reforms, it's the wealth which enables people to actually have liberal societies. And then as I say, you have these strong auto catalytic effects. So in some parts of the classical liberal arguments, definitely right. But you have to be rich in order to have a free society.
Robert Bryce 44:55
And to be rich, you have to have a lot of available energy
John Constable 44:58
and high quality energy which Europeans did. So I've got a whole essay is trying to suggest to people that our conception of the English industrial revolution is obscuring the importance of energy, in the growth of wealth within human societies, we tend to think that it's very instantaneous, so termed the English industrial revolution is deeply misleading. I mean, it wasn't solely English, it was actually a Dutch English American phenomenon very, very early in the 17th century. And you should think of this as a really, it's Anglo Dutch American very early. And it's not solely industrial, it affects every aspect of society. And it's not a revolution in the usually accepted sense of the term. It's very slow. If it's a revolution, it's a planetary revolution, taking a very long time. Indeed, it's certainly not a sudden turnover. And indeed, the British transition could be dated back to I don't know, 1400 onwards, that's when you see interesting changes, employment, diversity increasing, and fuel diversity beginning to improve all the way through the 16th and 17th centuries, increasing amounts of coal coming in economizing the use of wood for other purposes within the economy. And where does the term the English Industrial Revolution come from? Well, very interesting, and wasn't used until the 1880s in the English language. In fact, it's derived from French revolutionaries in the 1790s. We were talking about their own political revolution, and then saying, Well, it's time we had an industrial revolution to match the political one that we've had. In the 1830s, French political economists have started to notice that they hadn't had the industrial revolution, but something very dramatic appeared to be in process in in Britain, monarchical, backwards Britain. And this was put down in writing by a well known political economist of that time blankie now and was read by Engels, who use the term industrial revolution in his book in German on the condition of the English working classes, Marx used it in capital, and it has an audio, no life in English until those words started to become better known to English writers in the late late 1870s and early 1880s. Via via Arnold Toynbee bought via Arnold Toynbee, the uncle of the famous cycles of history pointy. Yes, exactly. And it's, so it's a, it's an imposition on history. If you'd ask people in the 1790s in Britain, what do you think of the Industrial Revolution? They would have said, Never heard of it. What are you talking about? I'm there's no such thing. And they wouldn't have described it because they didn't see any dramatic discontinuity in their economic development. And indeed, most economic historians writing in the latter half of the 19th century, Alfred Marshall, the founder of modern economics, in many respects, explicitly rejected the term industrial revolution when Toynbee introduced it because he thought it was inaccurate and misleading, which indeed it is. So I think that it's important that we get it right, because the the key difference between the earliest stages of the British economy, and the later ones is an energy difference. It's not industry exactly its energy. And this has been argued at length by Anthony Wrigley, the economic historian at Cambridge. And he very kindly said, some things I say, in these papers original, I hope some of it is, but much of its derived by extensive work done by a diligent economic historian, such as Tony radiative Cambridge.
Robert Bryce 48:38
But so then the progression than to really drive this point home because I think it's absolutely critical is that the progression is energy, wealth, freedom, yes, in that order, always everywhere, and then freedom, creating more wealth, and more energy,
John Constable 48:56
so you get the most so you can actually absorb more energy and use it productively within your system. So you get also catalytic growth.
Robert Bryce 49:03
So I want to bring up William Stanley Jevons, because of course, he's considered in my mind, as far as I know, the first energy economist and his book, The CO question published 1865, right, which was this idea, still being debated by economists and energy geeks today is this idea of the rebound effect or the Jevons paradox? I could I could take a whack at explaining it. But tell me what was the gist what is the what is the Jevons paradox?
John Constable 49:30
Jefferson says argument is, I think, underappreciated. It's, I think, misrepresented, where by calling it a paradox, what Kevin's did was to take an observation made by Eustace von Liebig, the German chemist, who said that civilization was the economy of power, the economy of power, economy of power was the economic use of power, in other words force or the ability to cause change. And Jevons simply observed, that when you improve the efficiency of a process, you save Some energy, but do you actually conserve it? Or do you turn it to another purpose? Well, of course, you turn it to another purpose. Now that other purpose may be more of the same, you may use more of the same function. And or you may do something else with it. But you will never actually pass up the opportunity to improve your life and those of others around you.
