Three Polls, Two Flops and a Polar Flip

by | Apr 24, 2012

It’s been a funny old day…

As mentioned in the previous post, in answer to the  launch of the UK’s National Oppostion to Windfarms (NOW), the UK’s wind energy lobbying outfit, Renewable UK (formerly the British Wind Energy Association hastily arranged for a survey of public opinion regarding wind energy. The results of the poll are published online.

1. To what extent are you in favour of or opposed to the use of wind power in the UK?

Strongly in favour of: 28%
Tend to favour: 38%
Neither favour or oppose: 22%
Tend to oppose: 5%
Strongly opposed to: 3%
Don’t know: 4%

2. To what extent do you find the look of wind farms on the landscape
acceptable or not? Please give your answer on a scale of 1-10 where 1
means completely unacceptable and 10 means it’s completely acceptable.

1. Completely unacceptable: 6%
2. 2%
3. 5%
4. 4%
5. 12%
6. 9%
7. 16%
8. 15%
9. 6%
10. Completely acceptable 20%
Don’t know 4%

I’ve had a few pointless discussions with the pollsters, Ipsos Mori throughout the day. They say their client doesn’t want to show the raw data from the survey.

Polling is a curious thing. It is not clear whether pollsters aim to measure or make public opinion, or perhaps just to flatter whoever pays them. No doubt they like to think of themselves as objective, but too often, the prejudices of the polls authors — if not the commissioners — are plastered all over the poll. Loaded questions and shallow analysis, as we discovered after an Ipsos Mori poll way back in 2007.

Today, there were two more polls on precisely the same subject, this time from Yougov, who were somewhat more forthcoming. The first poll, for Friends of the Earth, asked this question first…

It has been suggested that the government should introduce legislation to make energy companies reduce their use of foreign gas and coal and increase the power they get from Britain’s wind, sun, waves and tides. Supporters say that this would make Britain less reliant on foreign sources of gas and coal, and make energy supply and prices more stable. Opponents say that this would require too much public investment, and there are more important things to spend money on at the moment. To what extent would you support or oppose this policy?

Well, it’s a slightly more honest question than Ipsos-Mori’s.

Here are the results…

Strongly support 33%
Tend to support 52%
Tend to oppose 11%
Strongly oppose 4%

It does look bad for critics of renewable energy. It would seem that 85% of the UK population were in favour of more support for renewable energy. But the second question in the poll reveals a little bit more…

Approximately a quarter of Britain’s current power stations are coming to the end of their expected operational lifespan, and new power stations will need to be built in the next ten years to replace them. Compared to now, which ONE, if any, of the following types of energy source would you MOST like to see being used more in 10 years time?

Coal 3%
Gas 2%
Nuclear 22%
Wind 17%
Solar 21%
Wave/ tidal 26%
Don’t know 9%
Other 1%

Now this is a surprising figure, mainly because it would seem that there is quite widespread hope for nuclear. In fact, there is more support for nuclear than wind or solar. It puts a different light on Ipsos Mori’s claim that 66% of people want to see more wind power. Of course, it doesn’t say that 66% of people don’t want to see more support for wind power. But what it does say is that polls don’t say as much as people who commission polls claim that they say.  A more interesting survey might ask the public how much support they believed wind and other renewables already received, and what they thought the appropriate level of support ought to be. It might well turn out that people wanted to see more support for wind power, but weren’t aware of just how much wind energy costs, alongside it’s other problems — such as what to do when that pesky wind isn’t blowing. We might want to ask the public if they would accept smart meters in their homes, which would turn off appliances when there isn’t sufficient wind. That is, after all, the plan.

Then there is the poll for Scottish Renewables. 1041 Scots were told…

Scotland currently uses a mix of coal, oil, gas, nuclear and renewable energy to power and heat our homes and businesses. Renewable energy sources include onshore and offshore wind, hydro, bioenergy, wave and tidal energy.

