Wind Energy Debate

by | Jun 27, 2012

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, 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.


  1. geoffchambers

    I was surprised that you didn’t mention carbon or CO2 or global warming anywhere. Maybe you didn’t want to get into a debate that has bored us all stiff for the past 10 years. Nonetheless, that’s what it’s about. The only reason to go for wind is to reduce CO2 emissions. The only reason to reduce CO2 emissions is to reduce global warming. And the only reason to reduce global warming is because there are predictions, or projections, or expectations, or Bayesian probability distributions of estimations of expectations, that one day something unpredictably awful is going to happen to our grandchildren if we don’t build windmills.
    It’s crap. Every intelligent person knows it’s crap. Everyone who says they don’t know whether it’s crap or not is to lazy to find out. All the scientific arguments have fallen away as the scientists have been shown to be serial liars and fraudsters. The only people left believing the lie are those like Porritt who live in a Rupert Bear Annual, where we can power our planet with the force of the gentle breezes of “the soft and steady climate which has treated us kindly for so long” (copyright Monbiot).
    I doubt whether your audience was aware of how bankrupt the argument for sustainable energy is. The shallow nastiness of the scientific élite revealed by Climategate; the intellectual vacuity of Stern and the IPCC; the media’s rejection of the most elementary standards of honest enquiry: these are the serious intellectual betrayals which lie behind Holliday’s apparent proud boast that his job at the head of the major energy distribution network of one of the world’s major economies is to make it worse – for ever.

  2. Ben Pile

    Geoff – I was surprised that you didn’t mention carbon or CO2 or global warming anywhere.

    The chair asked us not to. The only person who ignored it was Porritt.

    I think you can have the debate about renewable energy apart from the wider climate debate. Porritt, of course, wanted to say that we have to have wind because of CO2. But my argument was that he was also against nuclear — he’s against the solutions. If we had been allowed to debate further, I would have liked to have identified his asceticism — for other people, not himself. He simply doesn’t see the moral good in more, cheaper energy, regardless of whether or not climate change is happening.

  3. TLITB

    I think Ben and John Constable really only did the service of weary Cassandras there. Ben and Constable were acting more as a contrast. They both seemed to contrast starkly with surreal smug entitlement on offer as an alternative.

    As Vivienne Parry said at the end with a nod to the current financial austerity, it is likely we are moving into energy austerity and it will all really come down to how the public react when energy austerity is in place and hard to avoid. As Ben says it seems inevitable, if we continue on this path, that there will be a two tier system where wealthy elites can get their energy whenever they want and the rest will have to lump it. I think at least the way we get there is very clear cut and better documented than the financial crisis. We see who wilfully set us on that path.

    I loved how Porritt blithely ignored the chairwoman there, that seemed to sum up his demeanour of entitlement -the rules are for the little people attitude.

    The whole thing was rather surreal

    Garrad was such an obvious industry voice it was beyond parody. I am often bemused to see the claims that conventional high density energy is only driven by base self-interest with a dash of green wash, and sometimes wonder how I would recognise ans spot that, and so then there Garrad was a superb reminder of what that unctuous self-interested stance looks like ;)

    Did you notice how for a second Garrad thinks he has dealt with the lack of wind question raised by the chair by chuckling about Cameron’s windmill, then realises a beat later he actually better try and answer because it wouldn’t go away? He then comes back with total waffle about how there is always wind somewhere in the UK and we have a grid – leaving you do the work and put that together to make a glib solution for him – without seeing the transmission lines glowing red taking wind energy from Cornwall or Scotland to London!

    The thing about renewables is that mother nature can take them away any time – no wind and Britain has no wind power infrastructure – we have no say about this; some big grownup energy source would always have to take over. But these puffed up tycoons’ don’t like to dwell on the fact their whole raison d’être can blow away at regular intervals.

    It seems smugness comes second nature to the Porritts and wind rent seekers of this world.

    It is surreal that the Royal Academy of Engineers co-produced this debate. I would have thought engineers would only need a half hour sat down with pen and paper to sort out the extent of wind power we can sustain in this country, but no, some sort of philosophical debate has to be engaged in. It’s like the joke about how many philosophers it takes to change a light bulb.

  4. Alex Cull

    (Am having some problems at the moment with the video, which keeps freezing, but hope to see the whole thing later today.)