Robert Bryce 50:23
You want to see, so another way if I could, through efficiency doesn't reduce energy use it increases it,
John Constable 50:29
increase it, in must increase it and that is economic growth. So Jevons is pointing to it's not a theory, some people struggle on theory. In fact, both Jevons and Liebig were pointing to a history and saying, the evidence is there, you can see it, the growth of civilization and economic growth is the economy of power. So if an efficiency measure works, it means that the total consumption of energy will increase, inevitably. So consequently, when we look at the energy consumption profiles of, say, modern economies, and UK, France, Germany, and indeed, to a degree in the United States, what do you see is not rising energy consumption, you see stagnant or even falling, energy consumption stagnant in the US definitely falling in some of the European states. That is not a good sign. That is not the direction in which it should be working. Somebody looks at that and says, Well, that's energy efficiency. What's that doing? It's improving the efficiency. Well, can't be the right Jevons. His logic is impeccable, if the efficiency measures were working, the total consumption would still be increasing, something else must be happening. And in fact, the obvious interpretation is look at the falling consumption. And then you look at the costs that are being imposed by policies over the last few years. And you say, actually, this is price rationing. People simply can't afford to consume the energy they would like to us.
Robert Bryce 51:49
Well, I like this idea, though, of energy being the the fundamental basis of freedom, because I see this. And you point out in some of this in that mount Pelerin Society essay, but I've often thought in in looking at what is happening here in the US, there's some of these moves in terms of banning the use of natural gas, prohibiting the sale of internal combustion engines. Some of this smacks of some totalitarian, kind of, and I don't use this with any say, with any joy, but this the state imposition of what your what individual consumers will be allowed to do the amount of energy that they will be allowed to consume the rationing of energy, the rationing of the types of energy. I think it's a slippery slope. I just really see this as there's a
John Constable 52:34
physically dangerous, I agree, I don't think it's politically stable. And one of the points I make in the Mont Pelerin. Society paper is that these policies will concentrate the available capital in the energy sector, they wondered, what's the big change in the British industrial history. On 1500 to 1900, the energy sector changed. It changed from being land to being cold. In the middle of the 18th century, the energy sector land dominated the economy. Landowners employed three quarters of the working people of Britain in 1750,
Robert Bryce 53:15
because that was the only way to get energy for whether it was by feeding draught horses or whatever were
John Constable 53:20
very low productivity energy sector. And most people worked in the energy sector on the land, only a very few people worked outside the energy sector, creating other kinds of wealth, by 1900, led to change dramatically. The energy sector was only a minority part of the total economy, because the energy margin, the energy return on energy invested was so large, that people could do lots of other things, apart from working in the energy sector and working for landowners. So it was liberating. What broke the power of land wasn't politics, it was coal, actually, was because the rest of the economy became so rich, that the importance of land declined. Now what we're doing is reversing that trend. We're saying we're trying to force people back into a low productivity energy sector, the energy sector will become a larger part of the total economy, wages will fall, naturally, the non energy sector will contract, it's quite possible that the overall economy will contract. But the power of people who own renewable energy generating technologies and the systems will increase, it will be like the aristocrats of the 18th century, that's not politically sustainable. People have got used to these very free open societies, where the owners of the energy sector do not have dominant power, and that will not be politically tolerable. I can see intense pressure for the sequestration of renewable energy assets and taking them into public ownership. So they don't become dominantly politically influential, and ultimately, I fully expect the renewables lecture to fail in 30 years time. I don't expect there to be any renewables in our systems at all. We'll have seen the light for this and we will have taken the gas to nuclear applause. Now it's conceivable we get it wrong, in which case we'll have other problems to worry about.