And then they were asked to what extent they supported the following statement:

I support the continuing development of wind power as part of a mix of renewable and conventional forms of electricity generation:

And the public said:

Strongly agree 39%
Tend to agree 33%
Neither agree nor disagree 11%
Tend to disagree 8%
Strongly disagree 7%
Don’t know 3%

Again — and aside from the obvious cueing in the question — the question is meaningless. One can ‘strongly agree’ with the statement that ‘I support the continuing development of wind power as part of a mix of renewable and conventional forms of electricity generation’, but think that the ‘continued development’ may just mean a small percentage of total capacity being provided by wind. It doesn’t actually test the individuals commitment to any meaningful quantity. The survey does, however, attempt to test the individual’s commitment to renewable energy:

I support the target of generating 30 per cent of Scotland’s energy needs from a mix of renewable energy by 2020:

Strongly agree 42%
Tend to agree 35%
Neither agree nor disagree 12%
Tend to disagree 4%
Strongly disagree 4%
Don’t know 3%

But it still doesn’t test the individual’s knowledge of renewable energy. And it doesn’t ask him or her to say how much more money they’re willing to spend on their bills to ‘save the planet’.

Some interesting comments on this point emerged from the analysis of the polls.

Today Friends of the Earth is using St George’s Day to launch a new Clean British Energy campaign that calls on the Prime Minister to use his speech at the Clean Energy Ministerial on Thursday to demonstrate his backing for low carbon energy.

The group claims increasing the UK’s reliance on domestic renewable sources would not only help decarbonise the energy sector, but would also enhance energy security and create new green jobs. Government figures show just under £4bn of investment in renewables over the last year yielded nearly 14,000 new jobs.

“The public has given a clear vote of confidence to clean British energy from our wind, sun and sea – it makes no sense for the government to pursue an unwanted, costly dash for gas that’s causing our fuel bills to rocket,” said Craig Bennett, Friends of the Earth’s director of policy and campaigns.

Excuse me? vote? Nobody voted for anything. And the polls didn’t ask the public for their views on the alleged ‘dash for gas’. They weren’t asked about fracking. And they weren’t asked about what they thought would be providing backup for wind farms. It wasn’t explained to them that increased reliance on renewable energy sources means having to provide backup. There was no public debate, preceding the poll, allowing the respondents to check the facts and figures for themselves. To say that the poll represents a ‘vote’ is a somewhat arrogant interpretation of the poll.

But let’s not be bitter about it. The fact must be that critics of the emphasis on renewable energy have not done as well to convince the public that renewable energy isn’t what Renewable UK and Friends of the Earth claim it is. Of course we haven’t: critics do not have the resources to establish professional lobbying firms, to hire PR experts and polling organisations. And critics of the government’s policies do not enjoy the ears and favours of the government and the large energy companies.

And on that point… A Yougov poll earlier this year found that…

Recent research from a report by YouGov SixthSense has found that over eight in ten (84%) UK consumers agree that energy suppliers maximise profits at the expense of customers. And over half of consumers (59%) agree with the statement ‘energy suppliers treat people with contempt’.

Perhaps the public just haven’t yet made the link between energy policies and energy prices. Give them time.

One organisation trying their best to deny that link is another renewable energy lobbying group, the Renewable Energy Association (REA). The REA is publishing a report today, excitingly called, Renewable energy: made in Britain. Jobs, turnover and policy framework by technology (2012 assessment). According to the REA’s press release:

New research by the REA and Innovas reveals that the UK’s £12.5 billion renewables industry supports 110,000 jobs across supply chain, and could support 400,000 by 2020

Hmmm. I’m sure I’d heard of a similar claim being made before…

Just three years ago, I wrote in an article for the Register:

Good news emerged from the recent Low Carbon Summit hosted by bailed-out £10bn loss-making bank, RBS. Peter Mandelson got covered in custard, and the government announced a new industrial strategy.

Apparently 400,000 new “environmental sector” jobs will be created by 2017, according to Gordon Brown, who reckoned 1.3 million people would by then be working in “green” jobs. According to Mandelson, “The huge industrial revolution that is unfolding in converting our economy to low carbon is going to present huge business and employment opportunities.”

