Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Net Zero Watch: Global warming has saved 500,000 lives in England and Wales in the last 20 years


In this newsletter:

1) Global warming has saved 500,000 lives in England and Wales in the last 20 years 
Office of National Statistics, 17 January 2022

2) Rising energy bills ‘unaffordable’ for quarter of households
The Times, 17 January 2022

3) European governments scramble to manage fuel price spikes amid energy crunch
Bloomberg, 16 January 2022
4) Boris Johnson's eco-socialism: Land may be seized to make way for solar farms in Net Zero drive
The Sunday Telegraph, 16 January 2022
5) Charlotte Ivers: Bereft without Brexit, the Tories have a new bone to fight over: Net Zero
The Sunday Times, 16 January 2022
6) China coal output hits record in Dec and in 2021
Reuters, 17 January 2022

7) Russia pipeline fuels German coalition split as Ukraine tension rises
8) Robert Bryce: As coal use surges, America finds it's hard to unplug from carbon
The Hill, 16 January 2022
9) Andrew Orlowski: Hydrogen can’t power the green flight revolution
The Daily Telegraph, 17 January 2022

Full details:

1) Global warming has saved 500,000 lives in England and Wales in the last 20 years 
Office of National Statistics, 17 January 2022
Climate-related mortality and hospital admissions, England and Wales: 2001 to 2020

[...] Over a 20-year period the estimated change in deaths associated with warm or cold temperature was a net decrease of 555,103, an average of 27,755 deaths per year (Table 1). A decrease in deaths from outcomes associated with cold temperature greatly outnumbers deaths associated with warm temperature.

Warmer weather in the UK rarely reaches temperatures that cause direct heat-related harms. While the reduction in deaths may relate to climate change, some evidence also suggests the population has reduced vulnerability to cold, see more detail in the Discussion section.

Figures for England and Wales separately are included in the Datasets.
Full report
2) Rising energy bills ‘unaffordable’ for quarter of households
The Times, 17 January 2022
Millions of families in England will be dragged into fuel poverty overnight when energy bills soar this April, research has found.

The number of households who will find them unaffordable is to treble to 6.3 million when the price cap lifts, according to the Resolution Foundation.
It said this meant more than a quarter of households would suffer “fuel stress”, the definition of fuel poverty in England, which means having to spend at least 10 per cent of family budgets on energy bills.
The figure is 9 per cent but will hit 27 per cent if the price cap rises by more than half to about £2,000 a year as expected on April 1. Ofgem will announce the new price cap level on February 7 but drastic rises in wholesale gas prices mean a large increase is all but inevitable.
Levels of fuel stress are likely to be highest in the northeast and the West Midlands, at 33 per cent and 32 per cent respectively, the foundation says. Others who will be hit hard include pensioners (38 per cent), those in local authority housing (35 per cent) and those in poorly insulated homes.

Its report says the sheer scale of energy bill increases mean that fuel stress will no longer be confined to the poorest households. However, low and middle-income families will find it hardest to cope as they spend a far greater share of their family budgets on these essentials. The government should target support at lower-income households, it adds, with this done through the benefits system.

Full story
3) European governments scramble to manage fuel price spikes amid energy crunch
Bloomberg, 16 January 2022

Europe is gripped by one of the worst energy crunches in history, forcing politicians to step in as soaring prices threaten to leave millions of households unable to pay their bills.

But with market forces signalling that the crisis will last way beyond the winter, the dilemma facing leaders is that their stopgap measures are unlikely to be enough.

The cost of electricity and gas across the continent already looks like one of the biggest challenges facing nations as they navigate their way out of the pandemic.

Ministers in the five biggest European economies – Germany, the UK, France, Italy and Spain – have so far come up with a patchwork of grants and time-limited tax cuts to help consumers heat and power their homes.

Indeed, the common thread seems to be to hope the problem goes away while also leaning more on companies.
Electricite de France shares plummeted by a record on January 14 as the French government confirmed plans to force the company to sell more power at a hefty discount.

Gas more than tripled last year and energy companies, analysts and traders all say that high prices are set to persist, already a key driver of now rampant inflation.
Contracts have eased from their peak, yet the weather may still get colder. There is also mounting tension with Russia over a possible invasion of Ukraine, which could disrupt vital supplies.