Robert Bryce 55:05
Well, to quote a friend of mine, from your lips to God's ears was that the the line that comes to mind. But this idea of energy rationing, I think is quite dangerous. And this idea of limiting choice is quite dangerous. And you mentioned angles and mark. So I wanted to bring up another guest who's been on the podcast, emit Penny. He's read Marx, I haven't read Marx haven't read Engels, I've read a lot of stuff. And you know, I write a lot of read some. He said that if Marx were alive, Marx would be an energy maximalist, which only was an interesting idea, right? But But it goes to your point about the liberating, the liberating force of energy for the poor, and the middle class is key to all of this. And yet, what we see in the United States and now in the UK, is the increased price of energy is going to force a rationing of energy use in the poor in the middle class. So I'll ask the question was Marx were alive? Would he be an energy maximalist? I think
John Constable 56:08
Marx wanted to see the lives of human beings improved on him. So he went about it in a rather strange way. But his intent, his intentions were good. Yes, I think he probably would. I mean, energy is simply a way of changing the world. The point is to change the world. So energy is a way of changing the world to human advantage. And if you start restricting the use of energy, inevitably, you will harm human welfare. It's as simple as that. And if you start forcing people to use energy in particular ways you will do the same.
Robert Bryce 56:42
And I think it's a really important point, John, and it's one that I'm glad you're making. By the way, I shouldn't interrupt I haven't done my space station identification. My guest today is John Constable. He's the director of the Renewable Energy Foundation, which is a public charity in the UK, you can contribute it is a small foundation and they are good use a donation, you can find them at our e f.org.uk. Let me read this ending the summary paragraph here in your in your piece for the mount Pelerin Society, which I guess you delivered this last year, I guess in 2021, is that right? Yes, in
John Constable 57:18
November, Guatemala City.
Robert Bryce 57:22
You talked about this, we talked about the autocatalytic effect of human liberty on wealth. That this, you say that this self poisoning, which I think is a really powerful word that the self poisoning that will occur as wealth is destroyed and human liberty eroded could have consequences that are rapidly manifested. I've spent much of this paper arguing that in general, we over diagnose the existence of revolutionary transitions and dis continuities in societal affairs, but I did not and do not deny their possibility of their factual and existence. And here's the here's the money lines here in coercing a change of fuels against the thermodynamic gradient, in other words, going toward renewables, forcing the use of higher entropy sources that would be an indeed have hitherto been spontaneously rejected in a liberal market. Because harmful to human welfare, it is possible that the state apparatus may trigger a discontinuity, humanity has climbed, slowly climbed, and arduously yet almost unwittingly up Mount Improbable, and now enjoys remarkable prospects. But should we lose our hand and footholds we are all but certain to slide rapidly and with much injury down it's steep and unforgiving slopes, and your your your your forecasting some very, could be some very ruinous economic and political outcomes. If unless we come to our senses am i Is that a good summary
John Constable 58:46
to be I'm saying it could be very dangerous indeed. And we shouldn't expect the downfall from a high energy societies to be gentle as it was on the up grade. So it took a very long time to get where we are today, growth has been very slow. I mean, we've been started always been going into exponential growth, but they weren't able to sustain it. With the introduction of coal and then oil and gas and nuclear, we've been able to sustain growth and exponential growth were quite a few years now. But up until the last century or two, growth curve was very slow and arduous. What I'm suggesting in that paper is that there's no discontinuity in the English industrial revolution, so called it was a very long process. But if we get our energy supply wrong, we shouldn't until ourselves with the idea that there won't be a discontinuity in the future. The decline could exhibit what will actually be quite salient to people over short periods of times it will feel like a discontinuity we will suddenly be much poorer. There's a risk that this is true as I say you climb slowly but you fall very fast.
Robert Bryce 59:54
So what is this attraction around renewable energy? I you know, I've thought about it I've written about it I you know, lectured about And I get this question about why this attraction and I think there smacks of some, you know, there's a religious aspect to this. There's ideas about the Garden of Eden and returning. And in fact, I was a friend of mine said to suggest to remember Joni what Joni Mitchell song Woodstock, we have to get back to the garden. What? Where's where's this attraction from renewables? Why is this idea of wind and solar so attractive to so many people?
