Renewable energy: we are still talking the talk but not walking the walk

I attended a seminar in London yesterday that was organised for lawyers and others concerned with the environmental aspects of science, law and policy. It is easy to underestimate how little policy-makers understand about the environment. They resort to a kind of language that is particularly imprecise and a series of concepts which are often as vague as the language.The catch phrases were all there

  • Diversity (in energy applications) is good
  • Green jobs
  • Investor confidence
  • Carbon (when they meant carbon dioxide)

While supporting a concept of diversity with words so far government legislation and tax payers’ money has only properly supported traditional fossil fuels, uranium, wind and PV power. While talking about green jobs many people in green industries have lost their jobs in the past two years. While talking about investor confidence which investors can have confidence about making an investment in a industry which the government lest money flow to, like a child with a tap, turning it on and off.

The three speakers concentrated almost exclusively upon electricity, particularly wind farms. I was struck at how central to policy was wind generated electricity. There was no fundamental commentary upon the limitations of wind power. It is as though the decision to support wind energy has been made and there is no revisiting it, regardless of performance and problems encountered. Government policy is like an oil tanker – very hard to turn and even harder to stop.

I have nothing against wind power; on the contrary it is an important part of energy diversity but no government should be driven by one or two renewable technologies because they are all imperfect. I have no objection to PV. I do object to all renewable funding going to just two technologies when there are many technologies that are at least as worthy, if not more so.

Green jobs are very easy to talk about, but in the recession genuinely green jobs have been lost, not created.

In the whole of the European Union energy policy is driven by a renewable target, rather than an emissions reduction target. It is as though policy makers believe that if we have masses of renewables climate change will not happen. That is not quite true, but nevertheless the target in the European Union is a percentage of energy created by renewable energy compared with all energy generation, rather than a target for reducing emissions.

That means that if you put a biomass boiler in a large building in the middle of Manchester the energy qualifies as renewable (or in the new catch phrase “re-plenishable”) energy, regardless of the energy wasted in transporting the wood pellets many miles, and the smoke and emissions created from the burning of wood.

The targets are created to reach an end but with climate change emission reduction has got to be first and foremost target if we want to prevent further onset of rapid climate change. You can put biomass boilers in every building and biofuels in every vehicle and you will not reduce or even stabilise emissions. To policy makers this would sound like heresy.

Classifying renewable energy as one single target does not address climate change; because within renewable energy are many fuels that simply accelerate climate change. These include palm oil, grown in what was formerly tropical rain forest and wood pellets harvested from trees that would better left to decay slowly and leach much of their carbon content into the forest soils, instead of rapidly injecting it in the form of carbon dioxide into the air.

The most immediate targets are 20% of energy to be provided from renewable sources by 2020, which was set for the United Kingdom by the European Council. The UK has already missed a target of 10% of renewable electricity but 2010; it probably does no more than 6% now in 2011. The targets are themselves quite woolly; power stations generate a great deal of electricity that they have to dump in order to keep up with fluctuating demand and wind and PV only generate electricity when the wind blows or in daylight. It is generated whether useful or not and although the overall amount of renewable electricity is clearly on the rise, driven by very generous incentive programmes, it is impossible to find out how much generated by renewables is actually useful, as we have almost no means of storing electricity.

I did learn from the seminar that costs of wind generated electricity are rising. They reached their lowest in 2006, costing Euros 1 million per MW installed. Today the costs are two and a half times as much and seem to be rising. It seems that the greater the subsidy the more expensive the installation cost, although I may be unfair in this analysis.

There was a great deal of concern from the PV industry that subsidies for large scale PV would be cut back, but I can only regard cutting them back as a good thing. I do not think that we should build PV plants on farming land for generating expensive electricity inefficiently, at the expense of the UK’s farming industry. It makes little sense to import milk and set aside good grazing land for power generation, but that is what we are at risk of doing in the United Kingdom. Environmentally we should pay the farmers a decent price for home grown milk, otherwise we will quickly move from energy insecurity to food insecurity.

I think the thing that struck me as the issues were debated (quite superficially in my view) was that most had a concept of energy as having to be large scale and that was all that counts. In fact I believe our best hope in saving the environment and providing energy security lies not in massive schemes and programmes but in developing microgeneration by households and businesses.

Microgeneration was barely mentioned at all in the debates that followed the seminar (I tried but failed to attract the chair woman’s attention for my question), and solar thermal was only referred to once, and then in terms of concentrating mirrors, which is odd, considering that solar thermal is the most popular form of microgeneration by households in the UK, in the EU and in the world.

Finally, for those interested in the Renewable Heat incentive, there was an assurance that the details of it would be announced in March, some two years behind the first scheduled date.

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