All this carbon-cutting is a waste of energy

Neither Boris Johnson nor Ken Livingstone is willing to deliver the uninterrupted, cheap energy London needs.

James Woudhuysen

Topics Politics

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For all his offbeat manner, London mayor Boris Johnson is in fact a conformist carbonista. Like the Lib-Con coalition government, the mayor and his Greater London Authority (GLA) want to cut carbon-dioxide emissions at the expense of assuring a reliable, cheap supply of energy for London’s growing needs. On energy, Johnson is as dottily green as Ken Livingstone, his Labour predecessor.

On 23 January, one of the main sources of fuel in London and the South East, Coryton oil refinery in Essex, closed because its Swiss owner, Petroplus, had hit financial trouble (eventually, the company went into administration). As fears grew of a shortage of petrol and diesel on London’s forecourts, it should have been obvious that maintaining a decent supply of energy for the nation’s capital is an important issue. But, instead, the GLA website lists ‘environment’ as one of its formal priorities. ‘Energy’ is not on the list.

It’s a habit with Boris. His July 2011 London Plan similarly has a chapter titled ‘London’s response to climate change’, but none on energy. To track down a comprehensive statement by Johnson on fuel and power, you have to go back to 2010, when the GLA published two major consultation documents titled Delivering London’s Energy Future. Yet these, too, are mostly about carbon and how to cut it, and hardly at all about energy and how to make more of it.

With an enthusiastic foreword by Johnson, the February 2010 version of Delivering London’s Energy Future brazenly lifts much of its narrative and data from a report by the audit firm, Ernst & Young (1). It mentions ‘sustainability’ 70 times, and ‘low carbon’, ‘zero carbon’ and ‘zero emission’ even more. Over 20 charts, it counts the sources of CO2 in London and details how different measures might help cut emissions. Containing, by contrast, just a handful of charts on energy, the 185-page document represents a conscious decision not to plan for a full supply of electricity and gas, but instead to audit CO2 and set reduction targets.

Johnson has held this line since his election in 2008. In housing, for instance, the mayor’s mix of green un-realpolitik and Stalin-style targets means that GLA policy conforms to the approach of former Labour deputy prime minister John Prescott, whose Code for Sustainable Homes set a target for obliterating CO2-emissions from all English homes by 2016.

According to the mayor’s London Plan, the 2012 Olympic Games should have an ‘exemplary’ legacy of energy conservation. In fact, conserving rather than producing energy is as much Johnson’s fetish as it is Livingstone’s. During his mayoral election campaign, Livingstone poured scorn on the notion of Britain developing new supplies of nuclear and wind power, moaning instead that ‘something like a third of all the energy we consume [in London] continues to be simply wasted’.

Of course, London gets its electricity, like its oil and gas, from national and international networks. As a result, fresh investment and innovation in energy should happen both inside and outside of the capital. But wherever new energy developments should take place, we don’t hear much from Johnson about mainstream power generation or the supply of fuels.

In London as elsewhere, transport, homes and workplaces need continuous, uninterrupted, cheap energy. The mayor’s job is to help develop the kind of culture, expertise and funding that can assure the fulfillment of that need. With Battersea Power Station decommissioned for nearly 30 years, we might want to see more electricity produced in London than is currently put out by the Barking and Enfield power stations. Their total electric output is just 1,400 megawatts (MW). And yet we hear nothing about this. Neither Johnson nor Livingstone shows any sign of entering London’s May 2012 mayoral elections with energy in mind. Johnson’s commitment to lowering CO2 in London, and his insouciance about an adequate energy supply, are pure Livingstone. For his part, Livingstone quarrels with Johnson only because he has ‘quietly cut mayoral targets for cutting carbon emissions’ (2).

Demand for energy in London will rise, not fall

Johnson’s administration doesn’t just have the wrong priorities. In surreptitious style, it has also revised one unlikely target – to reduce the capital’s demand for energy – and made it still more unlikely.

National energy demand over a year is often measured in terawatt-hours of energy (TWh). Just one TWh is worth a billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) – and that’s quite a lot. Over a recent winter in London, for instance, I bought just 10,000kWh of gas central heating, and a mere 2000kWh of electricity. Just one TWh is 100,000 times my main heating bill. These kinds of basics are all fairly simple, yet the GLA can’t even get the terminology right: confidence in the GLA’s projections of energy demand is not inspired by its references to ‘Terra Watt hours’, and also to ‘Trillion watt-hours’. And soon things get worse.

