Richard North, of EU Referendum note, is still posting daily, albeit now on matters well beyond Brexit. North has turned his attention to Boris Johnson’s grand-sounding net zero commitments, versus conditions on the ground, particularly English housing stock. As you’ll see soon, North has a boiler fixation.
I will confess I know just about nothing about home heating systems and fully intend to keep it that way, so forgive me if I lose something in the translation in discussing UK heating devices. The reason we’re looking at what might seem to be an awfully narrow topic is that it sheds light on why we are seeing widespread incompetence at the top of the food chain.
Even if you don’t buy all of North’s analysis, or his strong-form conclusion that UK homeowners will not go along with the Government’s plan that by 2035, “all new heating appliances installed in homes and workplaces will be low-carbon technologies, like electric heat pumps or hydrogen boilers,” you might still agree that the officialdom has not thought its green home plan through and will have to find a way to gracefully roll back some of its goals.
And if North’s analysis is broadly correct, it highlights why our elites are failing. We’ve had a shift over time to more and more, and now pretty much all, having spent all of their adult lives as symbol manipulators: lawyers, MBA-spreadsheet and PowerPoint generating managers, financiers, consultants, politicians, flacks. As I’ve said, in the stone ages of my youth, the Harvard MBA program had at least 40% of its students with engineering degrees, and at least that many having worked in manufacturing. Now the point of being well paid and well educated is to have a buffer of people and reports between you and blue collar workers and physical operations.
Lambert yesterday talked about the stupidity and corruption of the late Romanov era, but there’s also echoes of Versailles, of those who are or aspire to be modern-day aristocrats wanting to be in the circles where the top-tier hang: DC. New York. Boston. San Francisco. Silicon Valley. The right parts of Los Angeles and Seattle, and the prime vacation spots like Aspen, Vail, the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard, and Jackson Hole. It’s more important for them to find a way to fly private class than understand how anything works. They have minions to do that.
If anything, the rot is further advanced in the UK, perhaps because its industrial base was getting hollowed out before Thatcher declared war on it, and because the US is richer and more of an autarky, and thus can better afford mismanagement.
So let’s now turn to North’s argument. My expectation is that even if he’s overstated some of his claims, he’s still directionally correct. And if that is the case, it illustrates a fundamental problem with “green energy/green revolution” schemes: they fail to consider existing conditions and what it will take to get from here to there. A huge impediment to lowering carbon footprints in the US is dispersed, energy-inefficient single family housing, both in their heating and cooling and the transit costs of provisioning them. The US would have to be substantially rebuilt to achieve smaller, more dense residences, hopefully with richer public spaces and ample public transportation. The energy cost of that is huge and upfront, even assuming public appetite to go there. But I don’t see a lot of realistic thinking about how to radically change current habits to make the current spread out housing less destructive either.
In the UK, North contends that the big UK push to cut emissions by 68% by 2030 and zero by 2050 has been vastly oversold, with costs and conversion times greatly understated. His overview is in Politics: grandstand now, pay later. North is cheesed off about what he sees as a wildly unrealistic program to get rid of gas boilers by 2035. No new ones are to be sold after then. Homeowners are supposed to convert to electric boilers or heat pump. The Government will subsidize conversions, so that homeowners supposedly will wind up no worse off, cost wise. North pooh-poohs that claim:
….all the government has to offer.. is a £450 million three-year “Boiler Upgrade Scheme”, giving households grants of up to £5,000 …“so they cost the same as a gas boiler now”.
That alone is highly refined BS, as purchase and installation may cost up to £15,000 for each household. It is estimated, therefore, that this delivers only 30,000 boiler conversions a year – some 90,000 in all – reaching only the well-heeled…
With that, we then creep into fantasy land, as the government is to spend £60 million on a “Heat Pump Ready programme”…it hopes that costs will be driven down and the public will thus be induced into making unsupported purchases so as to meet the government’s target of 600,000 installations a year by 2028.