John Constable 1:00:24
It's good energy. I fear it's, it's natural, the idea that
Robert Bryce 1:00:28
a Google energy
John Constable 1:00:31
so Gwyneth Paltrow is doing it seems it's a gift. So it's approved by nature, it's provided it's not unnatural, and produced by human beings, therefore, it's a gift from the natural world. Perhaps it's the free lunch, it so leave that ultimately, we have at last found a free lunch and the free lunches, wind and solar. It's sort of a mirage. Yes, it is, in fact, a mirage. And if we wish to have a clean society, and indeed, if we wish to preserve the natural world, we're going to need much more energy rather than less. So conservation of natural world will become one more human requirement, which for which we will need very considerable energy consumption. It
Robert Bryce 1:01:19
has to be from small footprints. That's the part that to me. The denser the better
John Constable 1:01:24
density, the better. So there's intense conflict, in fact, between environmentalism and land hungry renewables, and that's beginning to manifest itself. And the environmentalists have a long track record of regretting their purchases. They have buyer's remorse over and over again, about this, and they're keen about diesel engines, and then they find that actually, diesel is very wicked and they mustn't have there's some they're keen on biomass, and then they suddenly find that burning 25 million US trees a year in a British pass station is not such a good idea, after all. Well, we could have told them that to begin with, but they weren't listening. Unfortunately,
Robert Bryce 1:02:01
the draft the draft plant, is that not right?
John Constable 1:02:04
Yes. Right, which is an enabling technology for wind and solar. It's a way of actually getting away with wind and solar, the attractions of wind. And so yes, I think it's a natural energy source, it appears to people to be free, which of course it isn't, because the conversion, delivery costs are so high. And, and also the iconography of wind particularly is very powerful. The wind turbine is a ubiquitous modern image, it's crucifix into flour. It's symbolizes sacrifice and rebirth, all in one somewhat questionable image. It's a gift to a PR agent.
Robert Bryce 1:02:41
And I see those I went to I spoke in front of her, it was a it was a large, large audience in a large company. And they were in the oil and gas business. And one of the slides they had behind the stage when I took the stage was a wind turbine. And the first thing I said, when I got up there, I said, you're an oil and gas company, what are you doing here? What it's about, I mean, was even in their own presentation, I thought, Do you not understand what you're doing here, but these images that you're using?
John Constable 1:03:08
Well, at some point, that image will become a disgrace. And when it's better understood, this is a way of exploiting the consumer, seeing those things will become nauseating. And you will simply realize that they're a symbol of all the mistakes we've made about the energy sector. Going back to your question, what is it about renewables that seems so attractive? I think it is the the key thing here is that we were all so rich, that we've forgotten a lot about physics, we've gotten about the difficulty of actually doing work. And and we want to sit down, you know, have a rest, I say my paper, you can't do that you really got it, you don't work, you die. And we need to have the energy to keep on doing the workforce. But the wind turbines and solar panels suggest that actually, yes, we can take the rest, we can take a holiday. And it isn't true. And it's very dangerous to do that. We're going to learn the hard way I fear, we both on both our countries have done so much renewables now that the damage, a lot of damage is done. Even if we would change policy today, I wish we could, there would still be a lot of damage, which we'll have to live with for the next 30 or 40 or 50 years or more will fall down.
Robert Bryce 1:04:17
So what motivates you on this John? I mean, you you you speak passionately about it, you write passionately about it, you've got as my father would say you have the bitten your teeth, why? I do
John Constable 1:04:27
think civilization is worth preserving. And without a healthy energy supply, we may not be able to preserve it. And I'm more of an historian and a philosopher than most people in the energy sector. I have a perhaps a stronger sense that there's a lot at stake here. Actually, as you said, we've been talking about human freedom, but there's a great deal else at stake. I'm involved in that. It's just the the well being of our families into the future our children, and also the sophistication of our thought was the tolerances which we value in society and liberal societies are actually at risk if we get the energy wrong? No, I want a free and open society. And I'm sure you do as well. That's a that is a hazard. If we don't get our energy supply, right, we may slip back into periods which are much more oppressive and less tolerant. I simply don't want to see that. And so yes, I'm, I am very motivated about this. It's not simply for me a matter of cost, because the costs are actually have very important dimensions and depths to them which go well beyond not being able to afford another car next year, or have a second holiday this year, but really to do with deep qualities in our life and the values of which we actually hold dear. In contemporary America and Britain.
Robert Bryce 1:05:40
The costs aren't just at the at the fuel pump or the in the electric bill.