Written for consultation with the London Assembly and ‘functional bodies’, the February 2010 Delivering London’s Energy Future opined that, over the year 2025, a quarter of London’s total energy demand, sans transport, would ‘amount to around’ 29TWh. But an October 2010 variant of this document, written for consultation with the general public, magically turned that 29 into just 23. That’s a lot of energy to go missing in eight months.

This amounted to a projection of 92TWh for London’s total non-transport demand for energy over the year 2025. It compared with a DECC figure of 117TWh for final non-transport energy consumption in London in 2008. The GLA believed, then, that London could, in just 17 years, lower its demand for ‘stationary’ energy by a whopping 27 per cent.

How very convenient, how easily done were these revisions! In its latest forecasts, the GLA has raised its figure for non-transport demand to nearly 110TWh for 2031 – though this is still a significant drop on 117 for 2008. But leaving aside the GLA’s continual retouching of its targets, its halcyon vision of a low-energy future for London will never arrive.

How could energy savings be achieved? Given that London has only a modest industrial base, further de-industrialisation in the city is not going to bring big savings in energy. On the other hand, London’s service sector is unlikely to lower demand much more than it has already: all the way from 1970 to 2003, the UK service sector’s demand for energy was low and stayed low. Then, despite poor prospects for the UK economy, London’s GDP, which is the largest among European cities, is likely to grow a fair bit between now and 2025, even if it dips a bit in the next year or two. Last, the number of households in the capital is predicted to rise by 15.5 per cent between 2006 and 2026. In other words, there are plenty of upward pressures on energy demand.

Now London’s homes use, in aggregate, more energy than its workplaces, which is the inverse of the picture for the UK as a whole. After all, the city has a relatively slender industrial base and a relatively high population density. Therefore, a rise in population for London will certainly increase demand for energy – not least because the capital had, in 2009, the lowest proportion of cavity wall insulation and loft insulation in England.

Of course, the predicted 15.5 per cent rise in London’s population between 2006 and 2026 may not transpire, despite the fake precision of that decimal place. Yet there is something else to consider here. New homes in London will be less draughty and more energy efficient than its current housing stock. But the fact is that very few new houses are being built in London. We can be pretty sure, then, that right up until 2025, more and more people will cram into the capital’s tight, aging residential property and make a full and perfectly proper demand for heat and electricity.

So will London be able to keep everyone warm and supplied with uninterrupted power? The issue is an immediate one, because energy capacity takes time to build. It is well known that Britain needs to invest in its electricity grid, close its old nuclear plants and close those of its coal and gas plants that don’t meet EU norms. For the GLA, these factors mean that the risk of a national energy gap emerging by 2020 remains high. The GLA notes that London’s share of the electricity demand not met by UK national supply could be about 0.576TWh – a modest, though appreciable, shortage of power. Still, the GLA reassures us that Boris Johnson’s trendily named RE:NEW programme, which promises to insulate 1.2million London homes by 2015 and every dwelling in the capital by 2030, will cut national electricity demand by 0.756TWh, so ‘plugging London’s potential energy gap and around 10 per cent of the national energy gap’.

This is silly. Insulating London’s homes won’t plug electricity demand, which is what the GLA boasts about. Sillier still, the GLA estimates that, by 2015-16, Britain’s national energy gap could run to 43TWh. So even if RE:NEW achieves its saving of 0.756TWh, that is 1.34 per cent, not 10 per cent, of the national energy gap.

Johnson’s energy arithmetic is riddled with errors. That does not augur well for keeping the lights on.

In his belief that reducing the draughts in London’s homes will reduce the nation’s energy shortage by a tenth, Johnson doesn’t just repeat the petit-bourgeois prejudices of Margaret Thatcher, who was always obsessed with residential property. He also repeats Ken Livingstone’s delusions of metropolitan grandeur. In the 1980s, ‘Red Ken’ pompously declared London a nuclear-free zone. Now Johnson declares that cutbacks in the use of energy in London can help compensate for the collapse of UK nuclear power.

