The Duke of Edinburgh seems to have hit the nail pretty much on the head by branding wind farms “absolutely useless”.
He’s not entirely correct, of course; when the wind is blowing, they do generate decent amounts of electricity.
Unfortunately, it’s at very considerable cost. But for massive subsidy, progressively paid for through our utility bills, this is an industry that wouldn’t exist. It is reckoned that in order to satisfy Britain’s energy needs with wind, you’d have to give over close to the UK’s entire landmass to these ungainly giants, and even then, you would need back-up capacity for when the wind is isn’t blowing. No wonder Prince Philip, with characteristic bluntness, describes them as a “disgrace”.
Yet as things stand, windpower forms a key part of Britain’s energy strategy. In an ideal world, this would be laudable; regardless of your views on climate change, it would be nice, as the UK’s reserves of fossil fuels run dry, to have the self-sufficiency in energy that renewables can potentially deliver. Yet in today’s more straitened times, it is also unrealistic.
Rewind to pre-crisis years four or five years ago, and pursuit of a low-carbon economy was seen as a clear vote winner. Everyone jumped aboard the bandwagon, none more cynically than David Cameron, who was photographed being drawn by husky dogs over the frozen arctic wastes, presumed soon to be no more unless we did something about carbon emissions. He even took up cycling into Westminster.
Once in office, he’s quickly forgotten his green credentials. The same is true of President Barack Obama who, having failed to get his climate change bill through Congress, now scarcely ever mentions global warming.
Two things have happened to shake collective faith in the new religion. One is the advent of shale gas, which has transformed the economics and security of fossil fuel power generation. Suddenly there is a worldwide glut of gas. The way things are going, the US will soon be exporting the stuff. Many of the worries that used to be expressed about undue reliance on imports from Russia and the Middle East have gone away. We may even have significant exploitable reserves of shale ourselves.
The other thing to have happened is the recession. What may be economic with oil prices of $100 a barrel and above, suddenly becomes much less so when demand slips and the price of hydrocarbons falls. In hard times, cost takes priority over the environment. Already, these divergent pressures are evident in the language of the UK Government.
Chris Huhne, the Energy Secretary, and his Lib Dem allies, have become an increasingly isolated voice in defending the ever more costly panoply of policy initiates aimed at delivering the Coalition’s green agenda. Relations with George Osborne, the Chancellor – hostile from the off – have reached breaking point.
At the Conservative Party Conference last month, Mr Osborne said we wouldn’t save the planet “by putting our country out of business”, and pledged that Britain would go “no slower, but no faster” than others in meeting emission targets. Mr Huhne responded by saying that there was a growing breed of “curmudgeons, fault-finders, climate sceptics and armchair engineers who are selling Britain short”.
Battle lines have been drawn, but without the following wind (as it were) of sustainable economic growth, it is not a war that Mr Huhne can ultimately win. Indeed, in an article for The Daily Telegraph last week, Mr Huhne seemed to shift to a slightly more conciliatory position by stressing the importance of gas in the energy mix.
Perhaps regrettably, we must deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. The idea that Britain can lead by example in fostering a low-carbon economy is just idealistic poppycock. Britain accounts for less than 2pc of emissions globally. Whatever it does is going to make next to no difference.
The important decisions will be taken elsewhere, in China, India and America, none of whom will take a blind bit of notice of what the UK is doing, however bravely we wear the scars that uncompetitive energy costs will inflict on our economy. It’s self sacrifice for nothing.
Also questionable is the notion that by spending so heavily on renewables, Britain will end up leading the world in green industries. Most of the wind turbines are at present imported, and in any case, no industry based almost entirely on subsidies for its viability is likely to be sustainable in the long term.
A soon to be published report by KPMG, Thinking the Affordable, will further enflame the debate. Its central finding – that at a third less of the cost it would be perfectly possible for Britain to meet its 2020 emissions targets by sticking to a combination of gas and nuclear for energy renewal – feeds straight into the Chancellor’s hands.
One way or another, gas is going to end up a much more important part of the energy mix for the next 10 to 20 years than the Department of Energy and Climate Change cares to admit. We can’t have the shiny new, all carbon-free infrastructure that idealists aspire to; it’s unaffordable and will only make the UK economy still less competitive.
As on so much else, Britain must cut its cloth to its newly reduced circumstances.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding