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The Fog of Peace Lifts on the Energy Transition

John Constable

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Chris Keefer  0:00  

Welcome back to Decouple. Today I'm joined by Dr. John Constable. John holds a PhD in English from Cambridge and as taught at both Kyoto University, Japan, and UK, Cambridge, Dr. Constable has been working in energy policy since 2004, directing the Renewable Energy Foundation, a UK, UK charity, publishing data and research on the energy sector. John, welcome to the program.


John Constable  0:20  

Thank you very much, Chris Ray kind of used to invite me on to speak about these things.


Chris Keefer  0:25  

Well, I heard you on Robert Bryce, his power hungry podcast, and I was blown away. And it really encouraged my listeners to, to head back to Roberts podcast to get another flavor here. But I was looking around online, and I couldn't find any other podcast appearances by you. And really wanted to help get more of your ideas out there into a more accessible format.


John Constable  0:46  

Very grateful for the opportunity. I'm more of a I type and write much more than I speak. Although I do sometimes be


Chris Keefer  0:51  

absolutely well, you know, this, today's media landscape, certainly, a lot of people still do take the time to read the long reports. But I'm really looking forward to being able to get a a smattering of your ideas. In any case, I try and get accolades, bone a few days out of the way. And then get you to do a self introduction focused a little bit on sort of your personal values, motivations, and why you've come to be interested in the things that you have. So go ahead, take it from there.


John Constable  1:17  

Yes, I, people often think it's very odd to have started off in the humanities and jumped across into energy. It to me doesn't seem to be strange at all I had, even when I was working there, fantasy is a very bad case of science envy. And the things I did were really directed to, well soluble problems rather than endlessly discussable mysteries, which my colleagues tend to prefer. So moving across into energy studies was not quite the jump that it might seem. And in fact, there were points of real contact, because although I was working on language structures, I was actually working with a physicist, because we were dealing with concepts of order and randomness, in language. And of course, many of those concepts apply in discussion of energy, and indeed, the creation of wealth, which has become one of my principal interests.


Chris Keefer  2:03  

So the circumstances of this interview have changed dramatically. I had initially reached out to you because we've been focusing on on many different issues here on the podcast. But we've we've been sort of profiling a lot of different energy sources, with a focus on nuclear, but I'd really wanted to touch on offshore wind, which is something that the Renewable Energy Foundation has been deep diving. And I do want to get to that, but I feel that the momentous historic change of the Russian aggression in Ukraine demands some attention, and I'm really looking forward to getting some of your thoughts on it as it pertains heavily to the question of energy. Certainly, the talk of the day seems very much directed at how to get the EU off its addiction to Russian gas. And there's diversity of opinions there. One of the ones I found more strange, Laurie middlee, Virta, lead analyst at the center, the Center for Research on energy, and clean air, it was one of those saying that we sort of need more of the same build even more wind and solar, interestingly, obtain biogas from Ukraine, to the tune of 17 billion cubic meters per year or 10% of EU imports from Russia. I mean, these sorts of ideas are floating around, I think, I think there's been a real sort of fog of peace, when it comes to having serious discussions on energy, things have been very obscure. And, unfortunately, war is bringing a lot of a lot of clarity to the basic physics of energy. And that's why again, I'm so excited to speak with you. In your opinion, over the last few days, what are you noticing in terms of kind of the energy conversation energy discourse that's going on, and then what we'll get into some of your ideas about some of the basic physics underlying our energy choices?


John Constable  3:50  

Well, you might expect that the instantaneous knee jerk response to this event would be to say that you've got to turn your back on fossil fuels such as gas. But in fact, to a surprising degree, that's not the case. And people are actually seeing this much more clearly than you might think. And people are reasonably talking reasonably about establishing fuel diversity with high quality fuels. And it's reasonably well understood in Europe that the dependency on gas is actually the result of the renewables policies. In effect, what we've done is narrowed our fuel diversity in terms of quality onto a single fuel onto gas, so that the renewables contribute no real stability, or reliability to the system systems become throughout Europe, critically dependent on natural gas even though the total consumption may have been reduced, or at least not have increased as much. Gas is the sole high quality fuel guaranteeing security of supply and it's that which explains our extreme exposure to the gas prices. Over the last year and a half or so we've had very low winds in Europe, and that has meant that much more natural gas has been called upon. Renewables vary over all timescales. We In particularly all timescales from seconds to decades, uncontrollably, which and something has to step in and supply the deficit. And that's been natural gas for various reasons, it's an extremely good fuel for that purpose. So, paradoxically, although you might think that the current crisis would reinforce the case for renewables, there's actually a great deal of realism about this and a recognition that we need real diversity in the high quality fuels. And indeed, in Germany, they're even talking about re establishing their coal fired power stations in order to ensure that in the UK, on the other hand, we're not talking about that yet. We're little bit behind our Secretary of State for energy is still claiming that renewables are cheaper, which I don't think they are. And I think very few analysts actually believe, but overall in your much more realism than you might expect, and people are saying, Yes, we're supposed to gas, we may have to steer into the skid on that in the short term. And we may have to look around much more carefully for high quality fields to ensure diversity of supply in the future.


Chris Keefer  6:03  

It's it's a very interesting that the tensions that are that are rising on this front, Roger Pielke, he talks about the iron law of climate where, you know, when climate policy conflicts with economic growth, you know, economic growth will always be what will be chosen. I think that comes in even more stark contrast with geopolitics, and particularly with war. And it's going to be, I think, very interesting, watching the contortions of say the Biden administration, as it wrestles with the geopolitical concern of needing to supply Europe with fracked, liquefied natural gas, and its own stated climate objectives. What are you noticing on that front? And how do you think that's going to play out?