    Good point re policy-makers intending to “manage a diminishing supply”. This is true of water as well. The week before Rio+20, Roger Harrabin was on Radio 4’s PM programme every day with a different Earth-summit related theme, and one of these was water (or the anticipated lack of it). His concluding words were: “But the solutions are there, if the politicians can promote water conservation instead of water use.”

    On one level, it’s behavioural change – using less than we would otherwise want to. On a level beyond that, it’s a change to attitudes that they’re after (a push back from a consumption to a subsistence mindset.) It’s almost as if we’re not meant, now, to think of electricity or water as things that we make use of as a means to an end. We’re meant to focus, not on using it, but on how much of it we’re using, and beyond that, whether we should be using it at all.

    In that way, the general emphasis appears to be on a return to more of a wartime or survival-mode way of thinking. Posters on the British railways during WWII asked “Is your journey really necessary?” For “journey”, of course, now also read “fridge freezer”, “air conditioner” or “power shower”. We might see a return of something like the Squanderbug, a fun-figure and symbol of wicked waste in wartime Britain.

    It pushes us back down the Maslow hierarchy of needs. Instead of embarking on personal projects which require electrical power, we might have to focus on the basics of heating and lighting our homes. Instead of using water as and when we need to, we’ll be encouraged to make do with less, and will often have to decide when we can go without. Food is another zone of contention – instead of eating what we want, when we want it, we’ll be invited to obsess over the food’s origins, its ecological and carbon footprints, its food miles etc. etc. Life will be reduced to coping with endless fussy minutiae; it threatens to be like Leo Hickman’s occasional “Is it OK to… ?” column in the Guardian, but every day and applied to everything we do. :(

    In that way, the carbon emissions aspect is only one part of the bigger picture, which is about promoting and managing scarcity. It’s energy austerity, as TLITB says, and also water austerity and food austerity, leading to lowered horizons and expectations, and making us, all in all, a more manageable flock.

  5. Donna Laframboise

    @Alex – very much in agreement with your thoughts. Austerity all ’round seems to be the theme. Sucking the joy out of life & wasting that one truly non-renewable resource: our time.

    My sojourn on this Earth has a finite limit. How dare these people squander my precious time with their endless eco schemes. So much of what we’re urged to do in the name of the environment is pointless, ineffective, and financially wasteful.

    If these folks really cared about sustainability they wouldn’t be advocating every hair-brained eco scheme that comes along. They’d apply serious analytical rigour as well as a cost-benefit analysis. The fact that they repeatedly fail to do so suggests they either aren’t very bright or that, on a subconscious level, what they’re really interested in is controlling others.

  6. Jack Hughes

    I was chatting to some friends about the rebuilding of Christchurch NZ after the earthquakes.

    They all spoke of a vision of a new “sustainable” city. I asked them what they meant by “sustainable”. The answers were …

    “Better for the environment”
    “Saw a doco about a building in Paris with solar panels”
    “We could lead the way”

    I tried to get something more concrete but this was the best I could get: an incoherent – blurred – vision of a future using less of things and doing less and using less electricity.

    Not really a vision I want to share.

  7. George Carty

    Geoff – The only reason to go for wind is to reduce CO2 emissions.

    In fact you can make the argument that if you want electricity supplies to remain reliable, it isn’t even much good at that. Unless you are lucky enough to have hydroelectric power available to back up wind (for example, Denmark uses Norwegian hydroelectric dams for this purpose) then wind needs to be backed up with gas-fired power stations. Worse, these would need to be inefficient simple-cycle gas turbines (due to the need to be able to ramp up and down within minutes if the wind changes) meaning that the CO2 emissions reductions compared to using gas alone (using more efficient combined-cycle gas turbines) are negligible.

    I regard wind power as a scam designed to divert people’s attention away from the nuclear alternative, and promoted by people who like selling gas (often the same people who make billions selling oil), as well as by environmentalists NGOs who are raking in the cash from those oil and gas interests (usually laundered via “foundations”).