“The scale of the crisis makes government measures insufficient to cover all impacts across the economy,” said Simone Tagliapietra, a fellow at European economic think tank Bruegel. 
“The longer this situation persists, the more governments will be forced to target their support towards specific segments of society – a difficult triage, both economically and politically.”

Bank of America estimates European households will pay an average of 54pc more for energy this year than in 2020, with the biggest increases in the UK and Italy, where average yearly bills are set to jump by more than €875.

Assistance deployed so far also reflects the different political cultures: Bank of America reckons that plans announced so far include an annualised €337 per household in Italy, more in France and yet zero in the UK.

The trouble is that it all comes as governments need to tighten their belts after almost two years of state largess to protect businesses and workers through Covid-19.

They also have to balance the impact of state intervention on the energy companies they are relying on to deliver on ambitious national climate goals to phase out carbon emissions.

Then there are the more acute political implications coming to a head in April.

French President Emmanuel Macron faces an election, while the squeeze on the cost of living in the UK is set to tighten with an increase in the energy price cap, adding to the turmoil engulfing Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The UK government is examining ways to help domestic consumers by expanding grants and discounts to pensioners and low-income households, and industry proposals for loans to delay some of the jump in costs coming in April.

Mr Johnson has said a cut in value-added tax on bills is too blunt an instrument.
4) Boris Johnson's eco-socialism: Land may be seized to make way for solar farms in Net Zero drive
The Sunday Telegraph, 16 January 2022

Homeowners and farmers are being threatened with having their land effectively confiscated to make way for solar farms to meet Britain’s net zero target, The Telegraph can disclose.


Energy firm Sunnica has submitted plans to build a 2,792 acre solar farm and energy storage infrastructure on the Suffolk and Cambridgeshire borders.

If the Planning Inspectorate recommends to ministers that the plans should be given the go-ahead later this year, it will be the largest solar farm built in the UK so far, providing power for 100,000 homes.

But MPs and residents living in many of the small villages in the area have decried proposals by Sunnica to use compulsory purchase orders for land on which it needs access and where it cannot reach a negotiated settlement with owners.

This would include significant sections of land under which to lay electricity cables connecting the solar panels and battery storage units to the Burwell National Grid Substation in Cambridgeshire.

It could also see the compulsory purchase of land to create wider roads and access points to allow construction of the huge project, which is equivalent to the size of 2,115 football pitches.
The company stated that it "requires powers of compulsory acquisition to ensure that the scheme can be built, maintained and operated, and so that the Government's policies in relation to the timely delivery of new generating capacity and achieving ambitious net zero targets are met."

'Completely wrong'
Matt Hancock MP, the former health secretary, who along with Lucy Frazer, a Treasury minister, represents the area earmarked for the development, told The Telegraph: “By attempting to force through unpopular proposals they [Sunnica] damage the case for delivering the renewables we need.

“I support solar developments locally where they are in the right place, with the support of us locally. The way Sunnica has gone about this is completely wrong."

More than a dozen land and property owners are thought to be holding out against Sunnica's attempt to acquire "an interest" in their land in order to lay cables and gain or improve access to the sites on which the solar farm would be built.

In all these cases Sunnica say "no progress" is being made in negotiations, indicating they may need to move to compulsory purchase.

Richard Tuke, a landowner who is refusing to allow 800 acres of his land at Freckenham to be used by Sunnica, stated in a consultation document: “Our withdrawal from the scheme does not prevent Sunnica from including our land in their submission to the Inspectorate nor does it stop them from applying for compulsory powers to purchase our land should they choose to do so.

“We have however written the Inspectorate formally telling them that Sunnica are including our land without permission.”
Local views 'squeezed out'
The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, which supports solar power in brownfield sites, has criticised Sunnica for pursuing its plans through the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects (NSIP) regime, saying “this risks squeezing local views and local scrutiny out of the decision-making process”.

It added: “It's worrying that the applicant is also proposing to apply for Compulsory Purchase Orders where it can't reach a negotiated settlement with affected landowners.”

Critics have also decried the size of the solar farm on what is open agricultural land and the potential danger of the large lithium-ion battery units needed to store the electricity generated by solar panels before transfer to the National Grid. In recent years similar battery units have been involved in fires and explosions in Britain and abroad.