John Constable  6:46  

Roger piLc, his remark is absolutely pertinent. And the iron law, when its choice between cleaning up the energy system and economic growth, economic growth will take precedence. And you ask yourself, Well, why is that? Well, because economic growth is not a trivial matter. You're talking about human well being here, not trivial matters of human wellbeing. There are such things, I suppose. But mostly people are pretty sensible about what they want. And the expression of their wishes are directed towards the well being of their families. And you cannot expect them to put anything else above that, or they will discount the future very, very heavily. And this is one of the things I find most puzzling indeed, about work. For example, Lord Stern's Stern Review, which discounts the present so heavily, and the future, not at all. And that's not how people actually value the present and the future you have to get through today, in order to get to tomorrow. Quite obviously. It's unclear to me whether politicians really understand what was meant by those discount rates. I think they interpreted them as little stern dials as being moral that say, this is how you should value the present in the future, not as predictably or psychologically predictably, as in fact, they are, which is how people actually behave. And so when we look at current politics, I see a disjunction between politicians who are in effect, telling people how they should actually value present, and future. And the people who have not changed their minds. And they've not changed their minds, because they understand their own affairs better than anybody else. And they are making the actually very practical decisions about what they want to do. So politicians have prescribed renewable energy, and they've actually compelled people to buy it across Europe. But in fact, people are deeply skeptical about it, people are not stupid, they can see that there's problems here. They're being told they must have electric vehicles. Well, they're very expensive, and they have many drawbacks. And so the uptake has been disappointing in many respects. And similarly, there have been prescriptions here to adopt heat pumps, and to turn our back on natural gas boilers, instinctive skepticism kicks in the Bush Telegraph works very well. The bad news from current installations and there is quite a lot of it has gone around people understand these things much, much better than politicians actually believe. They're sensible.


Chris Keefer  9:00  

This question of discounting the futures is very interesting to me. I'm someone who is quite concerned about climate change, but I've become increasingly worried about the very proximate impacts of poor energy choices. And I think what brought this into focus to me was, you know, having a child who was born three months premature, who was absolutely 100%, dependent on reliable energy flowing to his incubator. And, of course, I have grave concerns about his children and his grandchildren. But the simple reality is, is that there will be no grandchildren or great grandchildren. If he isn't, he doesn't survive, he doesn't live and luckily, he came through that well, and he's a thriving little boy. But it did bring into focus for me this needs to really balance our approximate choices about energy to not to not screw this up. I've been doing a lot of thinking recently upon Degrowth that it fits into a sort of eco romantic narrative which is so common in the in the discourse here and we What I've been thinking about recently is just, it really means a sort of kneecapping of our capacity to adapt. Fundamentally if climate change is going to be something that's catastrophic to a large degree. The degree to which it is catastrophic will be a self fulfilling prophecy of the ICA romantics. If they're able to limit our ability to adapt, and if they're successful with Degrowth and deindustrialization. We've seen, I think, a first wave of deindustrialization, which occurred along lines of economic thinking economic policy, neoliberalism looking for cheaper sources of labor and less environmental regulation. But I think we're into a sort of second phase of deindustrialization now, which has a lot to do with our energy choices. You know, we can make things cheaper in places that burn a lot of coal and don't have a lot of regulations. And we're setting up an energy system, it seems to me that is becoming increasingly expensive, increasingly unreliable. You share that that concern or that's that's analysis, you've written a lot about the industrial revolution or process of industrializing but I'm concerned and thinking about about this deindustrialization. I'm deep


John Constable  11:13  

agreement with the press, I'm very concerned about it. And those concerns arise, actually, because of my study of the past. I think economists haven't helped us here. And they haven't really understood what happened in what is commonly called the Industrial Revolution. Although, as you will know, from what I've written, I and many others not really don't think there was such a thing as an industrial revolution. The English Industrial Revolution wasn't solely English, it wasn't solely industrial. And it took hundreds of years, it wasn't a revolution in any meaningful sense of the term. What happened, actually took place in Northern Europe, not just in England, it was in Holland continued over several 100 years. And that was the addition of superior quality fields thermodynamically superior, firstly, peat in the Netherlands, and then coal in Britain. And they were able to do that, because they had accumulated just sufficient complexity in their capital structures, capital defined very broadly from bridges and improved roads and improved land, but also mental representations and societal institutions, they require just sufficient complexity in those areas to be able to handle the difficulties of a superior fuel. And once the fuel that superior fuel was added, there was exponential growth in fuel consumption. It's auto catalytic, it so produces more capital, which enables more fuel to be consumed. So I see the process of economic growth and indeed societal growth, as fundamentally pushing the Human Sphere further and further away from thermodynamic equilibrium. Consequently, as you say, if we get our energy source choices wrong, now, we won't be able to maintain the complexity that we have accumulated, let alone add more to it. And that, of course, has enormous implications both for present human well being, and indeed, our ability to deal with future difficulties. For example, adapting to whatever climate change actually comes down the road at us. But not just climate change, of course, I mean, our our sphere, is remarkably free of organisms that ingestible consumers in units of one or more, or indeed have units of less than one, we're very healthy. There are very few threats in our environment. And that's largely because we've constructed an environment to our own heart's desire. And we've done that with energy, of course, I mean, it's important to remember about energy that it's not a thing. It's not doesn't exist. Indeed, it's an abstract concept, describing the potential to cause change in the world as Mark said, you know, the point about the world not to describe it, but to change it. And he was quite right about that. And we're doing it all the time, always changing the world in accordance with our own wishes. If we get our energy choices wrong, our ability to to change it to suit our wishes will decline and are some of those wishes, of course, are very short term that I'm into maintaining the structure of our own bodies and those of our families, but we're quite farsighted creatures to and environmentalism is part of that farsightedness. Now, that's a very key point for me. And I've said this in public lectures that environmentalism is simply one more change that we wish to make in the world to suit our own requirements. It's not altruistic. This is this is for us, you know, this is about us. But it requires energy. So if you value the natural world, it will require energy in order to express that valuation and deliver it. So caring for the world will require energy, stepping back, and refusing to actually undertake the consumption of energy to deliver that wish will result in problems, let alone perhaps even disasters.


