Archive for April, 2012

Donald Trump making waves in the Scottish Review

There are certainly people in Scotland who don’t like wind farms. There are people who are very vocal about their dislike. They like to claim they have the “silent majority” on their side, but recent polls indicate that simply isn’t true. Their concerns are raised, mitigated when valid and investigated when unsure. There are lots of concerns which have proven to be unreasonable and although the message is out there (the Viking Energy FAQs is a good place to see some concerns debunked) it takes time to filter through. Also some people don’t believe it, which is unfortunate but unavoidable. Changing people’s beliefs is hard, as monarchs and theocrats through the ages have discovered.

When concerns are raised, you work towards a compromise as far as possible. My experience of the wind industry is that companies in the UK are generally scrupulous about obeying planning restrictions, even when it costs them, and as I’ve said before, companies who flout environmental restrictions should be held to account. I think they are, as there are several national news outlets who would pounce on any breach with gusto. As Mr Trump should be, but seemingly isn’t in anything like the same way, for his golfing resort and its impact on a highly sensitive part of our environment.

His objections are NIMBYism, pure and simple. Put it in someone else’s back yard. Find some poor people: when they complain no-one listens. They’ve got no hotel to take home with them.

He is also apparently a hypocrite.

I still can’t decide if his money will be a genuine danger to the wind industry or whether he’ll make the whole anti-wind campaign into a laughing stock. I wish we weren’t talking about him so much as though his opinion matters.

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Hydro generation ‘high’ after warm and wet winter.
“A wet and mild winter has contributed to record levels of energy production for many hydro power stations across Scotland.” (2 March 2012)

Drought may last until Christmas: Environment Agency
“Official drought zones have been declared in a further 17 English counties, as a warning came that water shortages could last until Christmas.” (16 April 2012)

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Imagine we lived in a world where climate change was an established fact, politically as well as scientifically. Governments believed it was a serious mid-term threat to our climate and our world, and that action must be taken, without violating civil liberties, to minimise the risk of global catastrophe.

What would we do? What could we do that we aren’t doing now?

Actually we could do a lot that we’re barely even looking at. A lot of it would have social benefits at the same time. The following are just my suggestions of what a government which truly believed in a green future would do.

  • Seriously invest in public transport.
    I’ve been to Europe, and every country I’ve visited has better public transport than Glasgow does. They might have an extensive tram system, buses that give change, an extensive underground system, websites which actually mention where buses actually stop with reference to some map. German buses run to the minute on timetables; in Poland you can buy handfuls of bus tickets at newsagents.
    Compare this to Glasgow where the leading bus company provides maps with no street names, timetables that say “every twenty minutes” for much of the day, no information on fares, no change given, and buses that start and end in locations so far from Glasgow that nine times out of ten their stated destinations give no clue as to the route. (Campaign to change this: Better Buses.)

    Bus companies are private, but if a government really wanted to see improvement there’s loads of things they could do, up to and including renationalising. They could have some sort of legal minimum standards to protect rural areas and vulnerable passengers. They could require frequent independent assessments of any bus service. They could provide funds to councils to maintain several bus stations of a reasonable size to negate the problem that you can only change from one route to the other in the city centre. And that’s just my ideas. On the trains there are problems of overcrowding, overpricing and underinvestment. When was the last time you saw a new housing estate which merited a new station? Or a new station for that matter? Glasgow’s underground is pretty reliable most of the time, from past experience, but it runs in a circle which is only of use if both origin and destination are on that circle.

  • Sanctions on new home energy efficiency.
    New homes would have to meet minimum standards for insulation, double glazing and energy efficiency. Any appliances provided would have to meet a minimum criteria. It’s far easier insulating properly as you build rather than re-doing it later, especially if it’s been decorated for you and you don’t want to do it again. Refurbishments for letting or that require planning could have similar standards applied.

    Sanctions applied on new builds now mean that 10 years down the line all homes up to ten years old meet reasonable modern standards. If we hesitate that’s even longer with valuable heat leaking out unnecessarily. Bonus is of course that the people who live in the house are warmer in winter, cooler in summer and spend less on fuel: everybody wins (except the big six, apparently).