Mr Hancock said: "Even the most ardent supporter of renewable energy can see that putting a huge battery farm right next to villages is a bad idea. Those behind this proposal have completely failed to bring the community with them, refused to attend all the key meetings and haven't even tried to win over local support.”

South Korea saw 23 battery farm fires in just two years and a recent battery fire in Illinois burned for three days, with thousands of residents evacuated. Lithium-ion batteries used in solar farm energy storage systems were deemed an "unacceptable risk" in Arizona after causing two serious ­fires in 2019.

In Merseyside, one of three battery cabins on a site caught fire and exploded in 2020 and nearby residents were ordered to stay indoors.

Solar farm battery units are not covered by the Control of Major Accident Hazards regulations and are unregulated under UK law.

Risk of explosions and toxic gas

Professor Wade Allison, emeritus professor of physics at Oxford University, and a panel of experts last year warned that with the potential for huge explosions, fires and clouds of toxic gas, they could devastate towns and villages nearby.

Sunnica did not respond to requests for comment, but it states on its website that “we have considerably reduced the degree to which our scheme impacts on nearby communities as part of this process”.

It said that around 26 per cent of land within the scheme’s boundary would now be used for landscaping and environmental mitigation measures.

Sunnica’s website also states: “Whilst the cable corridor route has been confirmed, the width of the corridor remains wider than will actually be required as we are still undertaking environmental assessment and design work.”
5) Charlotte Ivers: Bereft without Brexit, the Tories have a new bone to fight over: Net Zero
The Sunday Times, 16 January 2022

What do you get for a political party that has finally settled the argument that has torn it apart for generations? Something new to argue about, naturally.

In early 2020, with Brexit finally done, an uneasy peace fell over the Conservative Party. Yet even at the time MPs speculated that it was too good to last.

Now a new dividing line is emerging within the Tory ranks: the question of how the government will reach its target to hit net zero by 2050. As we emerge from the pandemic, this issue will come to the fore.

As it does, it threatens to split the Conservative Party once more, with some going as far as to describe net zero as “the new Brexit”.

Many Conservative MPs have long felt instinctively uncomfortable about the government’s route to carbon neutrality. Despite having stood on a manifesto promise to deliver net zero, they worry that the proposed policies will make their constituents “poorer and colder”, as one MP put it to me.

Thus far open dissent has largely been contained to the “usual suspects” who habitually rebel within Tory ranks. This has in large part been due to MPs’ loyalty to Boris Johnson, for whom net zero is a key priority. As that loyalty has melted away in recent weeks, the grumbling has intensified and spread.

That this decline in party loyalty comes at the same time as an expected cost-of-living crisis provides a further headache for the government.

Lord Frost, the Brexit minister who recently resigned from the cabinet, criticised the government’s net-zero strategy this week as “increasing costs on individuals”. MPs who had not previously given net zero much thought worry about the impact it could have on their constituents’ energy bills. Pressure is mounting on the government to act to bring those bills down.

Government sources say that a short-term fix is in the pipeline and that in the long term the drive towards net zero will bring energy bills down, ending the volatility in prices associated with reliance on fossil fuels.

However, the debate over net zero runs deeper than these practical concerns. It is a symptom of a fundamental split within the Conservative Party between those who, like the prime minister, are happy to see high public spending and state intervention, and those who long for a return to a small state.

This is a divide that reaches the highest echelons of the cabinet.

For Tory MPs worried about state overreach, there is a natural rallying point. The Net Zero Scrutiny Group has attracted serial Brexit rebels such as Steve Baker and Craig Mackinlay.

Baker’s involvement is causing particular anxiety in Whitehall. He is known as a formidable organiser of parliamentary rebellions and played a key role in the demise of Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

But unlike in the case of Brexit, the aim of the group is not to defeat the government in parliament. This would be impossible to achieve given that the Labour Party is likely to vote with the government on net zero. Instead, the pressure group aims to be enough of a nuisance in other ways to make the government change direction: think media appearances and civil society campaigns rather that parliamentary manoeuvring.

While some of its members have flirted with climate scepticism in the past, the group insists that it accepts the existence of climate change and the net-zero target. Its stated aim is to challenge the policies used to reach that goal. The group’s leaders encourage members to focus on the economics of net zero when talking to the media, not to question the science.

