Is the cheapest the best?

A Power Station

A Power Station

As news of rises in the price of electricity have appeared, there have been a number of stories in the right-wing press lamenting the folly of subsidising generation of electricity by renewable means:

And my question to you is this. Do you always choose the cheapest alternative? Personally, I don’t. For example

  • Our family car is a Vauxhall Zafira, now 11 years old, chosen for its utility for family life.
  • I chose a Macintosh computer over a Windows PC, because its just better.
  • We choose Free Range eggs so that hens are treated better.
  • The carpet we recently chose was not the cheapest – which just felt nasty – but far from the most expensive either.
  • While the apartheid regime was in place in South Africa I never bought South African fruit.

My purchasing choices are based on a range of criteria which reflect my income, and my understanding of the consequences of my purchasing decisions for me and the wider world. I expect everyone makes similar decisions. Often it is not clear what the cheapest option really is: buying a cheap sofa now may result in it falling to bits in a year or two. A more expensive initial purchase may have saved money in the long run. In general, I only choose the cheapest option when I can see no downside to that choice. And perhaps the Daily Mail and The Register consider that there is no downside to non-renewable electricity. I disagree.

If we want the cheapest electricity possible, then we should forget about wind, solar and nuclear and simply burn coal or gas, whichever happens to be cheaper. Our carbon dioxide emissions will soar. While we are at it, we should take the scrubbers off the emission stacks of the power stations which reduces efficiency. Sulphur dioxide emissions will soar and acid rain will increase, but the electricity will be cheaper. If price is the only thing that matters then people should be clear about the consequences of the choice they are making.

Deciding the correct generating mix is a complex decision in which economics plays a part, and science & engineering play a part, but the final decisions are political. And in the democracies the decisions reflect our will:

  • In Germany the Government has voted to close all nuclear power stations by 2023
  • In Italy, a referendum on Monday will probably choose not to build any nuclear power stations at all. The previous referendum on this issue was just after Chernobyl and the timing of the current  referendum so close to Fukushima more or less ensures rejection. I think the next time Italy decides to have a referendum on this issue all the nuclear power stations in the world should be put on high alert!
  • In France, the public are not given any choice in the matter
  • In the UK, the government seeks to avoid decisions on such matters by devolving decisions to ‘the market’.
The generating mix in a country is a choice. If the Daily Mail and The Register think we should just emit carbon dioxide and damn the consequences, then they should say so. Personally, I think it would a disastrous choice: politically, strategically, environmentally and ultimately, economically. The future begins now, and although the shape of future is always uncertain, it seems to me that sustainable energy is bound to play a part. It is better that we face up to this reality now – and that means we need to pay the cost of that choice. Or to mis-quote Lao Tzu
The journey of 60 GW, begins with a single kWh

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