The claims are slightly different… 400,000 jobs were predicted for 2017 in 2009. Now the claim is for 400,000 jobs by 2020. And the curious thing is, it’s the same firm of analysts who produced both claims. Innovas provided the REA with the data (ho ho ho) from which they project the 400,000 jobs claim. And they provided the (then) Labour government with the same analysis. And as I pointed out back in 2009, the only reason for the growth in the green sector then was the increasing subsidies available to it. In one sector, the promised growth of 25,000 jobs came at the cost of an estimated £30 billion needed to make it conform to new environmental regulations. That’s not growth: it’s not a spontaneous development of a new industry, the possibility of which has been created by some new technology. It is instead merely the transfer of money, created by laws.

There is yet more of this kind of doublethink, just in the press release…

Our analysis shows that meeting our renewable energy targets would displace fossil fuels with a value of £11 billion in 2020 (£60 billion cumulatively to 2020). Failure to meet our targets would see most of this money leave the UK economy through imports of oil, gas and coal – money better invested in supporting domestic growth in domestic jobs. […]

The report exposes the portrayal of renewable energy as being excessively subsidised in comparison with other energy sources as utterly wrong. Analysis from the International Energy Agency shows that globally renewables receive just one sixth of the subsidy of fossil fuels, while analysis from Ofgem and the Committee on Climate Change reveals that renewable energy policies have only added a fraction to energy bills compared to increases caused by spiking wholesale gas prices.

The possibility of an emerging gas sector in the UK doesn’t seem to have been considered by REA’s report. And if they are so worried about exporting cash from the UK economy, how might they explain all the money spent on renewable energy hardware, such as wind turbines, which are manufactured overseas? Indeed, the core substance of the REA’s report (they were kind enough to let me have an advance copy) is an analysis of each sector’s size, number of employees, turnover, the size of the global market, and the value of each sector’s exports. But no mention of the value of imports, which must surely be subtracted from the balance. Here for instance, is a table of the stats offered in the REA’s report, for a few of the sectors covered.

The UK’s exports to the global wind power sector are a measly £500 million, compared to its domestic market of £4.1 billion. It’s almost inconceivable that most of that market doesn’t substantially reflect a similar ratio. And those 31,400 jobs… Given that the wind sector was subsidised, just through the ROC’s scheme, to the tune of £609.6 million that same year, we can calculate that each job was subsidised to the tune of £19,414.18. That is a problem that the REA simply do not have an answer to. The growth in the sector can only be called ‘growth’ if, in the meantime, can find the £19,414 for each of the existing 31,400 employees in the sector, and the same for each job in the sector that REA and Innovas claim will be created between now and 2020.

This innumeracy is carried forward in the comments about the subsidies enjoyed by the fossil fuel industry. It may well be true that, in absolute terms, the conventional fuel sector enjoys more subsidies than the renewable sector. But when the subsidies for each are compared in terms of a unit of energy, a very different picture emerges. As I have pointed out previously,

in 2008, the world produced fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas, peat) equivalent to 10,065 million tonnes of oil (Mtoe), but only 90.2Mtoe of energy from renewables (geothermal, solar, electricity and heat, wind). So although renewables only enjoyed a tenth (or so) of the subsides that fossil fuels received, fossil fuels accounted for 112 times as much energy. In other words, on a Mtoe basis, the renewable sector received nearly 13 times as much subsidisation as the fossil fuel sector.

Moreover, in the UK, the ‘subsidies’ that REA claim are given to the fossil fuel sector, are in face simply lower rates of VAT (which apply to green energy too). Thus they aren’t subsidies at all. The same cannot be said of the kind of benefits that renewables enjoy.

It’s only by statistical sleight of hand that the REA can make it’s claims. And worse, the statistical analysis on which it depends is hidden behind non-disclosure agreements and claims to be ‘commercially sensitive’. I tried, back in 2009 to have a look at Innovas’s data, but they refused to let me see it in any depth. The REA’s analysis isn’t worth a penny. It has been sold a dud — the same dud that the UK government bought in 2009.

And on to another report. Greenpeace has commissioned Bloomberg New Energy Finance to produce a report ‘on the generation investments of the Big 6 utilities’. There is nothing at all interesting in the report. But there is something very interesting in the press release accompanying it.

Shocking new analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance for Greenpeace, shows that most of the Big Six energy utilities haven’t been investing money from customer bills in a way that brings energy prices under control and secures a clean energy supply for the UK.