  8. geoffchambers

    Your description of the mindset of the environmentalists is perfect. The disturbing thing is, I can remember thinking like this. I can remember worrying about consumption, reading Vance Packard’s “The Waste Makers”, squeezing the last drop out of the toothpaste, etc. What was wrong with me?
    In part, I was reacting against the consumerism of my parents’ generation. They’d gone without during the war, and I now understand why spending Saturday afternoon shopping could seem like heaven to them. It was hell to me, and reading Vance Packard and the Limits to Growth was my revenge.
    So it’s tempting to see it as a swing of the pendulum thing. Except that the normal swing away from greenery to consumption isn’t happening, or at least, isn’t happening in a rational way, with a popular rejection of green philosophy in favour of something else. Instead, people are rejecting lower consumption practically, while continuing to believe the green philosophy. Just like believers in a religion, they fail to practice what the church preaches, but they still count themselves as believers.

    Donna gets to the heart of it when she says: “My sojourn on this Earth has a finite limit. How dare these people squander my precious time with their endless eco schemes”. It’s our common mortality which the greens are unconsciously protesting against. Some things really are unsustainable.

  9. Black Briton

    As an Engineer working mostly in the Oil & Sector, with friends working in renewables I think investment in wind energy is a sensible plan. However it should be done ALONGSIDE investment in traditional energy. My friends assure me that the costs of renewables are decreasing, and with further investment the costs will decrease faster.
    It is inevitble that oil and gas will continue to become more expensive, but if we can create a surplus of energy supply from a range of sources we can mitigate the effects. Wind, tidal, and solar energy may be able to bring energy costs down in the long term and should be invested in. But it is foolish to think we can replace any traditional energy with renewables, at least in the next 10 to 20 years.
    Green targets are not going to increase the efficiency of a wind farm or solar panel, that can only be done with engineering/scientific research and I don’t think we should be the guineapigs.

  10. Ben Pile

    Black Briton – My friends assure me that the costs of renewables are decreasing, and with further investment the costs will decrease faster.

    ‘Cost’ is a tricky concept. It is difficult to isolate, for instance, political/strategic factors from actual technological development. The price of solar panels fell over the last few years, but we know why, and we know that it had little to do with technological advances in the industry — overproduction. Similarly, the global wind sector seems to have grown over the last few years, as is shown by this graphic – . However, almost half of the wind capacity installed in 2011 was installed in China. And meanwhile, wind energy pioneer, Vestas is shelving planned operations in China and the UK, and its stock has taken a massive tumble, and have not had a single order for their planned 7MW turbines. What appears as a reduction in cost of renewables may be simply an artefact of relocating production in the East — a phenomenon which is exacerbated by high energy costs in the UK/EU.

    I’m not sure how much I buy into the more investment = more decreases in price argument. What would be the result, say, of investment in fossil fuel exploration? I think it would arguably yield a better return. And for a more neutral example, perhaps, investment in nuclear R&D isn’t subject to the theoretical limits that turning ambient energy into something useful is — the theoretical limit there is e=mc2.

  11. Frida Payle


  12. Frida Payle

    Change every opening square bracket to “less than” and every closing square bracket to “greater than”:

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  13. Mooloo

    I’m not sure how much I buy into the more investment = more decreases in price argument.

    It’s an argument based on “stands to reason” logic, but which fails in the real world. Pielke Jnr has a recent post about how investment in research does not reliably lead to gains in production.

    If a thing is intrinsically uneconomic, then no amount of research will make it economic. Carbon sequestration almost certainly falls in this category. Nuclear fusion too, despite the billions thrown at it. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear by virtue of increased investment.

    I suspect that wind energy will tend to reach its economic limit quite soon because:
    a) increased investment will not make it windier, and the best sites are already taken,
    b) windmills are mechanical objects, so are largely immune to the areas real economic gains are made these days (digital and electronic),
    c) the human costs of repair and maintenance cannot be removed from them,
    d) the transmission of the energy from remote locations cannot be improved,
    e) the costs of removing obsolete windpower has not been factored in yet (the feature that effectively ruined nuclear).

    There is no reason to believe that increased investment will make wind power truly economic. There is faith on the part of a lot of people, but that’s a very different thing.

    (My bet is that wind’s real role will be to break water into hydrogen and oxygen for fuel cells. That avoids all the problems with intermittent supply and many associated with transmission.)

  14. Cycllopath

    No politician tells us to use less energy – they keep building more power plants to generate electricity. Before you consider renewable forms of energy, you have to reduce you energy consumption as well as look at ways to modify your lifestyle to allow you to use less energy. You still won’t be able to rely solely on renewable forms of energy. Better to make your own electricity (and other forms of energy) and not rely on the grid if you are in a position to do so – even then giant bird aad bat mincing windy mills are not the answer to the energy problem. Those wind turbines emit lower and lower frequency noise spectrums as they get larger and larger.