John Constable 1:05:44
No, they're in your mouth, they're in your mind. They're in the prospects for our children and the sorts of lives they will be able to leave sort of things that they will be able to do, which may be much more constricted and less pleasant than the Lightspeed lead. I think that's very worrying indeed.
Robert Bryce 1:05:59
Well, it's to your point, I think the costs are also undestroyed landscapes. And this is the part that just I just cannot get around it. And I'm an avid birdwatcher. And so as Matt Ridley, and we talked about birds and I, you know, regularly do it. And this idea of these environmental groups, I quit calling, actually, they're not their activist groups, and they're not environment. They don't, in my opinion, that in many cases, they just don't care about environment at all, because they're campaigners. But there's just destruction in the landscape. Oh, well, you just put it out there in flyover country, you know, screw those, you know, those poor bumpkins out there. We don't give a darn about them. We'll put it on their backyard, but we're not going to have it here in Montauk or in Malibu, no, can't have that. But it turns the whole system of, of nature and valuing nature on its head to me and that's the part that I just cannot get my I cannot get past and I cannot forgive. But anyway, that's my that's my. So whose work on this? Do you admire? John? My guest again, is John Constable from the Renewable Energy Foundation. Whose work are you reading? What whose work on these issues do you admire
John Constable 1:07:03
on the history of energy use?
Robert Bryce 1:07:06
The broad the broad field of energetics and power and so on.
John Constable 1:07:10
I find a great deal of economic history interesting. So, Antony Wrigley at Cambridge is a particular favorite of mine. Very detailed work on energy use English history, which I think it's so deeply suggestive. It's the one I recommend to everybody.
Robert Bryce 1:07:30
I mean, particular books by Wrigley. Yes, energy
John Constable 1:07:33
in the English industrial revolution at Cambridge University Press. 2010 11. Okay. Those are that's that's the one. Listen to any, any good basic primer on the physics of energy, hard work for somebody educated in the humanities like me, but very, very rewarding. If I could go back, I take a, an intensive physics course as an undergraduate and make sure that I didn't lose sight of what's
Robert Bryce 1:08:03
right. Jesse also bells work because it was great influence on me. So, Vaclav Smil, as well. But so what about now you're sitting in front of shelves full of books, what are you reading now what's on your bookshelf, or on your nightstand or your desk at the moment,
John Constable 1:08:18
like many people surrounded by books, I read in books. So I hop around reading a chapter here, a chapter there,
Robert Bryce 1:08:26
I skim a lot. I buy books, and I skim a lot of books. Well,
John Constable 1:08:29
there are very few books, there's true books, most of them have an academic article or two, somewhere buried in there. The first thing I
Robert Bryce 1:08:37
would say an idea of the novel is a short story patted was that, something like
John Constable 1:08:41
that? Well, look at the acknowledgments at the front of most academic books, particularly, you'll see that it says, I'd like to thank the editor of the Journal of this and that for allowing me to reprint chapter 16. And you say it's chapter 16. So when I have to read that
i Yes, I'm reading a great deal I have. I have marks here too, as you probably see behind me. At the moment, I'm thinking intensively about the history of the Industrial Revolution, partly because of that paper, which you referred to the more pillar on paper, which I do hope to publish in full, reasonably soon. So I've been studying the history of English Industrial Revolution. That's what I've actually been working on much of the last few months.
Robert Bryce 1:09:26
And so how much of this is a side question? But so how much the Bolton and watt and the their work does that? Does that figure into your research?
John Constable 1:09:36
Well, that technologists and I point wish to develop in future work is to remind people that technology is not a spirit is actually a very expensive achievement. So we're told frequently that technology will certainly address the deficiencies of renewables, but that's a very high cost solution. A technology is not a spirit. It's a very expensive thing to do. It's very specific cated and improbable state of affairs.
Robert Bryce 1:10:04
It's interesting, just add one idea to that this idea a will innovate, and we'll find something new. And I'm thinking, really, I mean, like no one has thought about replacing gasoline in the last 100 years. I mean, this is not these are not new problems.
