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.

Sustainababble

Writing in the Guardian this week, John Vidal says,

The government is in danger of losing credibility on climate change because more than half of all its departments are failing to reduce their carbon emissions enough to reach levels that the nation as a whole is expected to meet.

This data is from the Sustainable Development Commission, who are, they tell us,

the Government’s independent watchdog on sustainable development, reporting to the Prime Minister, the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. Through advocacy, advice and appraisal, we help put sustainable development at the heart of Government policy.

The fact that there is a public institution watching over the other public institutions to make sure they are ‘sustainable’, might have once implied some kind of economic auditing process in the public interest. But this quango is more worried about the UK Government’s carbon footprint than the uncorrupted delivery of public goods. The Commission’s website front page says,

Carbon emissions from offices have fallen by 4% since 1999, however nearly two thirds of departments are still not on track to meet the target of reducing carbon emissions from offices by 12.5% by 2010. The sixth annual assessment of government operations finds that, despite encouraging initiatives, government is still not on course to meet targets and urgently needs to raise its game.

But who gives a toss what the UK Government’s performance in delivering ‘sustainability’ actually is? Did anyone vote at the last elections for the concept of ‘sustainability’? Governments are supposed to deliver public goods, and the level of ‘sustainability’ of that process bears no relation to the utility of those services, the legitimacy of delivering services to particular end users, or the diligence of the civil servants engaged in delivering services. As long as services are being delivered, then it’s not as if anyone is being robbed.

Words that used to mean something in political discourse related to human experience; ‘Libertie, Egalitie, Fraternitie’. We know what these words mean, even if we might enjoy the expression of them in different ways. Similarly, once the influence of Churches and accidents of birth no longer had so much pull on the direction of society, political ideas were about how society might be more legitimately organised so as to best realise those values.

Today’s green buzzwords are instead designed to bridge the chasm between Environmentalism’s objectives and human values. Like ‘balance’ (as in ‘the climate is out of balance’), ‘sustainability’ in fact has very little meaning. Your house is not ‘sustainable’ – it is, at some point, going to fall down, or be knocked down. You are not sustainable – you are going to die, at some point. Nothing material is ‘sustainable’. The political currency of these words has not been achieved by the prospect of them making the world a better place, but by capturing anxieties about the security of the future. The values of ‘sustainability’ and localism reflect a breakdown in the belief in society and its ability to improve life through industry and democratic organisation. Indeed, industry becomes an antithesis to Environmentalism, and pesky democracy just gets in the way of ‘ethical’ lifestyles.

Environmentalism’s attempts to justify itself on a rational basis by using ‘science’ belie its mystical foundations; ‘sustainable’ lifestyles which are ‘balanced’ or otherwise in ‘harmony’ with ‘nature’ are designed well before any scientific evidence exists that they will have any effect whatsoever. Hairshirt lifestyles and Gaia worship existed before the Gaia hypothesis. Now it’s trendy, not because the world has been brought up to speed on the science, but because the ‘ethics’ are so appealing in our ethically disorientated world. In other words, being ‘sustainable’ is not about one’s actual ‘impact’, but about distancing oneself from the chaotic, immoral world in favour of the comforting morality of natural orders.

Vidal is wrong, the Government may be embarrassed by it’s performance, but this will not undermine its credibility, because no one cares. In setting up the quango, it set itself up to be embarrassed, but this embarrassment will not make any difference because only a small group of people believe that ‘sustainability’ actually means anything.