The free-trade enthusiast who supports autarchy in energy supply

Johnson always presents himself as a breezy cosmopolitan. As a professed devotee of free-market capitalism, he is always out to promote the cosmopolitan merits of a new airport for London, and of foreigners investing in the City of London. Yet his vision for energy in 2025 prioritises autarchy in energy supply. By 2025, the GLA proclaims, London ‘will become its own powerhouse’, and meet more than a quarter of its demand for energy ‘from low- or zero-carbon local sources’. Given the GLA’s utopian hopes for lowering London’s future energy demand, how realistic is its hope to meet that demand from local sources?

For well over a century, large pieces of civil engineering have made and brought heat and power to Britain and to London. Indeed, London has always imported most of its energy as coal, gas, oil and electricity. There is nothing strange about this. As the Digest of UK Energy Statistics notes, ‘the UK has traded fuels such as oil and gas regardless of whether it has been a net exporter or importer. In 2010 the UK imported more coal, crude oil, electricity and gas than it exported; however, the UK remained a net exporter of petroleum products.’

Shamelessly, however, the GLA raises the alarm, not about the reliability of energy supply in the sense of sufficiency, but rather about security of energy supply in the sense of geopolitics. ‘An ever-increasing number of experts’, it reports excitedly (though it does not say who these experts are) ‘are pointing to the threat of peak oil; the notion that we have reached, or will soon be reaching, the maximum rate of global oil production, to be followed by a sustained decline in future production’. As a result, ‘investing in domestic low-carbon energy solutions would therefore help to protect London’s businesses and residents from being held hostage to soaring global energy prices’.

In both the UK and the US, fears of being ‘held hostage’ to overseas sources of oil have a long history (3). But for Johnson, oil and gas security are held up as a call not just for energy conservation, but also for a renewables-based energy supply that is local to London. What is forgotten is that innovation can create new, powerful, reliable and cheap sources of energy supply outside London – through a tidal barrage on the Severn Estuary, for example. Meanwhile, new oil has been found off Brazil, Africa and India; in America, the discovery of shale gas has brought gas prices down to their lowest levels in 15 years.

The planet now has a world market for natural gas – something that benefited Japan after Fukushima. Globalisation cannot be wished away. So exactly why should London generate its own energy? In energy, dependency on international sources is a fact of life. London should build ‘its own’ energy supply only with the techniques, at the scales and with the costs that make sense.

The GLA wants less dependency on outside energy. But it also wants London, by 2025, to have ‘the lowest carbon footprint per person of any big city in the world’, to have a lower citywide footprint, and to have neighbourhoods cut their ‘wider carbon footprint’. From one side and the other, Johnson offers the supremely generous vision of environmentalism: the city as vulnerable-but-greedy parasite on outside energy resources, and also, the city as an energy-consuming organ of pollution. Again, this is pure Ken Livingstone.

Low technological ambitions

In energy, Boris Johnson’s technological plans are modest. First, the homes programme RE:NEW is about retro-fitting, not energy innovation. It begins with a 90-minute energy survey from an advisor on how to save up to £154 a year on energy and water. The measures proposed? Using low-energy light bulbs, installing stand-by switches, insulating hot-water tanks and draught-proofing. Above all, the suggested measures about ‘how changes to your behaviour can help you stop wasting energy’. Not much technology here, then.

Second, the insulation of homes and other buildings is a low-wage, but highly labour-intensive affair. Cribbing from Ernst & Young, the GLA says that investment in residential energy measures by 2025 will be less than £266million, but that it will generate more than 8,000 jobs a year. This amounts to an investment of just £2,000 per job. There’s nothing capital-intensive or technological about that.

Third, when the GLA does choose to discuss energy supply, it favours above all what it calls ‘decentralised’ sources: primarily combined heat and power (CHP) systems. There are 197 mentions of the word ‘decentralised’ in the October 2010 Delivering document. What is really meant is ‘tiny’. Over 15 years, Johnson has said he will put between £5 billion and £7 billion into making sure that 25 per cent of the capital’s energy, by 2025, comes from decentralised sources. That’s less than £500million of investment a year – hardly enough to build up to a quarter of the capital’s energy supply.