John Constable 1:10:17
And there have been continuous innovation and improvement in the fossil fuel sector. And yet, we say over and over here that we'd probably be in a much better state with regard to decarbonisation, if we hadn't introduced renewables into our system, we'd have low costs and progressively cleaner electricity, or cars would be low cut, lower cost and lower consuming. And we'd actually be on the track to net zero, it might not be in 2050, it might be much further off, but we'd be on a sustainable track, because you wouldn't be confronting the population with poverty and unacceptable reductions in standard of living, which will turn them against the whole idea of reducing emissions. In any case. Now, there are many opinions about the strength of the need to reduce emissions. But it's quite perfectly rational to have a climate policy, it's just that your climate policy has to be rational at all simply isn't rational at present, it must, it doesn't pass the three basic tests. And this is an insurance policy, isn't it. So it should pass the basic test of an insurance policy should provide real cover, it should provide that cover at a premium, which is proportional to the risk hazard times probability insofar as we understand it, but a big questions there. And of course, the premium should be affordable in itself. Our climate policies don't pass any of these tests, there's no real cover. And the cost of premium is exorbitant in relation to the risk. And the the absolute cost is absolutely astronomical. So the public is going to be disenchanted with all this. And you can actually, you can latch on to this very simply by looking at the single the social cost of carbon, which is a measure that economists use to say, well, what's the harm that's going to be done by emitting a ton of carbon dioxide today? Right? There are a lot of estimates. But the middle range of this and the the density of estimates is round about $50 per tonne of carbon dioxide that's done. How much does the abatement cost of renewable energy cost? Well, in the UK, rooftop solar is round about $1,000 per tonne, right. It's many, many times worse than the harm it's trying to prevent. Offshore Wind 200 300 $400 a tonne onshore wind $100 $200, a tonne, something like this. So the cure is worse than the disease. Now, the long term prediction for that is that the public will reject this, they're going to say you've been offering us a cure, which is vastly worse than disease, you've been telling us to take chemotherapy for a cold. And we're just not going to do that. So I think the environmentalist should wake up to this problem and say that renewable energy is actually a threat to long term stable and perfectly reasonable environmental policy, which could command public acceptance and tolerance in the foreseeable future. Renewables are actually going to damage this agenda. They need to stop it quite soon.
Robert Bryce 1:13:15
Well, last question, then John. We've we've talked more than an hour and I like to keep my podcasts in about an hour and it's been quite enjoyable. But I'm sure I could, you know, keep peppering you with questions is is a remarkable conversation and really, quite enlightening. I these ideas around entropy and wealth and energy are fascinating. What gives you hope?
John Constable 1:13:35
Human beings are remarkably resilient. And they tend to do the right thing, eventually. We're very good at learning. And we're, we put up with this instruction from government for just so long. And then we push back. So I have some hope about it. I think the younger generation winsomely good. I'm, I have three boys, my eldest boy, now left university, but I can remember him coming back from school with an answer sheet about renewable energy, and showing it to me, and he had to be marked by his teacher, and there was some text along the side. And I said to him, John, lot of these answers you've given here are not strictly speaking, true, actually. And he said, Yeah, we all know that, but those are the right answers.
Robert Bryce 1:14:24
According to the university, they're
John Constable 1:14:25
holding the answers. Right. And I think that's how it is with people. I mean, people will pay lip service to the orthodoxy, but they actually know perfectly well, that a lot of what's going on in the energy sector is not a good idea, and that they will push back against it. But there's a lot of work for us to do. I mean, unless we generate good information and keep the bulk public debate going. And there will be problems. The sooner we fix this, the better. But my hope is that, basically people are very sensible, and they will eventually respond to the information and to the debate. We didn't give up yet.
Robert Bryce 1:15:00
greed fully on that part. Absolutely do not give up. Well, my guest has been John Constable. He is the director of the Renewable Energy Foundation. It is a public charity in the UK. They are accepting donations you can find John and all of his work at our e f.org.uk. John, thanks a million for being on the power hungry podcast. It's been great. Thank
John Constable 1:15:20
you very much. Great pleasure.
Robert Bryce 1:15:22
And all of you in podcast land. Thanks for tuning in. Tune in to the next episode of the power hungry podcast. Until then, see you