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07 February 2020

Grandstanding and Hostages to Fortune

Government grandstanding on issues it believes will curry favour is hardly new, and I fear that the climate change/renewable energy/end of fossil fuels issue is one where we can see it writ large. I am not a climate scientist (or indeed any sort of scientist), so I find it difficult to have a definitive view on what may be happening in the Earth’s atmosphere. However, common sense tells me that if there is a possibility of major atmospheric change then it makes sense to act in a way which would help mitigate it. So it seems to me perfectly reasonable to work towards the elimination of burning fuels which produce one form or another of noxious by-product. After all, even in the unlikely case that the majority of climate scientists were wrong, it would nevertheless be the case that our cities, for example, would be pleasanter places in which to live if every passing vehicle were not pumping out a gas which adds a pollutant to the delicate balance of elements which make up the air we breathe. 

So I’m in favour of a move away from petrol and diesel vehicles, and a shift to something - which currently looks like electric power, but may turn out long-term to be something else, like hydrogen, for example - which would make the world a cleaner, quieter place. However, what is going on amongst governments at present looks disturbingly like a game of carbon-zero top trumps, as each tries to be the one which will phase out internal combustion engines soonest. 

If only it were that easy. The UK’s target for the elimination of the sale of petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicles has just been moved forward form 2040 to 2035; it’s a good sound-bite to tag on to the preparations for the COP26 conference in Glasgow in November. Between the desire and the execution, though, it looks as though there is a chasm to be bridged.

For government policy announcements of this sort conveniently sidestep the irritating details, such as cost and availability of the necessary resources; those minor points are clearly for the little people to bother themselves about. (Of course, if our election result had been different, no doubt we would have been promised a free charger and free electricity in every home, almost immediately….). But seriously, the starting point where we now are is not particularly promising. Right now, there is something in the order of 30000 charging points on the UK (that figure, as far as I can see, refers to publicly available points, so probably discounts those in private homes). That number makes the UK number three in Europe; but that simple comparison ism’t particularly useful, since wildly different national populations mean that requirements are also hugely different. The only sensible comparable would be per capita of population, and on that one the UK does not score particularly well at all.

So, as we all know, really, the charging network is just as important as the availability of the vehicles. In 2013, the cost of installing a Tesla Supercharger was around $100000; in 2015 it was $175000. The only figure I can find for the moment is about $200000, but I have to admit that that I can’t find full accreditation of that figure. But even if we take the (not unreasonable) view that advancing technology and economies of scale may well make these things cheaper, there is still an enormous investment required to cover the country sufficiently to make it feasible to phase out internal combustion.

And then to flow through all those cables to all those new charging points, we need the electricity to be generated. Let’s be realistic; unless tide and wave power can be made effective with the next fifteen years, it’s unlikely that renewables will alone suffice - there has to be something else, and since zero carbon necessarily precludes gas - which logic would probably otherwise dictate - we should be grateful for the revelation that Rolls Royce are continuing to push the case for small-scale nuclear reactors; we may need them.

Then there is the bit that is interesting to us as metal producers and traders: where is all the copper, cobalt and nickel going to come from? Of course, maybe the technology will have changed in fifteen years, and cobalt, nickel and lithium (incidentally, to me more of a chemical product in the way it is traded than a metal, so good luck to those who want to trade it on an exchange like a metal….) will no longer rule. Long experience tells us that copper, on the other hand, is not so likely to be replaced as the significant conductive element. Copper demand should be very solid for years to come.

This is a huge technological change being demanded, the surface of which I have barely scratched here. Is it possible in fifteen years? Well, as a non-scientist, I am in awe of technological development; when I look at what has been achieved in the modern era, it is truly remarkable, so I’m broadly optimistic. But why, oh why, do (relatively) intelligent politicians make themselves hostage to fortune with such grandstanding announcements?         


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