The Wind in My Sails by Peter Harper

By Peter Harper

Centre for Alternative Technology

Machynlleth, Wales

Let’s get a few things straight at the beginning. Obviously the debate hinges on both the gravity and urgency of the climate change situation. If there is doubt about this, then there is doubt about the need for such drastic measures as wind-farms, nuclear energy and carbon taxes. So let us deal with this first of all. I have followed the climate debates closely since the late sixties and watched numerous cycles of alarm alternating with reassurance. There are always two sides to the debate and that remains the case. I would say to the pessimists, hang on, there is still room for doubt: pay respectful attention to the sceptics; be ready to recant. But equally I would say to the climate sceptics, look, you might prove right in the end, but please acknowledge that the trend of data and expert opinion over the last ten years appears to be going rather steadily against you. Non-experts, forced to rely on the balance of provisional data and interpretation available to them, are justified in framing and supporting policies indicated by that balance. They are not gullible fools. They are operating under conditions of uncertainty with high stakes, and they are doing the best they can.

To summarise my understanding of the most recent ‘balance of opinion’, it is not so much that anthropogenic GHGs in themselves will cause serious changes (although eventually they would) but that they could trigger the release of much larger natural stores of GHGs, from for example, the Amazon basin, tundra zones, and ocean bottoms. The ‘triggers’ for the initiation of a series of positive feedback processes might be quite modest levels of GHG, for example around 400ppm CO2, that will be reached quite soon in a BAU scenario, perhaps in as little as 20 years. I pray that this is completely mistaken and will be convincingly disproved soon. Even by the time this is published new data might have completely altered the terms of the debate. But in the meantime, I feel that rapid precautionary action is justified, and that I should put my personal efforts, such as they are, in that direction.

The Climate problem is a world problem, and no single country can solve it alone. Ideally it should be tackled by concerted international action, and the Kyoto Protocol is a possible beginning. But as of now it falls to individual countries to decide their own energy policies. Britain is responsible for less than 2% global CO2 emissions, so even if it reduced its own to zero it would not make a great deal of physical difference either to itself or the world. Pending binding international agreements, is there any point in doing anything at all? Logically, perhaps not, but given the gravity and apparent urgency of the situation, we cannot ignore the ‘demonstration’ aspect of the case: how is UK energy policy likely to influence policies outside its borders? In particular we should ask of any major energy development: how will this play in China, India, Brazil, or even?heaven help us?the USA?

This bizarre ‘showbiz’ aspect of energy policy appears to be unavoidable, and is the cornerstone of my argument: I think that the UK should deliberately embark on a model sustainable energy policy that will inspire (and also inform and assist) others to do likewise. Such a policy would not operate on double standards. It would adopt some equitable universal principle for GHG reduction targets, such as Contraction and Convergence (C&C), then move to conform as rapidly and ‘generalisably’ as possible.

Now to some details. C&C suggests a UK level of CO2 emissions around 20% of their 2000 level. That means we have an ‘allowance’ of 20% fossil fuels (FF): a very valuable allowance because FF are so good at matching fluctuating demand. Of the rest, currently about 7% comes from nuclear, 3% from hydro and a smidgin from existing wind. That leaves a gap of 70%. What could it be?

In all energy debates, protagonists counter the things they don’t like with the response, “We don’t need that: we could invest in energy efficiency instead”. Yes indeed, efficiency (or Rational Use of Energy, RUE, as it is sometimes labelled) is a vital part of any sustainable strategy, and the most cost-effective. But people seem to treat it as an infinite source of savings that could be racked down indefinitely, as if ultimately the whole country could be run on a modestly-sized CHP plant somewhere near Stoke on Trent. This is not realistic. Admittedly there are respectable scenarios (such as that of Hohmeyer) that postulate 60-70% reductions of demand, but personally I think this is asking a bit much in the next 50 years. More credible are the four scenarios presented by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, of which the most radical considers a 47% cut. Let us assume for the sake of argument, that 50% is actually achievable within the timescale we are considering, but no further reductions are practical. On this assumption we have now cut our task in half, but there is no more scope for savings: the other fifty percent must be met by supply.

Assuming then that we have to supply the equivalent of 50% of existing UK demand, our FF ‘allowance’ is now up to 40% of the supply mix. If we maintained the existing capacity of nuclear electricity that would account for about 15% (remember we are talking primary energy here, not just electricity). But of course the existing nuclear installations are being phased out and realistically, given all the acknowledged problems, the high costs, and the reluctance of the private sector to invest in them, I cannot see any new nukes being started in the next 20 years, or indeed ever. If this view is borne out, it means we have to find around 50-60% of eventual demand from renewable energy (RE) sources, equivalent to 30-40% of current demand in terms of installed capacity, or about 100TWh of primary energy.

The little graph here summarises my assumptions. I have squeezed FF as fast as possible, eventually to the ‘sustainable’ level in 2050, in line with typical Contraction and Convergence requirements. I have expanded the scope of everybody’s darling RUE more boldly than most authorities think plausible. I have allowed nuclear to run into the sand. That leaves a serious chunk of renewables, which we will have to deploy unless there is some astonishing breakthrough in say carbon sequestration or fusion power, or a major renaissance of nuclear fission. This, in outline, is the responsible and ethical ‘model’ that I would like to see the UK embark upon.

