A couple of weeks ago, I was on the panel for a debate on the motion ‘Britain should be a fan of wind energy’ at the Cheltenham Science Festival. John Constable of the Renewable energy Foundation was also against the motion, while arch-environmentalist Jonathan Porritt and wind energy tycoon, Andrew Garrad were in favour.
The debate is now online at http://raeng.tv/default.aspx?item=72, but unfortunately there is no option to embed the video here, and the server seems to be a little rusty.
The debate itself was enjoyable, though I found it a bit frustrating that there weren’t as many opportunities for the panel to challenge each other as I had hoped for. I think it’s clear that Porritt was also quite frustrated.
I wanted to argue that it really doesn’t matter whether you are a fan of wind energy or not; the decisions about our energy policy are neither dependent on public opinion, nor controlled by it. (Yet). I think this point is perhaps lost on many people, who still regard energy as a problem of ends, rather than means. It’s a point which certainly escapes Porritt, who can only think that an argument for cheap and abundant energy is ruinous, rather than the means by which good can be done. The delight that environmentalists seem to take in saying ‘no more’ is a peculiar thing, which I struggle to understand. That seems to me to be the point of limiting the debate about energy techniques and politics: if you allow any other imperatives to the debate — such as improving our lot — environmentalism loses all its currency.
Here’s what I said:
I have to admit, I am a little confused by the motion being debated by the debate. Energy is energy — a means to ends, not an end in itself. I doubt that many of us are ever as excited to discover that our computers are powered by our favoured technique as we are when our favourite football team scores a goal.
What we’re really talking about then, is I think, policies which have led to the construction of wind farms. And we’re talking ideas which inform those policies and the consequences of committing ourselves to them. Wind turbines are just a means.
The nature of technology is that it produces unintended consequences, which we organise our lives around as much as we do around the intended consequences.
For example, some people have rightly pointed out that the convenience of the motor car has led to towns and cities developing in a way that has left communities divided and isolated by busy roads; creating large, unnatural housing estates devoid of social space, and other amenities.
So a meaningful commitment to wind energy means committing ourselves to the limitations of wind energy — its expense and its intermittency. So what are these consequences of such a commitment?
The CEO of the National Grid, Steve Holliday says, and I quote…
The grid is going to be a very different system in 2020, 2030. We keep thinking about: we want it to be there and provide power when we need it. It’s going to be a much smarter system, then. We’re going to have to change our own behaviour and consume it when it’s available, and available cheaply. ENDQUOTE
Making the grid compatible with an increasing proportion of wind, and the replacement of existing generating capacity with wind energy is going to cost hundreds of billions. At the end of it, we will not have a better grid than we have now, capable of delivering a continuous supply of energy.
Fifteen gigawatts of electricity generating capacity is scheduled for closure by the end of 2016. To replace that capacity with wind energy at the current rate of building wind farms of about 650 megatwatts per year, with a load factor of 28% would take over sixty years. Wind energy simply cannot fill that gap. An emphasis on wind energy is going to create shortages.
As Holliday admits, the ‘Smart Grid’ will decide when we can and can’t use electricity. People will find that they cannot afford electricity deals that guarantee continuity of supply – the capacity to supply it will not exist. If you’re better off, you will be able to afford the prices that suppliers will charge when electricity is in short supply and demand is great.
I believe that this Orwellian use of the word ‘smart’ betrays some deeply regressive values. If we are going to make sensible decisions about our energy future our choice of technique must be informed by the recognition of the need for ample and affordable energy.
Wind energy lobbyists have recognised that there is a problem with rising energy prices, and claimed that wind energy only costs the average household a few pounds a year. While this may be technically true, it is disingenuous. What it forgets is first that currently only a tiny fraction of our energy supply currently comes from wind.
And emphasis on renewable energy creates an opportunity cost. Rather than seeking ways to make energy abundant and cheap, global agreements and EU and UK policies have instead emphasised ‘changing our behaviour’, reducing demand, and limiting the production of energy.
Policy-makers simply have the wrong priorities. They believe it is their responsibility to force us to change our behaviour, and to manage a diminishing supply rather than to respond to democratic will, or at least to our needs. The message is clear: you are not allowed to have cheap and abundant energy.
It would be much harder to say that about wind energy, if there had been a public, democratic, transparent debate about our energy policy, and the values which inform it. It would be harder to say that policymakers were getting it wrong if the public had expressed its view that the costs of wind energy were worth bearing.
And wind power doesn’t offer us anything intrinsically good, such as more abundant or cheaper energy. In fact it only offers us less, for more cost.
There is nothing to be a fan of, except cost, inconvenience, and a form of politics which is indifferent to our needs.
So I respectfully ask that you reject the motion.