Of course, if net zero is the new Brexit, then there is one key character without whom the story would not be complete.

Nigel Farage is marshalling his forces to campaign for a referendum on the very existence of the net-zero target. Reform UK, the party set up by Farage and led by Richard Tice, the former Brexit Party MEP, will play a key role. However, the eventual aim is a cross-party campaign similar to the one for Brexit.

Plans are in the early stages: slogans and logos are currently being drawn up. But expect later this year to see rallies held across the country in the style of the Leave Means Leave campaign.

The focus will be on the cost of net zero and its possible impact on voters’ wallets. However, we will also see a patriotic angle emerge, with Tice and his team warning that moving away from domestic fossil fuel production would leave the country dependent on Russia and the Middle East for its energy supply.

The government has little truck with this line of argument. A government source told me last week that the way to gain energy self-sufficiency is to move away from fossil fuels entirely.

With most of the world scrambling towards net zero (sic), the government believes there will be an economic advantage in being the first mover. If Britain can develop green technologies swiftly, the argument goes, then other countries will be banging on our door brandishing fists full of cash.

It is telling that Kwasi Kwarteng, the businesss secretary, is leading the strategy. Government communications about net zero will focus heavily on the expected benefits to the economy and job creation.

The government, backed by Labour and the political establishment, will campaign on the economy, jobs and Britain’s role in the international community. Meanwhile a scrappy bunch of outsiders, led by Farage, will appeal to our sense of patriotism and promise the return of political power and economic activity to Britain.

Public opinion is likely to divide broadly along the lines of old and young, urban and rural, those with university degrees and those without.

Sound familiar? If it doesn’t already, it will soon.
Editor's Note: Charlotte Ivers wrote a very similar Sunday Times piece about the Net Zero Scrutiny Group of MPs in October, just three months ago. She ended her October column with these words: "Johnson goes into this fight from a point of strength. He has a large majority and faces a Labour Party struggling to gain purchase with the electorate." Three months are a very long time in politics.
6) China coal output hits record in Dec and in 2021
Reuters, 17 January 2022

SINGAPORE, Jan 17 (Reuters) - China's coal output hit record highs in December and in the full year of 2021, as the government continued to encourage miners to ramp up production to ensure sufficient energy supplies in the winter heating season.

China, the world's biggest coal miner and consumer, produced 384.67 million tonnes of the fossil fuel last month, up 7.2% year-on-year, data from the National Bureau of Statistics showed on Monday. This compared with a previous record of 370.84 million tonnes set in November. read more

For the full year of 2021, output touched a record 4.07 billion tonnes, up 4.7% on the previous year.

Since October, authorities have ordered coal miners to run at maximum capacity to tame red-hot coal prices and prevent a recurrence of September's nationwide power crunch that disrupted industrial operations and added to factory gate inflation.

The most-active thermal coal futures contract on the Zhengzhou Commodity Exchange , for May delivery, was up 2.82% at 708 yuan per tonne at 0239 GMT on Monday. Prices have more than halved since hitting record highs in October last year.

Coal traders in China shrugged off an Indonesian coal export ban as stockpiles at power plants were strong and power demand was set to weaken for the upcoming Lunar New Year holidays. read more

Coal inventory at Chinese utilities exceeded 162 million tonnes on Jan. 21, or 21 days usage, about 40 million tonnes higher than the same period last year, the state planner National Development and Reform Commission said on Friday.
Full story

7) Russia pipeline fuels German coalition split as Ukraine tension rises
Financial Times 17 January 2022

Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats at odds with Greens over future of Nord Stream 2

Nord Stream 2, Russia’s gas pipeline across the Baltic Sea, has already driven a wedge between Germany and the US and sown discord in Europe. Now, as fears mount that Russia will attack Ukraine, it has become a bone of contention inside the German government itself.

Germany’s coalition partners are split on the pipeline, which its critics say will hugely increase Europe’s reliance on Russian natural gas, with the left-of-centre Social Democrats largely backing it and the Greens opposed.

Green foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, who will make her first official trip as foreign minister to Kyiv on Monday and Moscow on Tuesday, has indicated that Nord Stream 2, which is complete but has yet to be certified, cannot go ahead if Russia invades its western neighbour.

