Off the Grid: Microgeneration – the Spark of Endarkenment

John Vidal, Guardian Environment Editor, claimed yesterday that

British buildings equipped with solar panels, mini wind turbines and other renewable energy sources could generate as much electricity a year as five nuclear power stations, a government-backed industry report has shown.

It wasn’t news. The other green-activist newspaper, the ‘Independent’ On Sunday leaked the report ahead of its publication, to create the idea that it had discovered a choice between a “Brown future” (a reference to the Prime Minister) illustrated by a dirty, industrial landscape, and a “Green future”, illustrated by a picture of some low-profile solar panels under some fluffy clouds in a deep blue sky.

The government-backed report, to be published tomorrow, says that, with changed policies, the number of British homes producing their own clean energy could multiply to one million – about one in every three – within 12 years.

It seems unlikely that there are only 3 million homes in Britain. Anyway…

These would produce enough power to replace five large nuclear power stations, tellingly at about the same time as the first of the much-touted new generation of reactors is likely to come on stream.

In his most pro-nuclear announcement to date, the Prime Minister indicated that he wanted greatly to increase the number of atomic power stations to be built in Britain. And he met oil executives in Scotland to urge them to pump more of the black gold from the North Sea’s fast-declining fields – even though his own energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, admitted that this would do nothing to reduce the price of fuel.

The equivalence to “five nuclear power stations” isn’t mentioned in the report. We looked hard for it. What were we missing? Where had it come from? We decided to ring Element Energy, the group who were commissioned to write the report, to see where the figure in the Independent had come from. Director Shane Slater told us that such a comparison was “outside the scope of the study”, and that it was an “unhelpful comparison”, with which he wouldn’t necessarily agree.

So where has the figure, published in both the IoS and Guardian come from?

The factoid is also mentioned in a press release from Monday, by Micropower, a group established by Liberal Democrat Lord Ezra to “represent the whole microgeneration sector”.

The report concludes that as many as nine million microgeneration installations could be in place in the next twelve years with an ambitious policy support framework. If this was to happen, microgeneration could produce as much energy as five large new nuclear power stations and by 2030 we could be saving as much carbon as if we were to take all HGVs and buses off our roads.

The IoS article predates press release, but we thought they might know where the figure came from. We spoke to them, and were told that “it wasn’t in the report”, which we knew already, but that it had “come out of the steering committee press release”, which said,

With ambitious policy measures, up to 9 million microgeneration systems could be installed by 2020, producing as much energy as 5 nuclear power stations. This would require an estimated cumulative cost of at least £21 billion

According to them, a comparison in a press release was intended to be illustrative, rather than make a case against nuclear energy. The calculation was achieved by adding together the equivalent gigawatt hours heat and electricity generated under this theoretical scenario, and dividing it by the output of a large nuclear power station. [Report]

But the result is that a headline that bears no relation to the study, and which has been picked up uncritically by many others:

Home-made’ energy will match output of five nuclear plants.

An injection of 21 billion pounds ($41.22 billion) over the period could see nine times as many installations in place by the same time and generating as much power as five nuclear power stations, the independent report said.

A report backed by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has claimed that microgeneration could prevent the need for new nuclear power stations if enough people adopt the technology.

The study, which was compiled for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, found that technology such as solar panels and wind turbines on buildings could produce as much energy a year as five nuclear power stations.

The report concludes that microgeneration through the likes of solar panels or mini-wind turbines for homes could produce enough energy by 2020 to generate as much output as five nuclear power stations.

Microgeneration could rival nuclear power, report shows

Would 9 million microgneration installations, which would cost upwards of £21billion for 1% of our energy needs, even be equivalent to 5 nuclear power stations?

No. for a start, 9 million microgenerators would require millions of man-hours of maintainence a year. The Independent continues,

Even more embarrassingly for the embattled Mr Brown, the report closely mirrors policies announced by the Conservative Party six months ago to start “a decentralised energy revolution” by “enabling every small business, every local school, every local hospital, and every household in the country to generate electricity”.

Here is the Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, announcing that ‘decentralised energy revolution’.

But when was a ‘revolution’ ever about a mere 1% of our energy needs being met at an astronomical cost of £21 billion? What kind of ‘revolution’ is it, where instead of centralised power, we rely increasingly on what comes our way ‘naturally’? That’s only a revolution in the sense of going full circle and ending up where you started.

Speaking of which… In the same edition of the Independent On Sunday, in a story about the discovery of a previously isolated tribe, the headline told us:

Road to oblivion: new highway poses threat to Brazil’s uncontacted tribespeople

The article carried a picture of two, painted members of the tribe, attempting to fire arrows into the aircraft of the photographer. The caption warned that

…tribes face danger from ‘civilisation’.

Notice the scarequotes.

The Independent – and perhaps many others – have forgotten that civilisation is all about roads and centralised power generation. They free up our time, and allow society to become more sophisticated. They create the possibility of liberation from mundane existences, scraping a living from what nature provides. Yet the fashionable desire for off-grid living supposes that it is more rewarding, or more ‘ethical’ – to live as primitive, isolated an existence as possible. Both the romantic fantasy that the Independent routinely concocts out of primitivism, and the nightmare it constructs out of mis-interpreted press releases are fictions. If this fiction remains unchallenged, going off-grid will represent not a neat, efficient idea, but the first steps back into basic lifestyles and lowered horizons. What the Independent seems to want is an endarkenment.

5 thoughts on “Off the Grid: Microgeneration – the Spark of Endarkenment”

  1. Reminds me of Mao’s catastrophic attempt to increase steel output in China by having millions of mini-smelters in backyards all across the country.

    Doomed to failure.

  2. Fred, you beat me to it! Yes, Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”, which ended up costing millions of lives, is an appallingly apt example of the triumph of political delusions over common sense. Here’s a link to a history website which goes into more detail – much here that will be uncomfortably familiar to those of us following the glorious war on climate change.

    http://tinyurl.com/4f9yat

  3. Cervantes’ Don Quixote seems appropriate. Should we all return to being powered by windmills that blithering fools can tilt at?

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