When I was a child, things powered by batteries always had one big failing - the batteries went flat, and, on the whole, the house never contained the right ones to replace them immediately. I know - the hardships of a first-world childhood……. But it’s all changed now, and as I sit here writing this this morning, so much is dependent upon the rechargeable battery: the laptop I’m working on, the mobile phone sitting on the desk next to me, through the window I can see the robot lawnmower sitting in its dock charging, the two cars at the front of the house have filled themselves with electricity overnight - I could go on.
In the metals business, we obviously see all of these battery-hungry devices as an insatiable source of demand for the metals that make them work. Just today, the ‘Times’ is hyping battery metals (with some slightly misleading pricing background, it has to be said) and in truth that demand is the biggest driver of the current market.
But as well as the batteries to store power, the electric power itself has to be generated, and that is where pragmatism and idealism currently clash.
Over the last Bank Holiday weekend, it is reported the the UK went for a record five days (strictly, 125 hours) without burning any coal in its energy-generating system. That’s good news, wherever one stands on the global warming/climate change/climate emergency scale, because burning coal is basically filthy and whatever the overall effect of the emissions, they are at the least extremely unpleasant. Coal’s centuries-long place is being taken by renewables, clean electricity generated from the wind and the sun. Offshore turbines do have their disadvantages; shredding seabirds is one of them, and - as a coastal/offshore sailor - I have to confess to find the new wind farms springing up slightly irritating. But, taking the rough with the smooth, I’m sure we would all agree that sun and wind are a massive step forward compared with coal (apart from the 1970s throwback Jeremy Corbyn, who has been regularly telling miners he wants to re-open coal mines).
There is a problem issue, though, which what one could call the environmental purists seem to be missing. Sun and wind are necessary to generate green power, and the brutal reality is that they cannot be controlled. The UK has one of the best global environments for wind power - thanks to geography - and we all know by now that bright sunshine is not necessary for modern solar panels; light does the job. Nevertheless, there will inevitably be times when weather conditions are such that neither wind nor sun will produce what is demanded from the power grid by industrial and domestic consumers. It may be - at some indeterminate time in the future - that battery storage will have advanced sufficiently to fill the gap; I suspect that will be the case, but it’s not there yet. What is there, right now, is the fact that industry needs power, homes need heating and lighting, on a consistent basis, not just when the wind blows and the sun shines.
So logically, there has to be an alternative that fills the gaps. It should probably be nuclear, but we’ve kind of lost direction there, and instead of small, manageable projects, we have massive constructions which take decades and billions to build and then probably don’t work properly anyway. The next best solution should be gas - yes, still a fossil fuel producing noxious emissions, but significantly far less than coal, or indeed oil. There are two options for gas in the UK - import, or produce domestically. Importing requires large tankers sailing around the world powered by burning marine fuel oil - itself a source of the gases we are precisely trying to eliminate. Producing domestically probably requires fracking.
Now, I’m not a climate - or indeed any other kind of - scientist, but it seems to me that the objections of the green lobby to fracking in the UK are no more than making the good the enemy of the best. The UK will not become a major energy exporter (again) like the US; the different nature of the countries - population density, available land and so on - will see to that. But surely extracting a cleaner alternative to fill the inevitable gaps in the provision of clean energy is a better choice than continuing with imported coal and oil? The argument that we simply cut down demand doesn’t hold water, because it’s not a question of absolute demand, it’s an issue of continuity, at whatever level demand runs. However much energy we do or don’t use, there will still be times when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. Short of closing society down during those periods, there has to be an alternative. Doesn’t it make sense to use the cleanest one available?