The Sunday Telegraph recently revealed “the true cost of Britain’s wind farm industry”, according to its front page article. The source of this claim was the rather ironically titled the ‘Renewable Energy Foundation’ – an “anti-wind lobbying group” whose work is based on ideology rather than evidence, serving only to undermine the constructive debate we need about our future energy mix.
As a quick summary, the main thrust of the article was the claim that, according to “new analysis of industry and government figures”, each job in the UK wind industry required £100,000 of subsidy.
For a detailed fact-check of this “new analysis” see Robin Webster’s excellent Carbon Brief blog here. But in short, it involves dividing a cherry-picked high number by a cherry-picked low number – hardly a robust approach. It also ignores the other benefits derived from subsidies, like the fact we get non-polluting energy, and fails to acknowledge that such support is critical in bringing the future costs of clean technologies down.
Not a one-off
For those that follow press coverage of energy and climate change issues, you’ll know that this kind of analysis is unfortunately far too common.
For example, a month ago several newspapers (here and here) covered a new “report” suggesting “green energy” will cost each British family £600 extra a year by 2020. This figure has subsequently been shown to contain some outrageous assumptions – for example £5 billion per year for grid upgrades, compared to £8.8 billion in total between now and 2020 according to an industry group which includes National Grid itself.
One problem with these stories is the use of source material which more rigorous fact-checking would show to be often exaggerated and misleading, and sometimes just plain wrong.
So who is the Renewable Energy Foundation?
REF is a registered charity that claims to promote sustainable development through the use of renewable energy. However, at the same time it appears to campaign heavily against wind energy. Its director John Constable recently described “truly productive energy industries” as being “gas, coal, oil”.
The wind energy trade body, RenewableUK, has described REF as an “anti-wind lobbying organisation”. Julia Davenport of Good Energy has said that “their name is misleading […] what they are really about is trying to block large wind farms”. Dale Vince of Ecotricity goes further, suggesting their real purpose is to give the impression of legitimacy to media outlets who are anti-wind in nature. You can read more on this here.
Beyond this, it’s hard to find out much more about them. An important question for any such organisation, whether ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ an issue, is how they are funded. REF says it is supported by private donations, and a Guardian article suggests these have included former TV presenter Noel Edmonds, and property tycoon Vincent Tchenguiz. However more information – for example the extent of genuine grassroots support – is not easy to come by.
Of course the issue of funding is less important than the quality and integrity of an organisation’s published output. However the “analysis” supporting the “true cost of Britain’s wind industry” article hardly speaks volumes for this. Indeed there appears to be no proper report whatsoever to back up these recent claims (for example on the REF website), let alone peer-reviewed analysis.
What’s the impact on the renewable energy debate?
Interestingly, despite the impression sometimes given by organisations like REF that there is a growing backlash against wind energy, public opinion on renewable energy in general and wind energy in particular has remained remarkably constant over time. A recent Government survey suggested 82% and 68% of Brits ‘support’ or ‘strongly support’ renewable energy and onshore wind respectively – virtually the same as one year ago.
However one negative impact of REF’s work is to polarise debate on renewable energy. Those who already dislike renewables (or the people and politics they associate with it) have their beliefs reinforced. Those who are in favour of renewables will dismiss claims they already believe to be untrue. This is no way to facilitate a healthy democratic debate about something so important and complex as energy.
The approach also does a disservice to genuinely important points that are occasionally delivered alongside the misinformation. For example, whilst REF may have grossly over-inflated their £600 green energy cost to British families, the point that the impact of renewable support stretching beyond consumer bills to affect prices more widely in the economy remains valid. But a loss of credibility in one area undermines a critical-friend role in the other.
Overall, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that it is ideology rather than evidence driving the Renewable Energy Foundation’s work. Whilst many organisations – both ‘green’ and ‘non-green’ alike – are now using the wealth of real-world evidence that exists about renewables to constructively engage in debate, REF seems unable to move on from an approach that lacks transparency and appears aimed at sensationalist headlines above all else.
It’s probably unrealistic to hope that the likes of REF will adopt a different approach any time soon. In the meantime, the rest of us should stick to our guns and continue to rely on evidence as our guide.