    If you are sensitive ot low frequency noise your life will become hell if you live near a wind farm. Most people can’t hear the low frequency noises my wife can hear – at distances up to 25 miles from wind farms low frequency noise can still bother her on rare occasions. You may think this is bullshit, but we have recorded and anecdotal data and “coincidental” correlations going back 5 1/2 years. Many people argue that if you can’t hear a noise, it can’t harm you – NOT TRUE – attempts were made to use low frequency noise as a weapon, but they affected the operator of the weapon too. You can’t see radioactivivty, but it can still harm you if you don’t deal with it properly.

  15. George Carty

    If a thing is intrinsically uneconomic, then no amount of research will make it economic.

    Very true — just because we are able to do more with less in the field of information technology (Moore’s Law is rooted in being able to squeeze more and more MOSFETs into a given area of silicon) doesn’t mean we can do it in the industries which actually make material goods.

    e) the costs of removing obsolete windpower has not been factored in yet (the feature that effectively ruined nuclear).

    No — what’s holding back nuclear is not decommissioning costs, but the immense financial and political power of fossil fuel interests, which are able to stack the deck against nuclear energy. (Similarly, I wonder how much the anti-fracking campaign is built on OPEC and Gazprom money?)

    (My bet is that wind’s real role will be to break water into hydrogen and oxygen for fuel cells. That avoids all the problems with intermittent supply and many associated with transmission.)

    Sounds good — similarly I believe the best application for solar power would be desalinating water. Especially in Middle Eastern countries, which may hesitate to build nuclear reactors for fear that the Israelis would bomb them (thinking that they were for making nuclear weapons).

  16. Robert of Ottawa

    I do not understand why the bleeding obvious can be dismissed by those who rule us.

  17. Robert of Ottawa

    George, what is holding back nuclear power is the immense financial and political power of the enviromentalist idealogues and self-serving rich kids behind that dubious enterprize

  18. morrisc

    The critical issue with a wind dominated grid, regardless of cost, is will it be reliable. All the evidence says no. As has been proved time and time again, Western civilisation is only a power cut away from chaos. It is bad enough when the cause is an Act of God. When it is “planned”, there will be protests beyond what has been seen in the last century. Imagine what will happen when the lights go out at the start of “Coronation Street”.

    People have to realise that society cannot function without cheap, reliable power. Almost everything else has grid electricity controlling a critical part of the process. Most gas systems need power to monitor the flows and pressures – power goes off and the gas stops. Same with water, Internet, phones, sewage, lifts, trains and almost everything else. A life without reliable electricity is comparable to the First World War era. Is that what people really want?

    For a lot of technical reasons, the current generation of wind generators cannot operate as the backbone of a grid. To fix that problem needs mindblowing additional resources, most of which need electricity to make – the Catch 22. Work out how much aluminium is needed for say 1 kilometre of double circuit grid power lines and then how much electricity is needed just to make that. And that is just the start of the costs.There is nowhere in Britain high and big enough to build enough pumped storage lakes to hold even a day’s supply of power. And the wind can stop blowing for a week at a time.
    Unfortunately, the politicians won’t listen until the collapse occurs. Then it will be carnage.

  19. George Carty

    Robert — where do you think the anti-nuclear environmentalist NGOs got so much money from in the first place?

    Don’t you think that (especially given the shrill warnings that such groups give about climate change, while emphatically rejecting the only CO2-free energy source that could provide sufficient energy to replace fossil fuels) they are an extremely good way for the Big Oil profiteers to gain some plausible deniability?

    Amory Lovins (advocate of wind, solar and conservation, enemy of nuclear energy and the person who coined the term “negawatts”) is actually a highly-paid lackey of oil and gas interests.

  20. George Carty

    More on the subject of funding of Green NGOs by vested interests, Activist Cash shows that Greenpeace had received $1.08m from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and $115,000 from the Rockefeller Family Fund. (John D Rockefeller was of course a famous oil tycoon).

    The connection is even clearer in the field of food, with Greenpeace receiving $1.39m from the Turner Foundation “to encourage schools to use organic food”. The Turner Foundation is funded by US agribusiness interests, who no doubt want to stop the Third World adopting GM technology so that it will remain dependent on imported food.