  • Reduction of cheap short-haul air travel.
    Want to go to London from Glasgow? Considered taking the train? Well you’ll find it can be twice the cost of a flight. You need to be really serious about your eco footprint to pay double for the sake of the environment. Ferry trips to Ireland or the continent are similarly enormously expensive compared to flights.

    A serious government would put systems in place to allow the same sort of cheap rates to apply to rail and ferry travel as apply to air travel. Or would put sanctions on cheap flights. I know that forcing things to be more expensive means the rich get as much as they like and the poor get squat. Sadly I haven’t come up with a better alternative to capitalism that will sell. The rich always get what they like in a capitalist system.

  • Help to people making their home more efficient.
    There is some of this about. It’s restricted to cavity wall and loft insulation, though, there’s no “of equivalent value” for alternatives where necessary. I’ve not heard of any government schemes to install double glazing in rented accomondation, nor relaxing of planning consent requirements for energy-efficiency options. Listed buildings still need to put the look of any planned improvements ahead of their functional use.

    Free energy-efficient light bulbs just doesn’t cut the mustard in my book though.

  • Recycling facilities.
    There are some recycling facilities. It’s fairly common to have doorstop recycling and landfill collections. This is a step forward: five years ago I could only drop off my recycling by driving to an obscure supermarket about fifteen miles away which seemed daft. However most bins in public spaces are simple rubbish bins with no option for recycling. But other reuse schemes seem to have mostly stopped. Remember the 20p collection for glass bottles? They still exist but it’s far harder to find them, or a shop that will exchange them, and far easier to find plastic bottles. Not to mention that 20p buys far less these days. Or morning milk deliveries that collected your glass bottles to refill them?

    I think we could do better on this, and I don’t think it’d take much effort. (I also fully expect that at some point in the future people will mine our landfill sites for rare earth metals. Not sure if it’ll happen in my lifetime… unless the recession gets really bad.)

  • International negotiating.
    There are global resources that we all benefit from preserving. But I’ve yet to see a rich nation voluntarily paying rent to a poorer nation for a share of their resources. We condemn Brazil for chopping down the rainforest, but will we suggest or pay for other ways to feed their population than farming on previously rainforest land?

I’ve not mentioned renewable energy in here much. Although we could do more, our installed capacity of renewable energy has been growing at a huge rate, so that of the three main carbon producers in public life — electricity, heat, and transport — we’re doing far better on electricity than on heat or transport. Part of me wonders if that’s because you can wear renewable energy like a badge: Look at me, I’m eco-conscious, look how many wind farms I have! Harder to do with an inexpensive, fast and efficient railway system.

The evidence is that we in the UK are not living in a world which accepts climate change. We might say we want to reduce energy bills for vulnerable customers, but we want to do it by reducing profits of utility companies rather than by ensuring homes are as warm as possible. None of these suggestions are particularly risky, and most offer benefits to the poorest even if you don’t consider climate change a problem.

In a very real sense, we are not serious about climate change.

Perhaps we do need a true, personal catastrophe before we can take even these small steps. If so, what does that say about us?

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I didn’t make it to the Scottish Renewables conference this year in Edinburgh, though I would have liked to. It’s not really an analyst’s sort of place; more somewhere that policy makers get together. There’s a whole other blog in the problems that can and do stem from continually keeping the policy makers and the scientists apart, but perhaps I’ll come back to that another day.

I did stumble on this blog post, titled “Intermittent Wind” by Matthew Taylor of The RSA (I adore the RSAnimate talks, for what it’s worth). It makes some good points on the nature of the wind farm debate north and south of the border.

A lot of the negative press I’ve been responding to here has its genesis in the English press; particularly the Daily Mail and the Telegraph. Both are vehemently anti-wind-farm, but both are also highly English in character rather than Scottish. The sort of rhetoric they employ to sell their papers is far less common in specifically Scottish publications.

