About 30 days ago, the Prime Minister warned that there were “50 days to save the planet”. The world had to reach agreement at the climate summit in Copenhagen next month, or else. Since then, the press has been briefed that there will not, in fact, be agreement in Copenhagen. So there would seem to be only 20 days left to save the world.
Don’t worry too much. Mr Brown has been doing a bit of what is called “expectation management”. Probably world leaders will come up (“just in time”) with a “political agreement”, ie one with no settled figures but lots of intentions. The world will survive, thanks to our saviour Gordon.
Most of us will not be as grateful as he thinks we should be. As the climate change argument has raged, we have grown weary of the tendency to prophesy. The Prince of Wales has chosen July 2017, for some reason, as the moment when we shall have “irretrievable climate and ecosystem collapse” unless we mend our ways now. Lord Stern, who reported on the economics of climate change, says that we will lose five per cent of GDP per year “now and forever”. Flee From the Wrath to Come!
At the same time, oddly, that doom is predicted, so – often by the same people – is salvation. An EU directive requires 15 per cent of our final energy consumption to come from renewable resources by 2020. At present, only five per cent of our electricity comes from renewables, but by 2020, says Mr Brown, it will be 30 per cent. In Scotland, where the SNP’s favourite sport is to claim to trump Labour, 50 per cent of electricity is supposed to be produced by renewables by 2031.
How will this miracle occur? There are various types of renewables – wave, tide, “anaerobic digestion” – but in Britain, the chosen method is chiefly onshore wind.
I mention Scotland because a disproportionate amount of the wind power would come from there. When I was in the Lammermuir hills near Edinburgh in the summer, I came across an interesting example of the great wind debate. The Lammermuirs are very beautiful, with lots of upland birds such as curlew, wheatear and golden plover. They are also unusual, because this wild space is extremely close to Edinburgh.
At Fallago Rig there, North British Windpower and the Duke of Roxburghe, who owns the land, want to put up 48 wind turbines, 120 metres high. Against the duke are all the local community councils, the Scottish Borders Council, Scottish Natural Heritage, and, piquantly, another duke, the Duke of Northumberland, who, like Roxburghe, has a grouse moor there. The Ministry of Defence also objected, because the wind farm would interfere with its radar, which defends the neighbouring Torness nuclear power station.
Last year, an inquiry found against the wind farm, but the Scottish executive refused to publish the inquiry’s report. The objectors discovered, almost by accident, that the Reporter had sustained the objection about radar. The Scottish executive, desperate to push for its targets, put pressure on the MoD, and the objection was quietly withdrawn. The executive eventually agreed to have a reopened inquiry, but with the same Reporter, on the issue of radar alone, making approval of the wind farm inevitable.
This ploy has now failed. Under threat of judicial review, the Scottish executive has had to widen the scope of the inquiry to include environmental factors. Meanwhile, the Scottish Borders Council accuses Roxburghe Estates of starting to develop the site without waiting for permission, which they deny.
I do not know if the developers are indeed jumping the gun, but it would be rational for them to do so, because what emerges from this case – and from many others – is that, whatever the formal process of local objection, government is desperate for wind power. And what government wants, government usually gets.
When I talked to North British Windpower, they were eloquent on how the present generation had a duty to the next. Wind power, they said, will fill a gap of energy over the next 20 years while other forms of renewables are developed.
It is natural that they would think this way. Under the Renewable Obligations Certificates system (ROCs), they can sell their energy at a virtually guaranteed price. The electricity has value in its own right, and added value of about the same again because suppliers have to buy it to avoid fines from Ofgem, the energy watchdog.The extra money is paid by all of us on our electricity bills. It amounts to £1 billion a year, and Ofgem calculates that it will be about £4 billion by 2020. It is a tax, although it does not go through the Treasury.
But wind has some problems. The output of the turbines varies greatly from hour to hour, sometimes being near capacity, sometimes nothing at all (over the year, a 30 per cent “load factor” is considered good). As Jesus himself put it, “The wind bloweth where it listeth… but thou canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth.” So thou canst not rely on it to put thy light on when thou flickest the switch. The system therefore needs a conventional capacity to fire it up, in case the wind drops when you need it most. The larger the wind capacity, the more costly and troublesome the fluctuations in the grid.
And the infrastructure needed is expensive, intrusive and energy-consuming. In Scotland, the proposed Beauly-Denny transmission line would send more than a hundred miles of new and enormous pylons through some of the most beautiful country there is. Near us in Sussex, when wind turbines were installed on Romney Marsh (overruling almost unanimous local objection, of course), each one required concrete foundations 116 feet deep. Concrete manufacture is the largest source of industrial carbon dioxide on the planet. According to the chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, if onshore wind were to produce just a fifth of the power used per Briton per day – the equivalent of us each driving a fossil-fuelled car 25km every day – we would take up 10 per cent of our landmass and double the entire world fleet of wind turbines.
The phrase “carbon footprint” is well known. If we go ahead with wind power, huge beasts, the technological equivalent of the dinosaurs, will plant their feet all over our remotest regions. Also like the dinosaurs, they will fascinate future generations, by their weird size, and by the fact that they have become extinct.
I began this column by questioning predictions. But now I shall be rash enough to make one. We shall not meet any of these targets. Within a few years, we shall have to seek EU derogations to allow our old coal-fired stations to stay open longer, just to keep the lights on. We shall not be the jolly green giant of Europe, but the dirty old man.
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