  21. geoffchambers

    Now I’ve managed to see the whole debate, I can see what you were up against: the absurd directive to avoid mentioning cimate change, which meant that Porritt could declare simply “we have to do it – no argument”; the equally absurd chairwoman Vivienne Parry, who spent half her waffle time saying how super engineers were, and the other half shutting up questioners who made technical points and steering the discussion back to nimbyism and landscape aesthetics; and two opponents who didn’t seem to understand the meaning of debate.

    As a company boss, Garrard is obviously used to barking orders at compliant employees. Porritt is equally used to whining his message of catastrophic urgency at compliant cabinet ministers. You and Constable were left debating politics and economics in a vacuum. The audience wanted to talk engineering. Someone mentioned molybdenum, which Parry had apparently never heard of. She panicked and changed the subject back to landscape.

    Still, it was a debate, which is what we need. Congratulations. I hope we see more of them.

  22. Black Briton

    “I’m not sure how much I buy into the more investment = more decreases in price argument. What would be the result, say, of investment in fossil fuel exploration?”

    I wouldn’t worry about investment in oil and gas exploration, there is enough money around for that! (I’m certainly not complaining about my pay check)

    And I agree that we shouldn’t be relying on unproven wind (and other renewables) to provide a huge chunk of our needs to meet naive targets.

    But I disagree that renewables won’t become more cost effective in the long term with investment. Fracking is a very simple concept, which could reap vast cost benefits for gas production. I am optimistic that the chance that wind, solar and other renewables could have their own “fracking moment” makes investment worth while. Doesn’t the argument that there are limits to renewable energy recovery go against the theme of this blog?

  23. Ben Pile

    I am optimistic that the chance that wind, solar and other renewables could have their own “fracking moment” makes investment worth while. Doesn’t the argument that there are limits to renewable energy recovery go against the theme of this blog?

    Nobody is against renewable energy on principle. The fact that N% of the Sahara, covered in solar panels could supply the entire world’s energy needs has been mentioned here before. So too has the point been made that wind energy may well have an application where there is no need for despatchable energy, e.g. for pumping water. But it seems to me that the fact of renewable energy’s limits now are what makes it a virtue in the green perspective — they simply don’t want abundance, or even convenience.

    What would a ‘fracking moment’ for wind or solar look like? It’s not as if we could find a new source of wind or sunshine. The only possibilities are in first finding a way to produce the energy more cheaply — i.e. with less labour/materials/expensive processes, and then storing it cheaply. But any major developments in storage won’t necessarily privilege renewables.

  24. Alex Cull

    I’m putting up a transcript of the debate here (not complete yet, only about half of it, so far):

    It’s very interesting indeed, and does illustrate, as Geoff has said, exactly what the problems are, when arguing these issues against seasoned old pros like Andrew Garrad and Jonathon Porritt with their gamut of rhetorical tricks (well done Ben, by the way.) Ironically, right at the very last minute (!) there were a couple of interesting remarks, which of course could not be expanded on, as time was almost up – Andrew Garrad touching briefly on behaviour change, which was your point (in a different way, of course) right at the beginning, and then Vivienne Parry mentioning energy austerity and people marching in the streets. That’s what more of the debate should really have been about, I think.

  25. Black Briton

    “What would a ‘fracking moment’ for wind or solar look like?”

    I don’t have a crystal ball, but I suspect it will be something that seems obvious, but no one has thought of yet or something requires (as yet developed) advanced materials.

    Artificial photosynthesis sounds interesting:

  26. Alex Cull

    @ Black Briton, @ Ben, molecular nanotechnology could be a game-changer for solar and for many, many other fields of technology (I was reminded of this by the artificial photosynthesis article). There are already companies like Nanosolar, who are developing low-cost printable solar cells, and it isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine future buildings (or spacecraft!) coated with a sort of energy-gathering skin. Actually (hope this is not too OT), molecular nanotechnology, as envisaged by K. Eric Drexler, has the potential to transform the world utterly, and it would certainly push the question “What do we want to do?” with energy (and matter) to the forefront of our minds.

  27. Mooloo

    One think not to fall into is the Greens lumping of “renewables” as if they have even the slightest in common.

    We have renewables like hydro- geothermal- power which are long-standing reliable technologies.

    We have an entirely different set that will never be reliable and, since they are intrinsically mechanical, are unlikely to see massive advances. Wind falls into that category, as unreliable. Tide too, as ridiculously mechanical and time limited.