This seems to be relying on Wright’s Law of technology…that the cost of each unit produced decreases as a function of the cumulative number of units produced.
However… Heat pump technology is mature….while a significant part of the cost is in installation, where Wright’s law will have little effect.
It is most unlikely, therefore, that heat pump “package” costs – purchase and installation – will get close to boiler package cost…And then there are insulation costs to factor in, for a very substantial proportion of the housing stock.
On that basis, there will be very little incentive for the average householder voluntarily to give up their boilers…At the current rate of installation for heat pumps – without the cliff-edge of gas supply termination – it would take over 800 years to complete the programme.
Then, given that there are an estimated 25 million gas boilers in the UK, even if the government’s target of 600,000 installations a year by 2028 was met, it would take over 40 years to complete the replacement programme – assuming there had been no increase in boiler numbers in the interim….
As to overall costing, assuming that there are very little gains to be made from Wright’s Law, we are talking silly money to complete the programme – anything from £250-400 billion, if insulation is included.
North argues these costs pale in relationship to upgrading the electrical grid and making gas distribution hydrogen-ready. He asserts that the estimate of £1.4 trillion looks light, particularly since no one has put a price tag on the hydrogen-ready conversion.
However, it’s North’s post today, on UK housing stock, which if he’s right, shows the degree to which the UK establishment can’t even acknowledge known and obvious constraints. I was exposed to British heating habits when I was cat-sitting right after I came to Oz, for a news producer/commentator, Ticky Fullerton, who was back in her native London filming a segment. She’d come back to her sandstone house (no insulation!) in July (Sydney winter!) and throw the windows open when it was 55 degrees outside. Since I was acclimated to NYC steam overheated apartments, this was a shock to the system.
Similarly, if you’ve seen movies that attempt to do justice to Victorian England, like the Christmas Carol with George C. Scott, they make clear that indoors are cold unless there is a rousing fire, and more typical is an underheated room, using coal in a fireplace, with everyone in near-outdoor levels of layering.
North argues that houses in the UK are un/underinsulated on a pervasive basis, and that actually made sense, given that the Brits in winter are at least as concerned with dispelling dampness as cold (as in this opening up the house to the cold air in the winter is perfectly normal):
Traditionally – and we go back centuries here – the need for ventilation as well as heat was perfectly served by the provision of open fires, with their high, point-heat output, and high draught chimneys. Central heating in domestic premises – even in large houses – was a rarity. The well-to-do would simply have the unattainable luxury of a coal fire in every room.
This meant that, in structural terms, there was no great advantage in building in high levels of insulation – any advantage is lost by the high air movement. This, in turns, dictated a certain lifestyle. People didn’t rely on warm rooms, but warm clothing/bedding, and point-source heat – hence, the fire would be the focal point of the room, around which people would congregate.
As a result, in our older stock housing, there was never any provision for high levels of insulation. Retrofitting is often expensive and, beyond a certain level, impractical. It will often conflict with the need to maintain ventilation – we still have cold, damp winters.
I can’t judge if this is exaggerated special pleading, like the Japanese claiming in the 1980s they couldn’t eat American beef because Japanese had different intestines (I am not making this up, it was a trade negotiation contention). And the one house (where the first floor was built in the 1400s) and the apartment carved out of a house in London didn’t hew to this fireplace/winter ventilation fixation.
But even if North is overegging the pudding, I suspect he is directionally correct, that the UK has a lot of houses which are badly or not at all insulated where it would take a lot to stop them from leaking heat. And if they are in poor areas of the country, the cost of upgrading will be disproportionate to what could ever be recovered in sale cost or use value.
Mind you, I’m not pretending to have an answer. The point here is much simpler: the people in the world who are tasked to tackle major, pressing problems don’t seem willing to do even minimal real world investigation of what they are up against. At best, they actually know they aren’t capable of delivering solutions and are engaged in the “IBG/YBG” (“I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone”) con of merely holding appearances together until they can dump the steaming mess in a successor’s lap.