Chris Keefer  14:42  

One of the more interesting things from reviewing your work is you're talking about stored energy conversions, and that the choices that we make right now I think we're used to thinking of energy as something that's happening very much in real time, particularly with things like electricity where it's on and off at the flick of a switch, moving at the speed of light, almost, but there's one Well, that builds up as the result of of energy conversions. So if you can walk us through that a little bit and the consequences of screwing up our energy system, how that how that moves us into the future, I guess giving us some historical terms to understand that,


John Constable  15:14  

yes, it's, it's really a very simple idea that we stand on the shoulders of previous generations, the accumulated complexity of previous societies or previous periods in our in human history. And you can illustrate it in various sort of convenient sort of ways. I mean, you think of such a Dutch cities, for example, many of them actually are still supported by piles driven into the mud. In the medieval period, there are roads, literally roads in Britain, across wetland areas, which are still floating on bales of wool, which was sunk in the early Middle Ages. And that's true, more broadly, right the way through our society, we rely on the accumulated complexity of the past. In old cities, it's very obvious, you have all these magnificent older buildings on which, but of course, it goes further than that. Now, the mental representations which we pick up through our education, these have been patiently accumulated and stored in books, and now in electronic media, of course, but the societal reproduction of knowledge means that you have to keep on passing those complex representations through human brains. That means supporting human beings through long periods of time when they can study and learn to interpret the symbols before them, and reproduce those complex mental representations and the texts from which they derive them. All this is a mesh or network of immense in probability. And it builds up quite slowly over time, and it can be lost quite quickly. You climb slowly, but you fall typically quite fast. So I'm rather concerned that the we are negligent, I think about the robustness of our civilizational structures, we take them for granted, we don't we think they don't need maintenance. And that's untrue. We think that because over the last several 100 years, our energy supply has been growing so fast, they'd be maintained quite easily. But previous societies have not found them easy to maintain. And indeed, and people ask what started the English Industrial Revolution realize I've just been saying there wasn't one really, the point about it is not started yet. It says, Why didn't our exponential growth in northwestern Europe stop as it had done in all previous societies, all societies, perhaps organisms are always going into continuous and sustained growth. But ultimately, it is not sustained. So the curve we go into looks like an exponential curve, and then it drops back. That's the record in all previous societies, it could be ours, unless we get our energy choices, right. And it's only through expanding energy supply that we will be able to continue that upward trend, is it possible to arrest it and go flat? I have doubts about that. complex structures, complex systems, particularly are stable, typically only under a condition of growth.


Chris Keefer  17:53  

So the platforming is not so much an option, but you're thinking of a pretty sudden and dramatic and catastrophic decline. Really,


John Constable  18:01  

I it might be rapid, we don't know, it's not an experiment I'd wish to make. I don't think it'd be interesting, if you went into a decline, it might be very difficult to arrest it, it's tempting to think that you could experiment with the machine and see what happened. But it might be an experiment, you couldn't terminate. And I'd be concerned about that, as I say, You climb slowly, but you fall fast. And once you're falling, it's no good holding your handout and trying to grab a branch because you're you're not going to be able to stop your fall. I'm dubious about stabilization, as I say, because I think complex structures typically have only stable under conditions of expansion. And clearly, you have to be intelligent about your use of resources. And there's no excuse for inefficiency in the conversion of resources. But I would expect a healthy system always to have an expanding energy supply. So when I look at public domain data published by the International Energy Agency, for example, and I see faltering or flatlining or even declining, total primary energy consumption in the OECD states, I find that very worrying, indeed, and I think we're only as stable as we are, because we're in effect, we're living off the exponentially increasing growth in energy consumption in Asia, and particularly in China, which of course raises questions. Will China want to go on supporting us in that way? Wouldn't it be more sensible if we had a robust consumption systems capable of generating and probability for ourselves?


Chris Keefer  19:33  

You know, absolutely. When you talk about those stored energy conversions, I mean, I'm looking at the books behind you, but I'm also thinking about the ways in which things really seem to be atrophying in the West in terms of our our civilizational infrastructure. I was on a slow Canadian train with a locomotive made in the 80s speaking with a friend in France, and mentioning I was on a five hour trip and she was like, Well, you know, Canada's big Where are you going? And I said, I was just going from Toronto to Montreal, which is about You know, 500 kilometer journey, it was gonna take five hours anyway, I mean, this, this, I think reflects a little bit the fact that we have been really under investing in our critical infrastructure. But I think when people think about Degrowth, they think very much within the confines of their own household, you know, how they could, you know, economize a little bit with some of the, you know, the basic running of the household, but they're not thinking in these civilizational terms. And again, when I start thinking about the, the adaptive capacity that will be required, it looks like we're locked into at least two degrees, probably three degree change in the world. And that's going to require a lot more energy for things like desalination, or just keeping yourselves cool, or all of these other things. And so, you know, while I used to be, I think, more sympathetic to Degrowth narrative more more of an eco romantic myself, I'm really finding myself banging up against that cognitive dissonance, which I guess is healthy. And heading in a new direction. I wanted to move a little bit more towards and we've touched on it a little bit, but your ideas around entropy, because I think just the ways in which you're applying these basic physics, shines a lot of light on a problem that sometimes seen in ways that I think are unnecessarily opaque. You know, I've since I started becoming interested in energy, I've always been scratching my head as to why we would be building a sort of House of Cards, grid, and particularly when it comes to electricity, based upon resources that produce fitfully at the whim of the weather. For a electric system, which requires moment to moment supply and demand matching and reliability. I think you frame that in terms of entropy, which I found, I found quite useful for me. Can you can you dive into that a little bit more applying that that this basic physics to describe, again, the quality of fuels, the qualities of energy, and why moving in a thermodynamically disadvantageous way is unlikely, particularly to occur in these timeframes of you know, we're going to decarbonize electricity in 10 or 15 years.