With which technologies will Johnson go scavenging for heat? Take the ‘Ambitious action’ and ‘Coordinated action’ scenarios. These are by far the most optimistic scenarios that GLA energy modelers have put forward – not for the Boris target year of 2025, but for 2031. In these cases, the main contributions are made by waste heat from power stations outside greater London (17.72TWh per year under the ambitious actions), by combined-cycle gas turbine (CCGT) power plants fired by natural gas and rated between 50 and 100MW (16.95TWh under the coordinated actions), and by CHP plants burning biomass (5.2TWh). These are the largest quantities of decentralised heat-from-power projected by the GLA. Beside them, the ‘ambitious’ yearly outputs for 2031 from renewable energy sources in the shape of solar panels and air-source heat pumps are not ambitious at all: 4TWh and 2.8TWh, respectively.

What is striking is how small, unlikely and low-tech all the options are. While a citywide heat network might make sense, the contribution from renewables will be negligible, even after the elapse of 20 years. Meanwhile, we can be sure that Johnson will not be campaigning for a new nuclear-power plant outside London, let alone inside it. Nor will the GLA bother much with a serious investment in CCGT plants. Instead, it prefers to model futures in which new-build CCGT plants are limited, in their capacity, to 500MW. Path-breaking stuff!

Pie-in-the-sky plans for homes and electric vehicles

In terms of energy output, technology and scale, the mayor lacks inspiring goals. But in terms of overall targets, the Boorish Johnson line in hyperbole must rule – especially around housing and electric vehicles.

Given that gas-fired central heating generates CO2, officialdom’s obsession with carbon dictates a truly Sisyphean labour to insulate London’s homes. The labour will be endless, for London’s homes are not the worst insulated in the UK for nothing. On top of this, the GLA itself admits that:

  • Flats are a problem, because new cavity-wall insulation, cladding and windows ‘must often be installed for all flats in a building at the same time’
  • Only 30 per cent of London’s homes have lofts at all, 95 per cent of which already have some insulation
  • Transport snarl-ups, parking and congestion charges all make the work of insulation in London particularly costly
  • About 70 per cent of London’s homes are hard to treat, 15 per cent are the property of landlords (usually uninterested in insulation), and about 13 per cent are also in conservation areas, making them poor candidates for external cladding.

Despite all this, London is saddled with no fewer than 30 home-insulation schemes.

The idea that the city will insulate 1.2million homes by 2015 and all dwellings by 2030 is just fanciful. It would be easier to build new, intrinsically well-insulated homes rather than trying to push to the limit the policy of ‘make do and mend’.

What about electric vehicles, then? In 2012, all new buses entering service will be ‘hybrid or better’. This goal is achievable. But elsewhere we understand that, by 2025, London will not only become ‘the electric-vehicle capital of Europe’ (though apparently it is that already), but will also have achieved something else altogether: it will have ‘left behind its reliance on polluting fossil fuels’. In practice, this quite ludicrous goal simply means 1,000 vehicles joining the GLA fleet by 2015 and, by 2020, new charging infrastructure being rolled out to support the introduction of 100,000 electric vehicles on London’s streets. It is added, too, that uptake of electric vehicles in London ‘is a mayoral priority’. Yet the mayor’s figures, which compare with three million cars in London at present, are pie-in-the-sky. In 2010, there were just 1,700 electric vehicles in London, and about 250 charge points. As the GLA admitted, although running costs are much less than those of conventional vehicles, hybrid, electric and hydrogen fuelled vehicles have ‘a significant upfront price premium’ over the internal-combustion engine.

Electric vehicles are commendable but need immense technological development if they are to succeed. A sense of the related commercial barriers is given by the fact that, although the coalition has put aside £400million to subsidise consumer purchases of electric cars, as well as a network of charging points, just 2,500 electric cars had been bought in Britain by July 2011. And will their electricity really be the low-carbon sort?


The nation’s capital consumes enormous quantities of gas to keep warm (especially to warm homes), electricity to power equipment (especially in industrial and commercial applications), and petrol to keep moving. But BoJo’s humbug about energy in London is also enormous.