What are the renewables to be? We all know the list: wind, wave, tidal, biomass, geothermal, photovoltaics and a range of solar thermal technologies. Let me not have to waste everybody’s time giving chapter and verse: it is beyond any reasonable doubt that technically, between them these could reliably supply 30-40% of current demand, especially with a flexible, load-following FF component, distributed capacity such as millions of gas-fired micro-CHP units, and changes in demand management. The doubts arise not from their ability to deliver, but from their high financial costs and collateral impacts. The costs of some REs are clearly high ((PV especially so, at least an order of magnitude away from the reference CCGT technology) but for most are rather unknown because they are not ‘mature’ technologies. More research and development is needed, and of course it is part of the proposed UK ‘model programme’ to invest vigorously in such research and encourage it worldwide. The one exception is wind-power. It is mature and relatively cheap, especially in favourable locations. But of course it has a huge visual impact because the energy-density is so low, ergo the things have to be big, and you need lots of them to make worthwhile amounts of electricity.

To put some numbers on this, given rapid progress on RUE, by 2025 we will need to supply at the rate of about 200GW to the UK economy, of which about half would need to be renewables. Are ‘the others’ going to be ready to meet this by then? Possibly, but in the meantime it’s got to be wind. Can it be done? Of course: Germany, with a much poorer wind regime than the UK, has already 16GW of onshore wind capacity, installed since 1990. This means that the UK could easily install 30GW by 2025, and we probably wouldn’t be able to cope with much more than this on account of backup requirements. This is a lot of machines, something like 300 wind-farms of 50 very large turbines rated 2MW or more.

Is this damning? It depends on what kind of ‘environmentalist’ you are. There are at least four different kinds, neatly captured in Joe Ravetz’s cartoon. There is no perfect sustainable energy policy. Take maximum efficiency for granted, and still something has to give. The question is, what is it to be? I am happy to be corrected on this point, but if we have to choose between a) risking a climate-induced collapse of world culture plus a mass-extinction biodiversity event (which is what sober climatologists are saying about continued use of fossil fuels) , or b) risking threats to life and limb and civil liberties (as with an expanded nuclear programme) or c) changing the appearance of the countryside (as with on-shore wind and certain other RE technologies) …honestly I cannot see any honourable escape from choosing c). Of course the questions can easily be spun the other way, and indeed they often are, but this is the way I see it. Subjective aesthetics must bow before health damage, and health damage must bow before risks of runaway climate change.

Let me hasten to add that personally I HATE WINDMILLS. Perhaps they are not too bad in flat landscapes, but in hilly areas where most of them are in the UK, to me they are an abomination. But this is completely irrelevant. As people used to say curtly in the 1940s, “Don’t you know there’s a war on?”. Aestheticised values are completely inappropriate in this context. For a start they are all in the mind, entirely subjective. The British landscape is artificial and totally industrialised, but we’ve got used to it. Evidently my mind for one has not yet caught up with the latest twist in the story. Further, I’m in a minority: every opinion poll on the subject shows majorities in favour of wind-power, with even greater majorities in an area after a wind-farm has been installed. The argument seems fairly simple now: We can do it, so we should, because?remember?we’ve got to start setting an example, and no other technologies are available yet.

Wind is the most honest energy source because its environmental costs are so utterly in your face. You want the energy? Here’s the impact. You don’t like it? Then use less. Much, much, much less. And don’t try to weasel out by switching to technologies whose impacts fall on other people.

I can offer two spoons of sugar for this bitter pill. The first is that offshore wind technology is developing so quickly that it might eventually be able to fill the entire requirement for a transitional energy source, so minimising onshore developments. The second is that very point: wind is, or can be, transitional. Although I have argued that we should develop it now because “there’s a war on”, and different values are appropriate during times of dire emergency, After ‘the war’ finer values can return. Once the less offensive technologies of wave, tidal, PV, biomass and geothermal are fully installed, we can take the wretched windmills down. Think of it as an overdraft, borrowing the British countryside for a generation to help goad the rest of the world into saving itself. It could be an even finer finest hour.

Well, that was emollient, bridge-building argument. Now let me be more rebarbative. Who is against wind farms? Apparently around 20% of the population. I am sure they all think of themselves as honourable people defending our heritage. But when you look closer mostly what you find is NIMBYist self-interest. This is the 20% that has retired to imagined rural tranquillity, has property-values to defend, delights in refined aesthetic sensibility, writes newspaper articles, perhaps owns newspapers, and basically sets the agenda all round. It is also the 20% that has the biggest cars, flies the furthest, has the biggest centrally-heated houses and another one in France, and insists on mange-touts flown into Waitrose every morning. You hypocritical bastards! You are causing a completely disproportionate share of the problem and refusing to pay your dues. Ethically you should be campaigning hard for windmills (and everything else) to offset your heedless crimes against the biosphere. That’s something you could actually do to help. At the very least you should refrain from trying to stop those who are doing it. But to campaign against wind-farms under the present circumstances strikes me as little short of criminal. It’s mostly other people, other generations, other species who are in he firing line from the consequences of your activities. On their behalf, we all have responsibilities to do whatever we can, and if we won’t do even the minimum that is open to us, we will deserve the contempt of our descendants.