John Constable  21:58  

Yes, well, let's go back to the concepts of economic growth over historical time. And the immense growth in the global economy, which we've seen since 1500. I take it back further than that, but say 1500. And very noticeable in during the 19th century, was due to the introduction of very low entropy fuels, coal, principally and then in the United States, oil, coal and then oil and and globally, of course, and then nuclear, which is a very low entropy source, indeed. And why does that matter? Well, because human beings beings wish to create in probability to suit their own requirements. And that means that you have to have a low entropy inflow, in order to do it. And that raises questions about the renewables agenda, which should be immediately obvious. The wind flows, and indeed, the solar flux is quite close to random heat. It's very disorganized, its entropy is quite high. But the services we require electricity, the energy services, these are still very improbable, they're very low entropy. So you have an a high entropy input from renewables, but a low entropy requirement at the other end. So something must be happening between those two points. There's a sow's ear going in at one end and the silk purse coming out at the other? Well, the answer is the great deal of negative entropy flow going in to correct the deficiencies of the renewables flow. And that's coming in, largely, indeed, from the fossil fuel sector still, indirectly, through complex equipment, the solar panels themselves, the wind turbines themselves, and the rest of the system, grid and the complex system instructions that are made on it. And of course, the residual conventional plant, mostly fossil, some nuclear, which is actually supplying the deficiencies of the renewables, all we've actually done with the system really is degrade its productivity, we've introduced a high entropy input, which the still functioning low entropy system is having to correct. So we've increased its costs. Now, I don't think that's sustainable. It just can't go on forever. Once at some point, when the renewables come to dominate dominate the entire energy supply, the deficiencies will be up beyond correction, there won't be sufficient negative entropy flowing in to correct those deficiencies. At which point, they won't be sufficient in probability coming out the other end to maintain the societal complexity, which supports the entire structure, at which point you may have really quite rapid declines in human wellbeing. Now, in an ideal world, or rather, the, the optimistic interpretation of this is that at some point, people will complain, and there'll be political pressure to correct it. And that we will accept that we have made a mistake here and we require a low entropy energy supply, and that we'll have to do something about the fossil fuel industries and if we want them to be calmed outside free, we'll have to do something about that. And that we need to move very rapidly towards nuclear energy. which is a very low entropy source, which happens also to be carbon dioxide free. Or both those things could be done at present, I think there is time, I'm concerned that we may leave it too late. And that will recognize our error, but we won't be able to correct it. At which point, I'm goodness knows what will happen.


Chris Keefer  25:18  

I'm very much share that concern. One of the things that that I've talked about a lot is the construction of, you know, an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine to balance those high entropy sources and inputs. And, you know, when confronted with this question of intermittency and unreliability, the pro renewables, intellectuals, you know, tend to come back just with a sort of point form list of well, there's this technology and that technology and the other there's, you know, batteries, pumped hydro, you know, we're going to make hydrogen from electrolyzers hooked up to, you know, when it's on machines, and I think the way that you're laying this out in such basic terms of entropy, really, really reveals what a dangerous proposition that is,


John Constable  26:03  

many of those suggestions typically come from academics. I'm a lapsed academic myself, and I couldn't remember what it's like, I hit this website, I'm deeply cynical. But academics are not good on costs. They live on soft money. And they don't really understand where wealth comes from, and how difficult it is to obtain they simply consume it. And therefore technology for them is simply something for which you, you fill in a grant application, and you get it. But it isn't like that. Technology is a highly improbable state of affairs in itself. And it takes a lot of effort and wealth to create it. So technological fixes are not free. And the question is whether could the renewable system provide its own technological fixes? That was the answer is that it can't, in my view, it has to be supplied by a viable, low entropy and probability generating system. So I don't I think the the recommendations that people make in this way are understandable. But ultimately, they're simply mistaken. They're not thinking clearly enough about it. And they're being a little bit lazy to economists haven't helped hear, I'm afraid, again, I hear you have a field economics, which claims to be about the scarce the sort of the optimal distribution of scarce resources to maximize the production of wealth. But its field which doesn't have a principle definition of scarcity or resource or indeed of wealth. They really don't seem to know what they're talking about. And they're not thinking physically enough. And that's a general problem. Actually, I think it's an outcome of extreme prosperity. People have forgotten that prosperity is a rearrangement of the world. It's fundamentally about things, in fact, and that we've become more disconnected. And think it's all rather ideal that it's disembodied, decoupled and afraid from effort. And the effort has been supplied by energy rather than our human muscles. So we've become absent minded, negligent, and a bit forgetful about it, the world is much more difficult and hostile than we would like it to be. And we've been protected against those difficulties through extreme energy consumption. But the world hasn't changed. It's still just as difficult as it always was for our ancestors. And it's waiting to teach us that lesson. Once more.


Chris Keefer  28:17  

I mean, you're very familiar with this debate, probably familiar with the the cast of characters in what I'll call this battle of ideas. And their vast resources, backing, I would say probably one of the camps. When I when I tried to sort of do a little muckraking and analysis here to think of, you know, what are the budgets of the large environmental NGOs and think tanks that are pursuing, you know, this 100% renewables vision or some of the mainstream analysts, you know, and we're combining Natural Resource Defense Council, Sierra Club Greenpeace, I've heard estimates as high as annual operating budgets in the billions, perhaps seven, 8 billion. And when I when I look at the sort of ragtag group of, let's call them for lack of a better word, Ecomodernist groups that are stressing innovation and the need for cheap, clean energy, etc. We're probably talking in the low 10s of millions. And so I think it's, you know, as, again, as an outsider, as a medical doctor learning about energy looking at this, it's really struck me as bizarre, there's utter dominance in the debate of, you know, the the wind and solar energy zealots, the kind of control they have the social pressures, one feels not to critique the sacred cow. It's really extraordinary. And it percolates up into into policy circles and certainly into the media where the rosy language around renewables is is makes a mockery of journalism, really. So I wonder if you have any reflections on that? Do you think that the bubbles being burst I mean, again, these are enormous amounts of money that are flowing around in pursuit of this agenda, but they're running up against you know, that hard brick wall of reality I think particularly As we're exposed to this Julep, geopolitical crisis in Russia and Ukraine, what what what thoughts do you have around that? Whether the discourse is shifting and and who's, who's what forces are aligned?