The Social Democrats, who have traditionally favoured entente with Moscow, are more ambivalent, insisting on the importance of Russian gas for German industry. SPD chancellor Olaf Scholz has refused to publicly entertain sanctions against the project.

The divisions “are weakening Germany and the EU”, said Stefan Meister, an expert on eastern Europe at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). “We are seeing that the German government has no consolidated position and is . . . still looking for a Russia policy,” he said.

The split was underscored again this week when two senior SPD politicians went out of their way to try to ringfence Nord Stream 2 from the Russia-Ukraine crisis.

Defence minister Christine Lambrecht said the pipeline “shouldn’t be dragged into this conflict”. And Kevin K├╝hnert, SPD general secretary, said international disputes were being deliberately encouraged “in order to bury projects that have always been a thorn in the side of some people” — an apparent dig at the Greens.

The contrast with the rhetoric coming from Baerbock could not be clearer.

She has repeatedly made reference to an agreement between the US and Germany in July last year which said Berlin would impose energy sanctions on Moscow “should Russia attempt to use energy as a weapon or commit further aggressive acts against Ukraine”.

Some have suggested that Moscow is already weaponising its gas exports. Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, said last week that Russia was throttling gas supplies to Europe at a time of “heightened geopolitical tensions”. He said it was holding back at least one-third of the gas it could send to Europe while depleting the storage facilities it controls on the continent to bolster the impression of tight supplies. Russia has repeatedly denied any manipulation of supplies.

At least both the Greens and SPD have agreed on one thing — that the negotiations held last week between Russia and the west were necessary to try to avert war. The US, Nato and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe all held talks with Russian officials in the past few days in an attempt to deter Moscow from escalating the conflict with Ukraine.

But the Russian response was dismissive, with officials describing the talks as a “dead end”. Meanwhile, some of the roughly 100,000 Russian troops deployed at locations close to the country’s border with Ukraine conducted live-fire exercises last week, and on Friday Kyiv said it was the target of a “massive cyber attack” that disabled about 70 government websites.

The Russia-Ukraine imbroglio is the first big crisis that Scholz, a pragmatist who says he wants to emulate Angela Merkel’s cautious, middle-of-the-road policies, has faced as chancellor.

In his public statements, he has been ultra-cautious, emphasising the need for a peaceful resolution of the conflict and warning against any attempt to change Europe’s borders by force.

But he has also firmly resisted pressure from some in US president Joe Biden’s administration to state explicitly that NS2, which is awaiting approval by the German regulator and the European Commission, will be stopped if Russia sends troops into Ukraine.

US officials say Berlin is being nudged in the right direction. Victoria Nuland, undersecretary of state, said last week that the German government had taken “significant steps” to “slow their consideration of implementation of the pipeline”.

But in public at least, Scholz has scrupulously avoided threatening sanctions against NS2, insisting repeatedly that it is a “private-sector initiative” that has nothing to do with the Ukraine crisis.

That marks a subtle but important shift away from the line adopted by Merkel, who admitted in 2018 that NS2 was “not just an economic project”, and that political factors also had to be taken into consideration — not least the need to preserve Ukraine’s status as a transit country for Russian gas.

Full story
8) Robert Bryce: As coal use surges, America finds it's hard to unplug from carbon
The Hill, 16 January 2022
The increase in coal use provides yet more evidence for what I call the “Iron Law of Electricity,” which says that “People, businesses and countries will do whatever they have to do to get the electricity they need.”

So much for the myriad claims about going “beyond coal.” According to a new report from the Rhodium Group, U.S. coal consumption jumped by 17 percent last year compared to 2020 levels. That’s a huge increase, which Rhodium says was “largely driven by a run-up in natural gas prices.” Rather than burn gas, which averaged about $4.93 per million Btu last year — more than two times the price in 2020 — many electricity producers chose to burn coal instead.

The surge in domestic coal use is significant for two reasons. First, it proves again that coal remains an essential fuel for electricity producers both here in the U.S. and around the world. Second, it shows that the Biden administration’s pledge to decarbonize the electric grid by 2035 is little more than wishful thinking.