The government’s independent advisors, the Committee on Climate Change, and the energy regulator Ofgem have both pointed the finger squarely at the rising cost of gas as being by far the biggest contributor to increased bills over the last eight years.

Ofgem found that of the £150 increase in the average dual fuel bill between March 2011 and March 2012, £100 was due to the rising wholesale cost of energy, largely driven by the increased price of gas.

We’ve already shown how gas prices (as well as pay for the energy company bosses) have rocketed over the last decade.

This worrying trend is set to continue. The chief executive of Ofgem recently argued that gas could be increasingly expensive to import as countries around the world compete for supplies.

This means higher bills for everyone, unless we can reduce our vulnerability by cutting our dependence on gas.

It also means higher emissions. The government’s climate advisers recently wrote to the energy secretary warning that a new ‘dash for gas’ puts at risk our ability to achieve the carbon emission cuts set out under the Climate Change Act.

But lobbyists for the gas industry want to make us even more reliant on burning gas for power generation.

The new research by Bloomberg has found that since 2006, £13 billion has been spent by the Big Six energy utilities on 14GW of new electricity generating infrastructure, and over half of this has been new gas plant.

Greenpeace ignore the effect of policy on the investment decisions made by the big energy firms. First, there is the fact that gas is the balancing partner of choice for wind, because only gas-fired power stations can ramp their output up and down to match demand. Second, several of the UK’s coal-fired power stations are due to be retired early, thanks to the effect of cold winters (oh, for as much global warming as there is irony!) causing these installations to exhaust their emissions permits faster than anticipated. And third, relatively moderate voices in the UK energy sector such as energy economist at Oxford University, Professor Dieter Helm and CEO of the National Grid have argued that gas is essential to the UK’s continuing to produce electricity while meeting its (ridiculous) climate change targets. It’s no use blaming fracking lobbyists, nobody seriously believes that you can take coal, oil and gas (and nuclear) out of the mix, and have a functioning economy.

There are two things going on here. First, NGOs like Greenpeace have campaigned long and hard against cheaper energy. Cheap energy is anathema to environmentalists. Now that campaign has turned into material reality, Greenpeace are trying to distance themselves from it, to pretend that higher prices have been caused by energy companies profit-seeking, not by the policies they have sought. Second, there is a material possibility of abundant and cheap natural gas production in the UK. And the words ‘shale gas’ and ‘fracking’ are conspicuous across all these reports and surveys by their absence. They don’t dare even utter them. Their claims about renewable energy providing jobs, by protecting the UK from volatility in the global market would shatter if the global market began to respond to shale gas discoveries. The UK’s energy policies are themselves resting on the hope that fossil fuel prices will rise into the 2020s and beyond. If they do not, then the UK will be left with a legacy of commitments to expensive policies, subsidies and infrastructure.

As an aside… Here is celebrity Dragon investor, Deborah Meaden, letting the fracking cat out of the energy policy bag. I am surprised to discover that it is possible for idiots to turn themselves into multi-millionaires. But then, free money from subsidies is a great way to get rich, if you’re already rich.

Finally… The flip. Amidst all the reports that have been rushed out this week, as part of a counter-offensive against anti-windfarm campaigners and to influence EU-wide policy-making going on in London this week — all of which is premised in one way or another on alarmism — James Lovelock, author of the Gaia Hypothesis, has changed his mind somewhat.

“The problem is we don’t know what the climate is doing. We thought we knew 20 years ago. That led to some alarmist books – mine included – because it looked clear-cut, but it hasn’t happened,” Lovelock said.

Lovelock’s book was the first book about the environment I ever read. I was barely ten or eleven years old. I doubt I understood much of it. But what was possible to understand was the alarming message it told. The article about Lovelock’s re-consideration contains the following passage which I think is most revealing.

Keya Chatterjee, international climate policy director of environmental campaign group WWF-US, said in a statement that it was “hard not to get overwhelmed and be defeatist” about the challenges facing the planet, but suggested alarmist talk did not help persuade people to act to reduce climate change. “While the problem is becoming increasingly urgent, we’ve found that focusing on the most dire predictions does not resonate with the public, governments, or business. People tend to shut off when a problem does not seem solvable,” she said. “And that’s not the case with climate change because we can still avoid its worst impacts. We know that we already have all of the technologies needed to slow climate change down. We only lack the political will to go up against vested interests,” she added.