John Constable  30:10  

Yes, well, you're quite right in your descriptions, the policy lot that's been created is extremely strong. And it's been created slowly over a number of years, when more a strong, one of the founders of the environmental movement in its current phase was asked about what was going on, and what was the policy objective, this was in the early 70s, I think running from memory, he replied, the process is the policy. And that's a very shrewd interpretation as a process was created. And it's gradually bound in larger and larger numbers of individuals, and then organizations and now of course, investment vehicles. And with every Fe in a reiteration of the process, further vested interests are created. So all the organizations that you mentioned, are now in essence, vested interests, their well being their continued operation is dependent on the continuous of this particular policy track. And unsurprisingly, they actually protect their own interests, it's hardly out of character for them to do so. Is there any likelihood that it can be turned around? Not quickly? I think, as you say, those offering criticism such as myself are radically underfunded by comparison, and there were marginal voices. But I happen to think we're right. And the The truth will bite back. And we're not going to get thanked for it. But it's, we have to say these things, and with a lot, keep the keep the message alive, so that when people are ready to hear it, there is a coherent body of thought, to be drawn upon to correct these things in the general human interest. We have to keep these ideas alive. I mean, the history of medicine is full of examples of this. So medic medics have made observations which are absolutely valid, and contradicted by their colleagues, simply because people had always done it differently. And they saw it and they had industries built up around them, or at least small scale, industries supporting practice. They didn't want to change. Why did why should they, but the simple vices were right, and change was required. It gets made eventually. Will it happen soon? I don't think so I think the momentum behind the green industry is so enormous, that it will quite take quite a long time. However, events, the invasion of Ukraine, do change minds quite quickly, people are able to reconfigure under pressure quite rapidly, which, again, is a very strong argument in favor of the marginal thinkers, such as myself and others, trying to keep these ideas fresh and in good shape, so that when they're needed, they can be drawn upon quickly for a major policy reorientation, which I feel must happen. It must happen in order to preserve our societal complexity. And it must happen quite quickly. If we're not to run into difficulties, as I said, there comes a point where you may not be able to correct it without very major reductions in human wellbeing. And that would be highly undesirable, to say the least. I


Chris Keefer  33:29  

mean, I think it's interesting, again, on our theme of the need for the West to reindustrialize, to probably use more energy in order to have its capacities back. We're seeing the the sort of weapon that the NATO countries in the West are using against Russia is sanctions. And there's a slightly constrained ability to fully sanction because of that dependence on Russian gas. But Russia is not China, if we were in a situation, you know, with a conflict over Taiwan, where, you know, we're facing off across the nuclear armed states. And sanctions are the vehicle the reality is that we have China's become the factory of the world, we've we've de industrialized, and we've offshored, critical critical supply chains, and the rare earths magnesium production for alloys, etc, things we've covered here on the podcast before. So it seems to me that there's, you know, a real need to be to be reconsidering this, this real industrialization. And as you said, it's it's probably not too late if we take corrective action rapidly. But what sort of concrete energy changes do you think will will be needed in terms of you know, what, what countries like the US or EU countries need to be doing? If you were able to write sort of a policy prescription there? What would that would that look like the I guess, to build the energy system that can undergird that reindustrialization in order, you know, I guess in order to allow us the ability, the luxury of, you know, economic sanctions or tariffs or things like that,


John Constable  34:57  

we talk a lot about energy security. Thinking simply being able to get to the energy into the country to do something with it. But of course, there is also the sense of being able to actually use the energy once you've got it. And that's a very large consideration. And simply the present, the principle presence of energy is not sufficient. When Alexander the Great marched his armies into the Caspian area, there was plenty of oil bubbling out of the ground, he couldn't have done couldn't do anything with it. He didn't have diesel engines, he didn't have chemical engineers to make sophisticated materials out of this stuff for him. And all they could do was to burn it and regarded as toy. And simple availability, therefore, is not the problem. It's the ability to act, you have to have enough complexity built up in your society to make use of these various superior fuels. And as you quite rightly say, economic sanctions against China would be a completely different matter than sanctions against Russia, because the Chinese have developed enormous social infrastructure, societal and industrial infrastructure, which enables them to use very large volumes of energy to create improbable objects. And that's true of them. And it's largely a result of a rather unbalanced reading of economics in the West don't we've taken Adam Smith a little bit too seriously in terms of free trade, free trade, a good thing to do, but we've neglected to maintain productive capacity in our own societies. We haven't read the German historical school with North sympathy. Friedrich list is a very important economic thinker. And we need to think more carefully ourselves about maintaining sufficient productive capacity to be able to use high grade fuels to generate in probability, so that we can then trade it to advantage with others around the world, simply exporting your productive capacity to Asia and allowing China to become the world's principal energy consumer was very unwise, and serious error that we'd have to rectify. So it's not simply obtaining better quality energy, although we have to do that. There's no question about that. We should be moving steadily through gas towards nuclear gas to nuclear trajectories, the only viable one, we're going to have to do that, we may have to use coal as well. I mean, I think present difficulties are getting so acute, that we may have to actually use a certain amount of coal in order to rectify the deficiencies. But we need to be focusing on the accumulation of complex structures in our society, once again, to allow us to create complex states of affairs, more machines, complex societal arrangements, and of course, complex brain states, we've got to do quite a lot of that, perhaps a little bit less emphasis on the humanities and the universities, rather more science, technology and mathematics would be a very good idea.


