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Wind farm debate: have we forgotten why we’re doing this?



The debate surrounding wind power is riddled with money, politics and prejudice. It’s time we began concentrating on the primary reason why we desperately need cleaner energy.

Much of yesterday’s news was dominated by energy minister John Hayes’ impromptu attack on wind power. “Enough is enough”, he was reported to have said in relation to the expansion of the industry, before being shot down by energy secretary Ed Davey, who reaffirmed that the coalition’s stance on renewable energy hadn’t changed.

Now we don’t profess to have listened to, watched or read all the media coverage of the story by any stretch of the imagination – there are only so many hours in a day, after all – but we did catch quite a bit. Of the debates, opinions and interviews we did come across, though, almost all neglected – whether knowingly or unknowingly – to mention the indisputable backbone of the argument for renewable energy and indeed, the reasons why it’s so desperately needed.

The overwhelming majority of climate scientists – the men and women with qualifications in climate science, who ought to be the go-to knowledge base on the subject – agree that humans are the chief driver of climate change, through our consumption of fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal. In turn this produces greenhouse gases that form a layer in the Earth’s atmosphere that in turn drastically warms the planet.

Just one look at the devastatingly sharp decline in Arctic summer ice this year – which shrank to its lowest ever point in August – shows that something really quite urgent needs to be tackled.

But even more basically than the debate around climate change is a need to reduce our pollution and waste and to protect the world’s biodiversity. As a country, and indeed as a planet, we are pumping unsustainable amounts of pollutants into the atmosphere, poisoning our oceans, ripping down our forests and wasting precious, finite resources.

If the argument for anthropogenic climate change is as solid as it gets, the one for excessive pollution and waste is even more concrete. According to a 2009 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, carbon dioxide from fossil fuels accounts for account for 60% of the “underlying radiative climate forcing”. Whatever your stance on climate change is, this isn’t sustainable.

But renewable energy emerges as a clean, abundant alternative to fossil fuels. And wind power is the most advanced option we currently have. Other technologies – solar, wave, hydro, geothermal and biomass, for example – are either not yet commercially-viable or are incompatible with the UK’s geography and natural resources. We can’t make the sun shine more, but these technologies will become more commercially-viable as the price of new technology always falls – wave and tidal power have potential for our island nation. Islands tend to be surrounded by waves and tides.

Solar is a burgeoning industry, and is seen by many as the future of renewable energy. In 2011, £6.9 billion was spent on new solar projects – a massive 122% rise on the year before. In the UK, the cumulative installed solar capacity shot up over 3,000% between 2010 and 2011, whilst the generation rose 2,300%. But still, this only accounts for 1% of the total generation.

Hydro (18%) and landfill gas (17%) make up a significant proportion of the UK’s renewable energy arsenal, but way out in front is wind power – the most sophisticated clean energy alternative we have at our disposal. Onshore wind accounted for 33% of the UK’s renewable energy at the end of 2011, whilst offshore contributed 16%.

Yet too often, the debate strays into realms of aesthetics, and not the reason why expansion of clean energy is so imperative in the battle against climate change. NIMBYs (not-in-my-back-yarders) are quick to oppose planning for an onshore wind development, but often come unstuck when pressed for a better option. Admitting that an objection is aesthetic rather than resorting to pseudoscience would be a positive step in the right direction. Building wind farms offshore is seen as the solution to this – something that the UK is doing at rapid speed, but the relative cheapness of installing turbines on the land means that onshore wind is currently the best option.

The difference between wind power and other forms of energy is its involvement of communities. Individuals across the country are buying into wind projects that benefit their local community – Westmill Wind Farm and Drumlin Wind Energy being a prime examples. Not only do investors get a decent return from these projects; but their homes – if they live locally – will often be powered by the energy that the turbines generate.

John Hayes added that the UK “can no longer have wind turbines imposed on communities” – something that Dale Vince, founder of green energy supplier Ecotricity – questioned on BBC Radio 4 yesterday.

Onshore wind energy is the only form of energy generation that local communities effectively have a say in”, said Vince.

It’s the only form of energy generation that’s decided by district councils; the government decides every other form of energy – nuclear, gas coal, that kind of stuff – so it’s quite ironic really for certain ministers to make great play of the fact that communities need to be involved more when actually this is the only technology that they really are involved in.”

To say that the public don’t want renewable energy would be erroneous, too. Recent polls in both the UK and the US displayed overwhelming support for clean energy. The public is definitely switched on to the need for cleaner energy. Prejudiced policy, then, must renewables’ only stumbling block.

Another criticism of renewable energy – and wind in particular – is that it is a subsidy-junkie. A subsidy, though, is just another word for government spending for public good, and what these critics conveniently overlook is the massively inflated subsidies currently going to towards fossil fuels.

Over $400 billion a year is handed to the oil, gas and coal industries – six times more than what renewables get, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). As with any burgeoning technology, early investment is the key to its survival. The domestic feed-in tariff rates for solar have been severely cut in the last year – on the face of it a step back, but it could be argued that this has been because of the great progress made by the industry over that period.

Outspoken commentator and blogger James Delingpole, who recently withdrew from his post as anti-wind candidate at the Corby by-election after receiving less than 1% of votes in a pre-election poll, brings up another misconception in his latest rant.

He wrote, “Oh – and [wind power] doesn’t even reduce carbon emissions or create energy security because wind power, being by nature intermittent and unreliable, requires near 100% back-up from conventional, fossil-fuel power ticking away on “spinning reserve.”

This is true for the short-term, but in most cases renewables are backed up by natural gas – the most low-carbon of all fossil fuels. Energy storage across renewable networks is seen as the holy grail within the industry, and like many clean technologies, we have the science; it’s just not commercially-viable right now.

Effectively, it’s a toss-up between two options: continue burning dirty fossil fuels – oil, gas, coal – or invest in clean, limitless, renewable energies including wind power – the best, most efficient, most developed alternative energy source, and one that will assist the UK help tackle climate change and reduce pollution. I know which one I’d go for.

Wind power is the cornerstone of renewable energy. The UK is a windy, wave-swept, tide-surrounded island; it’s clear that we need to strive for clean alternatives if we are to tackle climate change, and utilising our limitless resources is paramount in this challenge. Opponents of wind might as well be climate change sceptics – indeed, many are – because we’re not going to win this battle without it.

Further reading:

Coalition at loggerheads over energy minister’s wind comments

Wind power experiences boom but policies still lean towards fossil fuels

Clean British energy in action

Why policy is the biggest stumbling block of all for renewable energy

The Guide to Limitless Clean Energy


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