I recently heard a government minister on the radio talking about how important it will be for the UK to have a balanced mix of energy sources for 2050; some coal, gas, nuclear, some renewables. This sounds quite reasonable, but ignores the very different economics of these energy sources, which seem to me to be going in opposite directions.
Fuels such as coal, oil, uranium are in limited supply, so the more people want them, the more their price will rise. There are few sources and many consumers, all bidding for fuel in a global market. Easily-won fuels have been had, so we are down to the harder-to-access stuff. Coal could be an exception, as it is so abundant, but its high carbon content means it will have to be taxed in future to save the atmosphere, resulting in peak coal, as well as peak oil, peak gas and peak uranium. Global demand for fuels will keep hitting the ceiling of limited supply.
Investing in not using these fuels will become more attractive as they get more expensive; we will pursue so-called “negawatts”. This will benefit all kinds of energy saving measures, and energy storage as well. The more that people want such equipment, the greater the scale of deployment, allowing each item to be offered more cheaply. This also applies to renewable energy equipment; the price of solar panels and wind turbines falls as they are used everywhere. Nature is not increasing its price for these sources, and the cost of accessing them will go down.
The growth of the market for renewable devices means it is worth investing in innovations that make them more effective as well as cheaper, also new ways to store the energy produced. There will be savings from producing energy where people live, rather than distributing it from central power stations.
Therefore, the more we want the traditional fuels, the more expensive they get. Whereas, the more we want the alternatives, the cheaper they will get. These are global trends and no government or politician can stand against them. We aren’t relying on idealism or wanting to save the planet here; the power stations and fuels of the 20th century just won’t be competitive in the 21st century. “Unsustainable” means exactly what it says.