Chris Keefer  37:40  

So amongst amongst climate hawks, amongst many listeners of the podcast, you know, I'd say we tend to have a more climate concerned and Ecomodernist, pronuclear. Audience there is a certain amount of an all of the above is a narrative of well, yes, I mean, I think my listeners are quite energy literate, and quite aware of the ways in which renewables are fatally critically flawed because of a variety of factors from low energy density to intermittency, etc. But there's often this attitude of Well, listen, I mean, they're low carbon, they're displacing some carbon here or there. It's, you know, politically costly, or socially costly to, to actually say what we believe on this matter. So let's just kind of all get along, let's have a bit of a, you know, all of the above is, and why can't we all get along? In your, in your opinion, and I probably guessing what it is, but I'd like to hear your arguments. You know, if this is your opinion, why is that a very flawed way of looking at things? Will renewables actually be able to deliver on on deep decarbonisation and effectively combat climate change?


John Constable  38:48  

Yes, you're asking, Can we afford to be tolerant and just allow them to total along and get on with what really matters alongside it? Well, we've had a long period of that in the UK, when people have talked rather tolerantly about the mix, you know, allowing a very, very portfolio to emerge is turned out to be mistaken with the practical experience in Europe shows that you can't be tolerant in this way. That very large renewables fleets have a number of disabling disadvantages in and they pass those on to the overall system. What they do is they degrade the productivity, they increase costs to consumers, they place extraordinary burdens on the residual, low entropy fleet, the fossil fuels, the nuclear, they make their market smaller, they make it much more volatile, they damage the economics of otherwise extremely productive assets, such as combined cycle gas turbines. So their market pollutants, their market damages, they destroy the markets, and they make it impossible for consumers to get a reasonable deal out of it because the entire system has to be operated in order to support the renewables and that's intrinsically expensive. So there you simply can't I put them on the system in effect. I mean, you can't tolerate them, you've got to get them off. Why is it that the UK at the moment, nobody wants to build anything other than or solar or a wind plant, because the markets are so distorted in favor of renewable energy that nothing else is attractive, even though intrinsically and physically, they're very superior combined cycle gas turbines. If we had a combined cycle gas turbine fleet, we would probably be cleaner than we currently are. And we would certainly be cheaper consumers will be very happy on both counts. In fact, what we have is a very distorted market, we're subsidizing renewables at the cost of 12 billion UK pounds per year. And that total is actually rising as more of the contracts are taken up. And consequently, the distortion to the overall system is acute, the economic development plans are completely destroyed. Nobody wants to invest in productive assets, they simply want to invest in policies which support renewables, well, that can't go on. At some point, you simply have to clean the system up, I've suggested that all these subsidy contracts should be bought back at a discount. Heavy discount, I should say, to protect the consumer interest and just get them off the system. So that you can return the UK. And I think the argument would apply to many others as well, you could return to an engineer rubble future, as we were in the early 2000s, where we had switched to progressively higher and higher combined site efficiencies, thermal efficiencies of combined cycle gas turbines, and with a view to building a large scale nuclear fleet and a nuclear fleet not just for electricity. This is a crucial point, renewables at the moment, have no high grade heat offering. There's nothing there. And of course, we need a lot of high grade heat for industry. So we need to think about nuclear for high grade heat. And of course, there are such plants, advanced modular gas cooled reactors can produce very high temperatures in excess of 500 degrees centigrade, some of them very high up 709 Hundreds, once you got hydrated, you can do anything you want. It's an excellent industrial input. So there are several reason for wanting to see renewables off the system. There's the market distorting effect of them that the physical distortions, of course, which results in economic disadvantages for the residual fossil fuels, but also because there's obsession with electricity is distracting us from the need for high grade heat. Which brings us back to your earlier point, Chris, what should we be doing? To reindustrialize? Well, re industrializing in the absence of high grade heat is going to be extremely difficult. So we really do need nuclear for that. It's absolutely essential.


Chris Keefer  42:36  

Yeah, I think another thing that I've been thinking about a lot is, again, on this question of deindustrialization, the supply chains for solar panels and wind turbines are almost exclusively offshore, certainly for North America. I know that there's still capacity in the EU with Vestas and other wind turbine manufacturers to capture some of that industrial supply chain. There's interesting article looking at wind farms in Scotland and how they've been kind of offered a facility to build the very low tech, roll the steel for the for the towers, and that was quickly and quietly offshored off to Vietnam, or they could do it much cheaper. But there's a real question have, you know, to produce them cheaply enough to make them economically viable, even with subsidy, they're having to be done again, where we can sacrifice labor and environmental regulations to build these things cheap. And the nuclear supply chain does seem to be something that is much harder to offshore, the level of education expertise, stem qualifications, you're mentioning, and Mackey manufacturer seems to be happening a lot more a lot more locally. But just I guess just a question with you there. I mean, you're talking about adding gas to the system and the context in which gases is so constrained. And you're obviously seeing that as part of a natural gas and nuclear policy movement. That's, that's an order to kind of get us beyond this this cruncher. I mean, the EU at present time bands, fracking, there's really not much available indulgently. I understand the North Sea gas fields are fairly depleted, the Dutch gas fields are depleted. Is that is that sound policy, given the given the gas constraint that we're seeing right now? Or do we just not have an alternative?


John Constable  44:23  

We shouldn't be giving up on gas that easily. The North Sea still has resources at higher prices, many of those resources are really actually quite attractive, and the UK government is moving in that direction. That was one of the areas they have on fracking, though. They're still persisting in saying that the ban will remain it's an odd argument. If it goes it comes in two parts. There's apparently fracking is on promising they say and therefore it should be banned. Well, if it is on promising why bother to ban it? It seems quite incoherent. I don't know about fracked gas in the UK. But I do think we should find out. It would be very foolish to pass up an option. Unity have that kind of it can be done safely? And I think it almost certainly can it's been done in the US quite safely, then see why it shouldn't happen with us. It won't be as cheap, probably as Nazi gas. But nevertheless, it would be very desirable to have it superior fuel. And it may be a way of preventing a coal rebuild. And environmentalists have to start thinking responsibly about this. They will, how do you keep the public on board with the environmental agenda, if you confront them with major reductions in standard living, and these are non trivial. And this probably means higher rates of mortality at every age, this is going to actually put be resisted very vigorously, you're going to leave lose the public if you confront with those sorts of costs. So gas is actually a good way of preventing a coal rebuild, if that really matters to you. And bridging over to nuclear, which could be a long term future of low carbon energy. With regard to public opinion about fracking, in the UK, it seems to have been that people have gone worried about it, how quickly they could be persuaded to change their minds, they have better information. Well, we just don't know. Um, the debate about fracking is extremely one sided here. And dominated by green interests who are not really concerned about the safety, they are concerned that if natural gas comes back into the system, then the renewables agenda may seem to falter. What again, this is a confusion. As I pointed out, the renewables technology is rapidly critically dependent on gas for remaining in the system. And indeed, there's nothing else really apart from biomass, which could step in to provide firm reliable electricity, certainly, along other than gas. So unless you're we wish to see even more North American trees, burnt in past stations in Britain, and then well, gas seems inevitable.