    Solar is likely to see advances because it isn’t mechanical, and therefore modern chemistry and micro-electronics is likely to make rapid advances.

    But just because solar might become cost efficient doesn’t mean we can say anything at all about “renewables”. We should fight the “renewables” tag because it lumps together for political purposes technologies that are no more linked than those tagged “non-renewables”. Supporting solar power should not imply supporting wind power, any more than supporting a renewed train network would suggest supporting better airports.

  28. Vinny Burgoo

    Non sequitur of the day. A Friends of the Earth spokesman:

    ‘The graphic considers the energy inputted against the amount of energy produced, so with the thermal sources (gas, coal, nuclear etc) a huge amount is lost as heat.’

    Er … Wot?

    FoE claims the graphic shows that ‘renewables are much more effective at converting energy into electricity’. It doesn’t. The graphic is a dishonestly conceived and, worse, dishonestly executed comparison of the thermal efficiencies of different methods of generating electricity. Apart from the conceptual bias and other objections mentioned in the comments that provoked FoE’s defensive comment, there’s the friction energy wasted by wind turbines (government figures – see – say that this would be sufficient under a CHP regime to heat an average of 6.8 yurts at the base of every wind turbine in the land, so it’s not to be sniffed at) and the electricity used by renewables while generating or waiting to generate electricity. Such factors are shown for non-renewables but not for renewables.

    Why? The conceptual bias had already rigged the result so why cheat on details?

    Like not showing transmission losses at all. Mentioned in a disclaimer but not shown in the graphic. Could this be because TLs are far larger for renewables than they are for non-renewables?

    And why not use a consistent scale?

    And another thing …

  29. George Carty

    FoE claims the graphic shows that ‘renewables are much more effective at converting energy into electricity’

    They’re clearly relying on people’s ignorance of the laws of thermodynamics, which mean that whenever heat is converted to another form of energy a large amount will always be wasted. This is irrespective of where the heat originally comes from (fossil fuels, nuclear, geothermal or solar thermal).

    Of course, for intermittent renewables such as wind and solar PV you would also need to consider the energy losses from storage (or — more practically — the amount of fossil-fuel powered backup that they would need).

  30. Alex Cull

    Ben’s point, that “the smart grid will decide for us when we may and may not use electricity” was not really touched on at all during the debate, although Andrew Garrad said this, just before the end:

    So both the opponents have said “Ah, but we can’t use our grid like this, because it wasn’t designed like that, we’re going to have to spend money on it.” That, to me, is absolutely the point. We need to think in a different way. We need to think in a different way, how we use our grid, how we make electricity. So don’t try and fit it all together in the old days, think of it as a future and the beginning of a new era when we do think differently and we act differently.

    There’s a recent report (or “opinion”) by the EDPS (European Data Protection Supervisor) which might be of interest (h/t The Englishman). It’s a very long link, so I’ve made a tinyurl:

    As well as much about the issues related to personal data collection, there is some background info about the purpose of smart meters (p4):

    12. The implementation of smart meters is considered a pre-requisite for the smart grid. The smart grid is an intelligent electricity network that combines information from users of that grid in order to plan the supply of electricity more effectively and economically compared to what was possible in the pre-smart environment.

    13. Smart meters, among others, will enable ‘demand response’ and ‘dynamic’ or ‘time-of use’ pricing for electricity. This is said to be increasingly important with the connection of more and more renewable energy sources to the grid. Instead of a single or other simple (e.g. night and day) tariff, dynamic pricing and more complex tariff structures are expected to be introduced to allow ‘demand response’, in other words, to allow customers to buy electricity at constantly changing prices, thereby cutting demand at peak times, and thus, resulting in a lower need for peak capacity as well as better integration of renewable energy sources. In parallel, in the not-so distant future, households may start using ‘smart’ devices that use information obtained from smart meters, such as ‘smart washing-machines’ that will turn on, or an electric vehicle that will be charged, when electricity is cheaper.

    And this is something that is likely to be affecting those of us living in the EU before too long (p2):

    4. The objective of the Recommendation is to give guidance to Member States on preparation for the rollout of smart metering systems in Europe. The rollout is foreseen by 2020 for both the electricity and the gas markets and is subject to an economic assessment of costs and benefits. This assessment is to be carried out by each Member State by 3 September 2012.


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