- The fairy-tale truth about net zero
- Only the stupid question renewable energy
- We’ve got nothing on!
[With humble apologies to Hans Christian Andersen, I’d like to tell you a little bedtime story about net zero and renewable energy…]
A long, long time ago, in a land far, far away, there lived an emperor who loved the environment. He loved it so much that he spent all his taxpayers’ money on keeping it free from pollution.
His only interest was in going to the forests or in riding through the hills in his horse-drawn carriage, leaving a trail of methane leaking horse apples everywhere he went, admiring the view.
He had a different environmental cause for every hour of every day. One minute it was polar bears, whales the next. Trees today and moss tomorrow.
One day two lobbyists came to the emperor’s city. They said that they were solar power and wind power activists, claiming that they knew how to make the cleanest energy imaginable to save the previous environment.
Not only was the energy clean and reliable, but free! After all, what could be more free than the sun and the wind?
The lobbyists told the emperor that it was such a perfect solution that anyone who couldn’t see its great benefits must be incompetent or stupid… or worse, shills of the fossil fuel industry.
“It would be wonderful for the environment to have our energy made that way,” thought the emperor. “Not only will it save the environment, but then I would know which of my civil servants are unfit for their positions, and I’d also be able to tell the clever people from stupid ones.” So he immediately gave the two lobbyists a great sum of money to build their wind and solar energy system for him.
The two lobbyists took land from the emperor’s taxpayers and set up their windmills and solar farms. They asked for the finest rare earth metals and the purest polysilicon, all of which was made in China by their business partners. And they manufactured their solar panels and wind turbines with other business partners in China too. Then they built their wind farms and solar farms, hiring Chinese construction companies to do it.
Once built, the wind and solar farms pretended to supply electricity when and where the people needed it, often selling “green energy” to specific customers. But much of the time the power wasn’t green at all. After all, the sun does not shine at night when people want light, and the wind doesn’t always blow where you need electricity.
Instead, the lobbyists sold electricity whenever and whenever it wasn’t needed, demanding to be paid ever more to cover the cost of their voracious demand for materials. They sold their “free” electricity for sky-high prices. Sometimes it was such a commercial success that they even got paid by the emperor to stop creating so much electricity. This was heralded as a success.
But some of the emperor’s trusted advisers began to tell of the trouble the new energy system was causing. But he knew it was just as the lobbyists had told him: only the stupid people couldn’t see the benefits. And so he fired those who told him of any faults or flaws.
But the discontent only grew and began to appear in the emperor’s polling numbers. One day, the emperor started to wonder why his taxpayers were so upset with this new energy system. After all, how can people disagree with free electricity that saves the environment?
The free electricity was costing them an arm and a leg, they told him. And it was destroying the environment.
But the emperor knew it was just as the lobbyists had warned: only the stupid couldn’t see the benefits. And he wasn’t stupid at all, so he could see only the benefits.
Then, one still night, the lights at the palace began to flicker. And so the emperor demanded his oldest, wisest and most trusted minister seek out the lobbyists to explain themselves.
They showed the minister pictures of the windmills and solar farms, and of the environment that had been saved – the forests and the hills covered by nature. (They didn’t mention the cobalt mines, the beached whales or the dead birds.)
They showed him graphs of the levelised cost of energy, estimates for future advances in battery storage technology and the chart of the circular economy. They told him of how their energy system had provided all the country’s needs on certain days and certain times. And they pointed out that wind and solar were so cheap that the power price had even gone negative on occasion.
But the poor minister couldn’t see a thing of their presentation, because the lights were off due to the blackout. And so the minister had his doubts…
“Gracious,” the minister thought to himself. “Is it possible that I am stupid? I have never thought so. Am I unfit for my position? No one must know this. No, it will never do for me to say that I was unable to see the material.”
“Why aren’t you saying anything,” asked one of the lobbyists.
“Oh, it is a magnificent energy system! The very best!” said the minister, peering through the moonlight at the pictures. “This environment is preserved and the energy is free or even negative! Yes, I’ll tell the emperor that I am very satisfied with it!”
“That makes us happy!” said the two lobbyists. And the minister reported back to the emperor all the lobbyists had told him.
The lobbyists now asked the emperor for more money for more windmills and more solar farms, all of which they hid away in offshore holding companies in Panama. Then they continued to sell their electricity when and where there was no demand, at high prices. And the lights kept flickering and the energy bills kept rising.