Chris Keefer  46:54  

And you're referring there to the the Drax plants, which I think is 6% of UK electricity, just burning Carolinian forest from the US a couple more years, I want to be respectful of your time. But the initial premise was to talk about offshore wind. So I feel I feel bad if we didn't if we didn't get there to it to a small degree. This, this is a renewable, which is much hyped, particularly in conversations here, over on our side of the Atlantic in North America, where we really don't have any experience with it. I think 42 megawatts had been built today in a single facility. I'm not sure off which state in the US. But certainly there's a lot of talk about a lot of investment flying. And the countries that are furthest along, seem to be in Europe, the UK, Denmark, etc. And your organization has been doing some research into into how that's progressing. And I'd really love to give you a chance to share some of those those insights, I guess, in terms of the economics and and you know, whether the the hype is panning out?


John Constable  47:56  

Well, we have a long track record of doubting claims about falling costs in the wind industry overall, and particularly in the offshore wind industry. And there are two reasons for thinking this first, from the sort of theories that we've already discussed, I'm wind is a high entropy source, converting it to a low entropy output is going to be intrinsically resource intensive, it will be intrinsically expensive, doesn't seem very likely that costs are going to fall. And secondly, when one looks at the empirical financial accounts for offshore wind companies in Europe, you don't find any evidence of major falls in capital cost. Indeed, it would be very odd, if you had the industry was claiming enormous reductions. 20 3040 50% reductions in capex over a period of four or five years that's unprecedented in any area, particularly heavy engineering, where machines are getting bigger rather than electronic engineering where things are getting smaller. And it's simply not plausible. It doesn't ping true. And indeed, you don't find that in the audited accounts. But not only that, you find capex stagnant pretty much since 2015, but you find operational costs rising. So we don't believe that the very low bids for subsidy contracts made in the contracts for different rounds in the UK, for example, are actually viable. We think those were either mistakes, winners curse is real. Or secondly, more likely, that they were cynical, that they were bidding to obtain market share, to generate good publicity for themselves, and bad publicity for their competitors, particularly in the nuclear industry. We think they're gambling on a bailout. So that when these contracts actually come to be enabled in the middle 2020s They will say to government, well, you need us and we're essential, and unfortunately, these contracts are not sufficient to motivate in vestment and get us return on our capital, you'll have to find a way of subsidizing us through the back door. They may also hope that they're very high market prices generated by other factors so that they can bail out of these contracts. They're not actually contracts. And that's one of the things to emphasize. They're not like a future corn futures contract where you have to deliver a certain amount of copper free on board by a certain date or pay a huge penalty. These are actually entitlements to price with almost no penalty for bailing out derogating The contract. So they're just entitlements. And I think options really, you can regard the the wind industry is playing with options, the contracts were will misnamed, and they will written by civil servants who are not commercially particularly adroit, and the wind industry, round rings around them, and they've gained a very advantageous position through these. So we're very skeptical about that. And we're not alone. In fact, there are plenty of financial interests who are now combing through these accounts, to find out the reality, it's not difficult, anybody can do it for themselves. It's laborious, but the information that you require is there. And the US government should be doing this, don't trust what the wind industry is saying, get some forensic accountants onto the accounts of companies in Europe and see what you can uncover about their actual capital expenditures, their actual revenues, and their actual operational costs. And I think you'll find from those, as we have found and published and free reports freely available on the Renewable Energy Foundation website, you'll find that actually, their costs haven't fallen significantly, at all since 2010 2012 1314 15, that period. And in fact, in some ways, they're beginning to look as if they might be rising, as they move off, particularly into deeper water, where it's more difficult to maintain these quite complex devices.


Chris Keefer  51:52  

So we've used up the low hanging fruit in terms of the shallow waters and the the operating and management costs become become higher as we have to go further to see to service these fleets and and bring the electricity to shore is that is that because, you know, this flies on the face of the dominant narrative, which is, you know, wind and solar are getting cheaper and cheaper and the you know, sort of common sense of the more you invest in it, the more efficiencies will be found the more familiarity with the supply chain, etc. So, in terms of your analysis, the the the driver of cost was simply the good real estate's been taken up? Or is there more to it?


John Constable  52:27  

There's a little bit more to it than that. It's partly that, yes, you're moving into deep water, and it's becoming more difficult. It's also true that these devices are getting much larger. So they're very much taller. And that's partly to reach better wind speeds. So they're more difficult to work on, of course, and the loads on the forces are very considerable. So the wear and tear on these rotating devices at seas large, and therefore, one would expect operational costs to be significant. And secondly, one shouldn't, I think, forget that simple learning and familiarity is not sufficient to explain cost reductions. And it's largely, historically speaking costs have fallen because we've improved our energy supply. And that's the fundamental reason why things have become cheap. We've made things frequent and therefore complex, and therefore cheap, because of a very largely expanded energy supply. In Europe, costs have now become very high, because we have quite a high renewable energy fraction in the supply. Consequently, we have support exported the manufacturer of renewable energy equipment to Asia, there's practically no solar manufacturing left in Europe, there isn't all that much wind, actually. And it's dependent, as you quite rightly said, for many of its components on Asia to on Asian companies, because the lower costs. So simultaneously, the wind industry has needed to claim that its costs are falling in order to give government a reasonable apology for all the subsidies that have been paid and are still being paid. They've had to claim their costs are falling. But in fact, in order to give some substance to that claim, insofar as it has any substance at all, they've had to export manufacturing to Asia, where manufacture can still take place with fossil fuel dominated systems. And I don't see any likelihood that the renewable energy manufacturing system will return to an area which has a predominantly renewable energy supply, because immediately their costs will rise.