In place of genuine innovation and investment in energy supply, we find that worldwide fad, ‘showcase eco-projects’. So we’re supposed to look in wonder at charging points for electric vehicles – tall, black posts, their tops gleaming a lovely blue glow at night – but with no electric vehicles in sight. Or we’re meant, with Boris, to believe that decking out Tower Bridge with energy-efficient LED lighting will, in a serious way, ‘benefit London for decades’.

London makes more than 40 per cent of the UK’s general patent applications and is relatively strong in university-based scientific research. In energy, London is HQ to the energy regulator Ofgem, engineering institutions such as the Institution of Engineering and Technology (the largest professional engineering body in Europe, with 125,000 members), energy consultants such as Arup and Wood Mackenzie, and energy utilities such as Centrica. Yet there is little public debate about London’s energy. Instead, Johnston continues with Livingstone’s old dogma that action around CO2 emissions is logically prior to action around energy supply.

The problem for Johnson is that, unlike the process of financialisation, the machine production of energy has a clear material aspect to it. It is true that energy futures are traded in the City, and that energy utilities quoted on the London Stock Exchange concern themselves more with prices, business models and billing regimes than they do with keeping the lights on (4). Yet there is nothing ephemeral or fictitious about energy in the real world. One either has it, or one does not.

No matter how many pounds Sterling or tonnes of CO2 are crunched, there is no way that Johnson will countenance a future of higher demand for energy in London. This is a worry. Given London’s enormous energy needs, one does not need recession, riot or war to make the machine production of energy inadequate. Just stupid policies can do that.

So will there be enough energy to keep buildings heated, lights bright and internal-combustion engines working? Or will the computer screens through which the City makes a living simply flicker and die one day? There is no need to be alarmist. But a sufficiency of energy supply might properly be thought to be one of most immediate issues facing the metropolis.

Johnson intends to lower CO2 emissions partly by ‘reducing energy demand on a sector-by-sector basis’, partly by decarbonising the supply of energy to London, and partly by shifting London motorists over to electric cars. Aping Ernst & Young, Johnson intends a key role for energy-efficiency measures in London’s existing residential sector, whether the measures are ‘basic’ (cavity wall insulation and draught-proofing) or ‘extra’ (efficient boilers and solid wall insulation). Indeed, ‘the long-term solution to fuel poverty is through improving the energy efficiency of London’s housing stock’. However, the equally ‘long-term’ prospect of electric cars is also the subject of appreciable Boris investment. Over the period 2011-2025, the GLA’s projected annual investments of £848million in climate-change mitigation are supposed to include £198million for residential efficiency measures, £68million for the microgeneration of energy from London’s homes, and no less than £284million on electric vehicles.

In energy, Johnson knows and cares only enough about innovation to back the no-tech sort (labour-intensive home insulation) or the not-yet-tech variety (affordable electric cars). Offering a fraudulent amalgam of utopianism, autarchy and low ambitions, Johnson prefers, like Livingstone, to change not technique or economy, but Londoners’ conduct. They must, the GLA says, make ‘sustainable procurement, transport and consumption decisions’. In the home, many of their future savings in energy ‘will be enabled by smart metering and instant feedback on energy consumption’, but will, we are admonished, ‘also require a behavioural response’. In the workplace, Londoners can expect to receive ‘employee energy efficiency behaviour change advice’. On the road, there will be a push to improve driving technique on public transport vehicles, and to acquaint the general public with ‘eco-driving’ styles and environmentally conscious vehicle maintenance.

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Police has begun to test a system that ‘monitors individual driving styles, behaviours, vehicle performances and use. To further encourage this, Transport for London and GLA group employees who drive for work will undergo eco-driver training to both reduce emissions and develop safer driving behaviour… Taxi and Private Hire Vehicle drivers will also be eligible for this training.’

All the bluster for which Boris Johnson is famous cannot disguise the continuity that lies between his policy on energy (or, more properly, CO2) and that of Ken Livingstone.

Over energy, as over other issues, the oh-so-gladiatorial contest between Boris and Ken amounts to a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

James Woudhuysen is editor of Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation. The above is based on ‘Energy’, Chapter 11 of London After the Recession – a fictitious capital?, G Poynter, A Calcutt and I MacRury (eds), to be published by Ashgate in Spring 2012.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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