In his post, Taylor suggests that there is a fundamental difference between the overall cultural attitudes of the Scots and the English towards renewable energy in general. Is it fair to conclude, as Taylor does, that “the Scots’ enthusiasm for renewable energy… crosses party lines and includes most of the public”?

My simple answer when people ask me what I do is that “I build wind farms”; so far answering that to strangers has only provoked active disagreement once, and most people I’ve spoken to have gone on to confide that actually they quite like them. But that’s far from a large or representative sample. The Scottish Government’s research on attitudes held by people living close to wind farms suggests that the majority of respondents don’t mind their local wind farm, and generally, with a few exceptions, found the reality of having one nearby to be less burdensome than they had anticipated. Similarly, a 2005 summary of attitudes (pdf) published by the BWEA suggested that even in England positive views of wind farms are more common than negative views. This University of St Andrews paper from 2005 (pdf) also concludes that most Scots (“[l]arge majorities”) support wind power.

So anecdotally, and through industry, government, and academic research, it seems as though wind power is more popular than might be concluded after reading the comments on a Daily Mail piece. Is this more true in Scotland than England? I suspect not, based on the BWEA piece, but then Scotland is starting to rely heavily on the renewables industry and therefore has a real economic interest in assessing and demonstrating public support in a way that Westminster simply doesn’t.

More crucially, Taylor leaves with a warning that the success of the renewables industry which we’re investing so heavily in up north may well depend on English support, even if Scotland goes on to independence.

Is this true? Well, perhaps. It seems pretty certain that England will not meet its carbon reduction targets without Scottish windfarms, although not being a lawyer I don’t know how the legally binding targets would be applied if Scotland and England became separate entities. It’s also true that in an electricity system which relies heavily on intermittent energy sources, a handy centre of demand to which excess energy can be sold certainly helps. If Scotland were to go independent, England would still have to meet their demand, and it would seem foolhardy to rely on the goodwill of another independent nation to supply your needs. The most likely scenario as far as I can see is that England would buy Scottish electricity on some sort of market to meet both electricity demand and legally binding targets.

Such a system provides an easy answer to the question posed by Taylor’s imagined speaker:
“‘Why’ he asks ‘ are we paying a poll tax on our energy bills – a tax that hits the poorest hardest – in order to send money up to an independent Scotland, much of which is then repatriated to the overseas HQ of large energy companies lining the pockets among others of German investors (EON) and the French Government (EDF). It’s time to stop subsidising the Scots and making foreigners rich on our energy bills. It’s time for English clean coal (or nuclear, or simply imported gas)’
The answer would be because England didn’t have sufficient clean energy to meet its targets. In other words, England would be paying Scotland to develop wind farms so England didn’t have to. And what would the Daily Mail find to object about in that? I certainly can’t imagine them suggesting that more English wind farms should be built.*

In his third warning, Taylor warns the renewables industry against taking it for granted that the environmental credentials of our industry are known and falling into complacency. Instead he extorts us to join in with the wider green movement to get our voice heard and place the industry firmly within its environmental context. I think that’s an important message to be heard. I also think that the wind industry is training up the people who will go on to form the wave and tidal industries, and perhaps the energy storage and electric vehicle industries.

There is also no harm in more people in the industry standing up and having their say. After all, we can’t let the vocal minority have it all their own way, can we?

* I still object to the tax rhetoric. Energy companies are privately owned, because the Government decided to sell them off. Private companies charge for their product, and reinvest some of their earnings in infrastructure and staff etc, with the rest becoming profit. If the government believes private enterprise alone will not support the necessary infrastructure then they agree subsidies with an industry, and renewables are far from alone in receiving them. While this does represent an investment of taxpayer’s money, it’s hardly a tax. Neither can the energy bills themselves be equated with a tax: it’s a price. If the speaker wants wholly subsidised energy with a fair, non-market driven cost to consumers then they should be discussing renationalisation. Building nuclear power/gas/coal power won’t significantly help, as they also require subsidies and investment. Back

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