The emperor sent other officials to observe the energy system’s progress. They too were startled when they saw windmills powered by diesel engines, solar farms that weren’t even connected to the grid and young children working in cobalt mines to feed the energy system. But they too didn’t want to look stupid or unfit for their positions. And so they too reported back to the emperor how wonderful the energy transition was, advising him to have it made an ever greater share of the country’s power supply.
The entire world was alive in praise of the empire’s energy transition. “Magnificent! Excellent!” they said, in all languages. The emperor awarded the lobbyists with medals of honour, bestowing on each of them the titles and lands, which they leased to wind farms and solar farms (because wind and solar farms can’t afford to buy the land they’re on).
One day the emperor announced the completion of the new energy system would be revealed at a global conference called COP2050.
The lobbyists stayed up the entire night before the event was to take place, burning more coal than ever before to keep the lights on so they could see their work. They released into the air vast emissions to finish off the production of their windmills and the famously energy-intensive production of their solar panels. They even built vast new coal mines and gas import terminals to create the energy needed for their transition. Everyone could see that they were in a great rush to finish the energy system for the big day.
Finally, they announced to the public, “Behold! The energy transition is finished!”
The emperor came to them with his most distinguished political donors. The two lobbyists revealed their PowerPoint presentations and said, “Just look at these windmills! Just look at these solar farms! Just look at this battery we built!” and so forth. “They are as free as the sun and the wind!”
But then a cloud passed over the capital and the lights went out again, and the projector with it.
Undeterred, the lobbyists said, “You might not be able to use the power when and where you need it, but that is the good thing about the energy transition, because it means you’ll use less energy and therefore live in a more environmentally friendly way.”
“Yes,” said the political donors, but they couldn’t see a thing because the lights were off, and they all lived in the city so they hadn’t seen what was happening to the countryside and the coast.
“Would the honourable emperor, if it pleases him, kindly shut off the old coal power plants for the last time,” requested the lobbyists. “Then we will turn on the new green plants and the transition will be complete.”
And so the emperor flicked the switch, shut down all the coal power plants, and the lobbyists turned on the new wind and solar plants, piece by piece, despite the lack of sun and wind. Then the emperor turned and looked into the power grid’s measure of the energy mix.
“Goodness, what a lot of green energy! It’s 100% of our supply! What a wonderful result!” they all said. “We’ve saved the environment and provided free energy!”
“Let’s go outside to see the world we have saved,” said the grandmaster of ceremonies.
“Yes, I am ready!” said the emperor. “Doesn’t it all fit well?” He turned once again to the chart depicting the grid’s energy mix, because it had to appear as though he were admiring his policies in all their glory, but nobody could see anything in the darkness anyway.
The chamberlains had to direct the emperor through the dark corridors as everyone pretended they could see. The drivers who were to drive the emperor to see the new energy system’s power plants pretended their EVs were charged. In fact, they all pretended to see the wonders of the new energy system, for they could not let anyone notice that they could see nothing, for fear of being labelled stupid or unfit for their position.
The emperor walked out onto a balcony to discover all the people in the street had gathered outside in the balmy windless night because their lights were off too. Traffic was stuck without traffic lights and EVs stranded in the street. They said, “Goodness, the Emperor’s new energy system really is incomparable! What a beautiful environment he has saved. What a perfect energy mix!”
No one wanted it to be noticed that he could see nothing in the gloom, for then it would be said that they were unfit for their position, or too stupid to see the benefits. None of the emperor’s policies had ever before received such unanimous praise.
“But none of us have anything on!” said a small child.
“Let us hear the voice of an innocent child!” said the father, and he whispered to another what the child had said.
“A small child said that we don’t have anything on!”
Finally, everyone was saying, “We don’t have anything on! The power is out, nothing is on!”
The emperor shuddered, for he knew that they were right. The street and house lights were off. The nation’s industry had shuddered to a halt. EVs were stranded and clogging up streets. Even the windmills couldn’t turn without their diesel.
But he thought, “The transition must go on!” He carried himself even more proudly, and the lobbyists behind him held their chins high, selling the electricity that wasn’t there.
Do you think they’ll live happily ever after?
If not, keep your eyes peeled for our upcoming project on net zero…
Until next time,
Editor, Fortune & Freedom