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Poor analysis from a professor of energy policy
on 19 November 2013
I expected better than apologism masquerading as analysis, especially from a professor of energy policy at Oxford, and one who has the ear of government. Helm argues for gas as a transitional fuel on the basis that it is cheap and abundant and has half the emissions of coal. He berates the green lobby for making questionable assumptions about the future, then falls straight into the same trap himself. He does not examine whether any of these claims are true. His acceptance of the 'shale gas revolution' is unquestioning, ignoring the obvious: the price of gas in the US fell because it is a 'gas island' with no exporting facilities. Estimates of US gas supplies now look to be wildly over-optimistic, and the CEO of Shell has described his company's investment of $24bn in US shale gas as his biggest regret ever, after they wrote down $2bn in losses this year. UK fracked gas is unlikely to reduce prices. And unconventional gas may be nearly as bad as coal for emissions. Odd that Helm should detect exaggeration of the benefits of renewables everywhere he looks, but be blind to the inflated claims of the fossil fuel lobbyists!
It is a pity that Helm doesn't look at the numbers. He claims that much of green thinking is simply wishful, but doesn't examine the detail. It's not good enough just to say 'you're wrong, I'm right', even if you are an Oxford don.
Helm doesn't even look at EROEI (energy return on energy invested) the main reason why unconventionals are unlikely to be game-changers. Instead he continues with the unsupported assumption that oil prices have more to do with politics than geology. He dismisses the plateau of conventional oil production since 2005 and seems to think that the quantity of new finds will keep up with conventional depletion. They won't, by a long way. And the reason why fracked gas is unlikely to be as cheap and abundant as he assumes? - the decline rate in production of wells is between 40 and 75% per year, as opposed to 5% per year for conventional wells.
The problem is that this book puts its eggs largely into one basket - fracked gas as a transition fuel. Helm assumes that CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) will be feasible, but ignores the fact that it would add 25 - 40% to the cost of energy produced, which significantly changes the equation with current renewables. He sees a future for electric cars, blames greens for 'not thinking through the electrification of transport', but fails himself to look at the overall energy cost - which turns out to offer little advantage, unless powered by renewables. (Carnot's Law, dear Professor...)
He is better on the economics, but still seems to think it is a science (criticising Stern for not being peer-reviewed is a cheap shot), and his main argument is not that bad, even if he dodges the issue of economic growth. But it is hampered by his bias. Helm's complaint about subsidies for renewables conveniently ignores the decades-long tax breaks given to North Sea oil, and about to go to the frackers. Pretending that greens have infiltrated government is silly. (A recent Freedom of Information request revealed 50 fossil fuel employees working within the UK government. How many greens? None)
He would have done much better to address the real arguments rather than patronise the reader with opinion dressed up as serious analysis. But in the end the book is not rubbish. He's absolutely right that coal is the big problem, and has to be phased out. Taxing carbon consumption rather than production has to be the way forward. Nuclear should not be dismissed. Big investment in renewables research and development is needed. It's just that the gas transition route may not help to achieve any of this.
Much better is 'The Burning Question' by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark. For a critical analysis of fracking in the US, and why it won't be as good as some think, try 'Snake Oil' by Richard Heinberg.