Lacking any faculty of self-reflection whatsoever, it looks like it will take a while for the likes of Chatterjee to understand Lovelock’s new argument. And the point will be lost on her that far from not resonating with ‘governments or business’, alarmism appealed immensely, which is why we now see such intransigence from business lobbying firms and the government, served by international NGOs. She’s right about one thing, though, the public weren’t interested in the panic-mongering (only ten year old boys were). And with such a compact between government, business, and NGOs, what the public really thinks, isn’t important.


  1. James P

    “To what extent are you in favour of or opposed to the use of wind power in the UK?”

    How different would the result have been if the question had mentioned that it is subsidised by consumers?

  2. geoffchambers

    Polling is a curious thing. It is not clear whether pollsters aim to measure or make public opinion, or perhaps just to flatter whoever pays them.

    Most of the time the client writes the questionnaire, and the pollsters just ask the questions, no questions asked.
    The first question in the YouGov poll that you call “slightly more honest” is so complicated it’s a bad joke. Imagine being stopped in the street and asked this, (or finding it on your computer screen) with no context, no reference or reason. From now on, any statement of the form “x% of people are in favour of wndfarms” can be confidently dimissed as a lie.
    The clients RenewableUK and Friends of the Earth are clearly not interested in finding out what people think, but in creating fodder for desperate journalists. The stupider their questions, the more transparent their motives, the more likely the journalist is to give them the Mandy Rice-Davis reponse: “They would say that, wouldn’t they?”

  3. geoffchambers

    Damian Carrington in today’s Guardian is claiming that “the green economy already contributes 7% of GDP and employs 900,000 people in the UK, more than teaching”. His source is another article by Carrington, which claims 910,000 jobs. The source for this, in turn, is a report for the Department
    of Business, Innovation and Skills by the same Innovas which Ben quotes above as predicting 400,000 ‘environmental sector’ jobs by 2020.

    By far the biggest “green” employment sector is alternative fuels (167,000) followed by “alternative fuel vehicles” (106,000). Sounds like any petrol pump attendant or car salesman who ever sold a gallon of ethanol or a car equipped to take it is counted as working in the green sector.

  4. Jack Hughes

    Anyone who includes “tidal power” in a list might as well include “unicorns”.

    It does not exist outside the imagination. The basic problem of the tide changing direction twice a day has not been solved.

  5. geoffchambers

    The YOuGov polls for Friends of the Earth and Scottish Renewables are reported in the Guardian in an article written by “staff of Business Green, part of the Guardian Environment Network.”
    So a phoney, biassed account of public opinion on renewable energy, commissioned by a renewable energy company, is written up in the Guardian by an organisation which promotes renewable energy.

  6. J. S. Roberts

    Another interesting commentary.

    On the subject of fossil fuels subsidies, in 2009 the U. S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining held a conference call with the various states delegated the responsiblity to implement the USA’s Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. The purpose of the call was to tell the states that the grants provided to enforce the law were going to be cut. The reason for the cuts was that the Federal Government had concluded that using fees based on the tonnage of coal produced and collected from the coal industry to permit and enforce the law was a ‘subsidy’ to the coal industry. However, in a seperate effort to inventory green jobs, all of the jobs held by permit reviewers and inspectors were classified as ‘green’.

    On a broader perspective, if an economy is successful at using only renewable energy, what will the economy look like? Assuming that all of the infrastructure has been designed, all of the wind farms and solar arrays developed, and all of the installations completed, how many jobs will be needed to operate and maintain this uptopia? Since it’s renewable there will be no fuel costs. So, is it correct to beleive that the cost to consumers will plummet? If it does plummet, and the need to manufacture components has ceased, what will government use to fund social programs to provide for the the former green workers? In short, is the green economy sustainable? And, since the Precautionary Principle requires the proponents of a project to prove it will cause no harm, why should not the proponents of the green economy be asked to think through these issues?

  7. Stewg Green

    – We did a deconstruct of the poll on Wattsup, starting with fact the poll includes some teenagers but excludes pensioners as age limit is 16-64



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