Hate coal if it makes you happy, but the reality is that power producers have relied on it ever since Thomas Edison used it to fuel the world’s first central power plant in Lower Manhattan in 1882. Indeed, the jump in domestic consumption is part of a surge in global demand for coal, which still accounts for about 36 percent of global electricity generation. Last month, the International Energy Agency reported that “global coal power generation is on course to increase by 9 percent in 2021 to 10,350 terawatt-hours (TWh) — a new all-time high.” The agency also reported that “coal demand may well hit a new all-time high in the next two years.”

The increase in coal use provides yet more evidence for what I call the “Iron Law of Electricity,” which says that “People, businesses and countries will do whatever they have to do to get the electricity they need.” That law was on display in November, at the COP26 summit in Glasgow where India, China and other developing countries rejected a deal that called for a “phase-out” of coal-fired power plants. Instead, the final Glasgow agreement called for countries to “phase down” their use of the carbon-heavy fuel.

While Asian countries account for the biggest share of global coal use — China alone uses more than half the world’s coal — the Iron Law of Electricity also applies to Europe and Japan. During the third quarter of 2021, coal’s share of Germany’s electricity mix increased by 5.5 percent over the same period in 2020. That increase was due, in part, to lower production from the country’s wind-energy sector. France, which usually gets about 70 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants, is also considering burning more coal to replace some of the juice that it was getting from several reactors that have been shut down for repairs. Meanwhile, Japan is planning to build some 21 coal-fired power plants with a total capacity of more than 12,000 megawatts over the next decade or so.

Last week, John Hanekamp, a coal-industry consultant based in St. Louis, told me in a phone interview that global supplies can’t keep pace with demand. He said that domestic power generators are competing for coal with European utilities who are struggling to find enough hydrocarbons to keep the lights on. “There’s a bidding war because there isn’t enough coal to go around,” he said.

In March, the Biden administration pledged to achieve “100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035.” But the rhetoric simply doesn’t match the reality of our electric grid. In 2020, according to BP, domestic coal-fired electricity generation totaled about 844 terawatt-hours, which was nearly two times more than the 475 terawatt-hours that were produced by all of the solar and wind projects in the country. Gas-fired generation totaled some 1,738 terawatt-hours, or more than three times the total of all solar and wind.

The hard reality is that decarbonizing the global electric grid will require finding economically viable — and socially acceptable — substitutes for coal and natural gas. Sure, renewables are politically popular and they are growing. But both wind and solar are facing increasing headwinds because of land-use conflicts. Since 2015, more than 300 local communities from Maine to Hawaii have rejected or restricted wind projects. The backlash against Big Solar is also gaining momentum. Over the summer, Big Solar projects in Pennsylvania, Nevada and Montana were rejected. Among the most recent rejections: In November, regulators in Henry County, Va., rejected two large proposed solar projects.

Speaking of solar, that “clean" energy sector has an embarrassing supply chain issue. Nearly half of the world’s polysilicon, the key ingredient in solar panels, has been coming from Xinjiang province, where the Chinese government has a program of systematic repression and forced labor. Last year, the U.S. State Department declared that China was practicing "genocide and crimes against humanity" against predominantly Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang, including forced labor to produce polysilicon for solar panels

In short, it’s easy for politicians and climate activists to vilify hydrocarbons, hype renewables, and talk about quitting coal. But as the Rhodium Group’s report makes clear, economics matter. The U.S. and other countries aren’t going to suddenly quit using coal (or natural gas) to produce electricity because doing so would be too expensive.

I’ll end by making the same point I have been making for more than a decade: If policymakers are serious about decarbonizing the electric grid, they need to get serious about nuclear energy. And they need to do so now.
9) Andrew Orlowski: Hydrogen can’t power the green flight revolution
The Daily Telegraph, 17 January 2022
“Where’s my flying car?” has become a lament for those of us who mourn how technological ambition and optimism dissipated after the 1960s.
Instead of building wonderful and useful new machines, as Elon Musk’s biographer Ashlee Vance highlighted a decade ago, “the best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads”.