Chris Keefer  54:34  

And it's hard to imagine building a wind turbine with energy produced from a wind turbine you're mentioning the absence of high quality heat, while I still have you if I can keep you for a few more minutes. I've wanted to get it's a little bit disjointed, but something that I found very interesting about your work is something for maybe lack of a better well, they'll call a degree of energy determinism you know, and it's something that I've sort of been toying around with for some time and again, this is derivative me addressing Thank you other other thinkers on the standing on the shoulders of giants. But these ideas that you know the enslavement of carbon is ultimately what you know, has largely ended human chattel slavery, that electricity and electric appliances were critical in the liberation of women. And I think people bristle to this because it sort of is a passive voice to what have been active political struggle, active political struggles of abolitionists, and suffragettes, etc. But I also think we've abandoned to a large degree, this sort of great man theory of history. So in in the time we have left, which isn't much, maybe five or six minutes, I was just wondering if you could tangle with that a little bit. I know you have. And we've touched briefly on your theories around, you know, energy leading to wealth and towards freedom. But I'm very interested in how you believe that energy underpins some of these values that we we've kind of grown near and dear to and then how they're a threat, if we make poor energy choices, so if you can take it away from that little intro question.


John Constable  56:00  

Yes, I think you're thinking of work like, delivered an electric to the Mont Pelerin. Society last year, suggesting those, far from freedom, creating economic growth, in fact, economic growth precedes freedom. And it then becomes also catalytic. Yes, liberal societies are much more effective, generating further wealth, but they have to be rich in order to be free in the first place. And that I think, is actually true to the historical record. And Tudor, Britain was rich, but it certainly wasn't free. And Stuart, England was very rich and certainly wasn't free. And then, of course, the political situation changed in the late 17th century, due to the pressure of human freedom. People were free already, and they wanted more. And with that kind of liberalization came all the many benefits, which quite rightly pointed to, by liberal economists, but you have to be rich in the first place. And this explains why it is that China is not a paradox. It's not some strange historical exception, where a relatively liberal society can actually or politically liberal society can become extremely rich. I think that's what happened in Britain. In fact, it was politically liberal, we became very rich, and then became politically the report and even richer. So there's some hope in there for China. But we have to be realistic about what it is that energy delivers to people politically, what it does is it broadens the human niche, it reduces competition for resources, it makes us able to be more tolerant of each other's success. So we have to be realistic about energy. If we want to have tolerant free societies, we must be rich, poor societies won't be neither tolerant, nor, indeed, liberal, they will be extremely oppressive, as they have always been in the past.


Chris Keefer  57:57  

And you you talk about the transition from an energy system based in the land itself and the great landholders. You know, it's an interesting because there's a narrative, you know, that growing up in the left eye, you know, very, very much integrated into my thinking, which is that of, you know, the enclosure of the commons being a tragedy and a tool to force you know, peasants into, you know, an unwilling relationship with capital, you know, form the proletariat to form the working classes. But, you know, you also talk about the ways in which what predates that was, you know, very, very unjust and very limited from the setting of the enormous power that the large landowners had as, as the the barons of the energy system, can you can you elaborate on that briefly, and then we will let you go.


John Constable  58:48  

I'm very happy to talk about it. In 17th 18th century, Britain, 16th 17th 18th century Britain, landowners employed roughly three quarters of the workforce, almost everybody worked in farming and related agricultural activities, because that was the energy sector of the day, they were producing nearly all the energy, the non energy sector was very small, by comparison. So the socio political and economic power of those who had title over lands, the landowners, the gentry, the aristocracy was enormous. And it was that power was broken by the introduction of coal, which created a much larger non energy sector. And you can see that occurring even in the late 17th century there fascinating letter from Swift, to his friend, the poet Alexander Pope, complaining about the weakening of the influence of the landed interest and the rising of the moneyed interest and its intrusion into politics happens long before what people thought of as the traditional industrial revolution. Indeed, it started to happen in the 16th century in the early 17th century in Britain and objectively, it was highly desirable, people were able to do things that they actually wanted to do. They weren't dependent on the favor of the landowners for access to energy, they had no resources other than land. So the overall economy grew dramatically over those several 100 years, the energy sector, paradoxically, became a smaller part of a much larger economy. Now, that draws me to a general point about the energy policy track the energy choices that you would say, Chris, we're making, what we're choosing to do is to go back to a less productive energy sector as we had in the past, which will be a larger part of our society. So the non energy sector, the sector outside the renewables industries, will be much smaller. So there's a rebalancing of socio political pie. This is a question of political economy, the political economy of the green economy doesn't sound attractive to me. I don't think people are going to like it. And when I give these talks or talks on this platform, somebody will stand up and say, John, you're saying we can't have a green economy? To which the answer is no, you can have it, but I don't think you're going to like it at all, when you've got it.


Chris Keefer  1:01:09  

John, I think we'll have to leave it there. We're up on our hour. Thank you so much for joining us. This has been a real pleasure, pleasure for people to find more about your work. Yeah, we're working to do that.


John Constable  1:01:19  

Much of my work is available on the Renewable Energy Foundation website. And I publish elsewhere, of course, on various places. I'm very happy to enter into correspondence with any interested party and they can write to me through the front door address at at ref which is exactly@ref.org.uk. And I'm happy to reply.


Chris Keefer  1:01:43  

Thank you again, and we look forward maybe to having you back on the podcast in the future. I look forward to them.



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