A scan through the news pages of the aviation press reveals something surprising, however. Here we find no shortage of designs for new flying machines, from Jetson-style personal e-VTOL (electric vertical take off and landing) models to short haul aircraft. But this is not the renaissance it seems to be.
Instead, it’s a sign of how one of Silicon Valley’s most cynical cultural exports – Demo culture – has come to aviation.
In a Demo, potential investors get to clap eyes on a prototype that doesn’t have to work. Eight figure cheques have been handed over on the strength of a demonstration alone.
But since the “product” is only a mock-up intended to unlock further funding, this practice attracts grifters.
Like Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos who was convicted of wire fraud two weeks ago, and who became the embodiment of the Valley’s fake-it-until-you-make-it culture. Holmes realised that a viable product was unnecessary: a good Demo was all you need.
Of the new e-VTOL concepts being unveiled today, boosted by speculative venture capital with nowhere else to go, we can be reasonably sure that few will make it to production, and none will enter commercial service.
Except perhaps, in amusement parks. Aviation is an unforgiving battleground, and when we review the physics, reality bites very quickly.

Jet fuel has 70 times the energy density of a lithium battery, so compared to today’s efficient designs, an electric plane can’t go very far, or carry very much.

The forecaster Japan Aircraft Development, which produces the most detailed long-term market estimates, agrees.
It reckons that by 2040 there will be 43,028 commercial aircraft in service, of which 4,160 will be turboprops. However, only 762 will be electric vehicles with 19 seats or fewer – the regulatory category that the start-ups are targeting.
A range of 200 miles is what the most optimistic one might achieve, and in Europe, that will never be competitive with high speed rail.
Another potential fuel source is hydrogen, which is being designed for use by larger aircraft. At first glance, hydrogen has a similar energy density to aviation fuel. But hydrogen must be cryogenically frozen, requiring very cumbersome storage – too bulky to go in the wings, as kerosene does today, it takes up valuable cargo space in the fuselage.
Then it must be carefully balanced throughout the journey, so as not to destabilise the plane. Hydrogen atoms are smaller, so you need thicker pipes everywhere. And the resulting engine is far heavier. One estimate I’ve seen of converting a two engine turboprop from kerosene to hydrogen increases the engine weight from 2 tonnes to 13 tonnes – a deal breaker. 
Bear in mind that in a low margin industry, cost increases of 5pc are sufficient to render your fleet uncompetitive. At this point, defenders of electric and hydrogen usually cry: “but technology improves all the time. This is only the start!”

Some technologies do indeed improve, such as the existing aviation technologies we use today, which are dramatically more efficient than they were in the 1960s.
But there’s no bet hydrogen energy will improve – for in 40 years time, hydrogen atoms will still be the same size as they are today, will still need to be generated (as the “fuel” does not occur anywhere in nature in useful quantities, except inside stars). I’ll hazard a guess that the freezing point of hydrogen will be the same as it is today too.
It’s worth noting that not every country is as hydrogen-bonkers as the UK. Others are placing smarter bets on advances in biology, and the potential for microbes to produce sustainable aviation fuel much more efficiently than is possible now.
Given recent advances in gene editing and synthetic biology, it seems more likely that we’ll be able to produce zero carbon fuel that’s a ready replacement for kerosene than we’ll be able to defy physics to make hydrogen commercially competitive. Last week, Air France-KLM imposed a new levy to fund sustainable aviation fuel research. A bold politician would argue that aviation enriches us so much at so little cost – barely over 1pc of global CO2 emissions – it should be left completely alone. But Europe and the UK have a unique handicap: something I call the “innovation blob”.
Seemingly oblivious to physical reality, we now have an army of civil servants, quangos and academics lobbying for low carbon technologies regardless of their drawbacks, and taxpayers fund this circus. State-funded research competitions are the equivalent of the Demo, allowing officials to dress up as a venture capitalist for a day, but everyone gets a prize.
I wonder if this elite is actually the real target market for e-VTOL vehicles: just as Soviet-era Moscow had Zil Lanes, lanes reserved for the party elite, perhaps we’ll be able to look up one day soon and see an electric vehicle zoom by overhead, conveying an innovation quangocrat and to a very important “work event” – one that’s not too far away, of course.
But how ironic that the flying car – once the most extravagant expression of capitalism, technological innovation and supreme individualism – would become such a vehicle of green grift.

The London-based Net Zero Watch is a campaign group set up to highlight and discuss the serious implications of expensive and poorly considered climate change policies. The Net Zero Watch newsletter is prepared by Director Dr Benny Peiser - for more information, please visit the website at

No comments: