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Archive for the ‘climate change’ Category

So, today’s ministerial statement from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (available here has confirmed that the subsidy available for onshore wind farms will drop by 10%.

Now, while I work in the wind industry, my expertise is on the measurement and analysis of the wind itself rather than the funding mechanisms used to support it. In their coverage, BBC News are grudgingly positive about this, and the tone of their article matches pretty closely my own appraisal of this. It is good that the funding has not been slashed 25% as was previously suggested as that would be a very steep climb in a very short time and such things tend to have strong impacts. I have far less concerns about a 90% subsidy.

The UK’s system for subsidising renewable electricity generation for large-scale projects is based on a ROC: a Renewables Obligations Certificate. This is an unusual scheme internationally, where the more common form is a simple feed-in tariff which pays a bit extra for every kilowatt hour from a particular source.

ROCs are distributed based on generated energy, and different sorts of generation earn different amounts; the amount of ROCs earned is loosely tied into how mature the technology is. The “renewable obligation” referred to in the title requires suppliers to generate a proportion of their electricity by means of renewables, a proportion which then increases year on year. Suppliers then have to present their ROCs as evidence that they have met their legal commitment. However, the certificates are not tied to the supplier themselves, but can be traded with other suppliers. While my understanding of the whole process is pretty sketchy it actually seems quite ingenious because of course from a government perspective they don’t care if individual suppliers meet an arbitrary percentage target: they care that the country as a whole meets that target.

Today’s announcement says that onshore wind will no longer earn one ROC but instead will earn 0.9 ROCs.

I first heard this suggested a few months ago, and I was rather surprised at the idea that the number of ROCs would drop below 1. (Which demonstrates my failing to pay attention as other technologies have earned less than 1 ROC per MWh before now.) After all, what is the certificate supposed to be saying? The whole point of the system was not so much to support emerging technology (although they worked that in), but rather to incentivise electricity suppliers to support the UK’s legally binding targets to reduce our CO2 emissions. I therefore assumed, wrongly as it turns out, that a non-thermal plant with no direct CO2 produced during operation would not earn less that one full certificate per megawatt hour, representing 100% renewable electricity.

The way the system is set up, there are knock-on effects from reducing the ROCs earned by onshore wind, above and beyond the financial implications (and my feeling is that the technology is now mature enough to weather this small loss of subsidy). Energy generated from onshore wind will now count less towards a supplier’s renewables obligation than their generated output would suggest. But the targets remain legally binding.

The reduction in subsidy is partially justified in the ministerial statement with the followeing text:

…delivering the best possible deal for consumers has been at the heart of the RO banding review. In considering the final shape of the banding package, we have focused on the need to balance cost-effectiveness with the range of objectives that the RO must deliver.

Any gap between current generation and the legal target, this year or in the years ahead as the target increases, will have to be met by some form of generation if we are to meet our legally binding targets. It may be more wind farms, or companies may risk more on offshore wind or emerging marine technology: all of which are more expensive than onshore wind and which will cost the consumer more in subsidies.

I think it is probably right, all in all, that the subsidy for onshore wind should decrease. I’m very interested to see how it plays out from here though.

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Every so often a company gets it so wrong you just have to sit back and enjoy the show. And laugh.

I give you Shell’s Arctic campaign.


Edited to add:

Well, it did always look a bit unbelievable that a company would get things so wrong on such a sensitive ground. Looking back, another red flag was that all of the posters, rather than just a majority of them, were green-type protests. Seems like the campaign was a Greenpeace stunt all along.

I discovered this through this New Statesman piece, which has the tag-line “Since when were Greenpeace the bad guys?” Um, I work in wind farms, and I’ve always been suspicious about Greenpeace: not just their tactics, which are often dubious, but their targets as well. But that’s perhaps an article for another time. More philosophically, there’s no such thing as bad people; just people who sometimes do bad things.

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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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I’m tired.

It’s been busy at work lately, and busy at home, and that’s part of the reason why.

But really I’m tired of seeing the same conversation played out over and over again.

It seems so clear to me that the status quo is unsustainable. Fossil fuels take millions of years to be created, and we’re using them up at a terrifying rate. Burning them and turning those long-dead sea creatures and forests into carbon dioxide, changing the composition of the atmosphere. One day, they will run out.

Not they might. They will.

You might be right when you argue that we have decades yet, perhaps a century, of using fossil fuels at the current rate. But what about the Global Middle Eastern Crisis of 2025? You know, where all the oil in the Middle East was stockpiled in various fundamentalist states that banned export to non-Muslim countries? When petrol reached £4 and £5 and then £10 a litre?

Or maybe it was in 2018, when a critical set of valves heavily used in offshore oil platforms turned out to be faulty. There were three explosions in various locations of the same scale as the BP Gulf Of Mexico disaster before the fault was finally traced; maintenance to fix the fault shut down another twelve.

Or perhaps the third world war broke out in 2035. Both sides enforced shipping blockades at key points to cripple the other side’s oil supply. Pipelines in the desert were targetted by missile fire; oil rigs bombed.

Or perhaps the tide turned in 2021 when there was a series of enormous climatological upheavals which brought drought to some parts of the world and floods to others, killing millions. The same year, the Gulf Stream which gives Britain its moderate climate suddenly shifted south to arrive in Portugal instead of Ireland, responding to tonnes of excess Arctic meltwater, and forced us to endure the hot summers and frozen winters they get in New York. Perhaps after that climate change stopped being something to debate and started being something we should work to prevent.

It may be that none of those things happen. It may be that the oil simply, and quietly, starts to run low. Before long only three nations have any claim to oil at all. Perhaps they’re benevolant and fair nations who don’t restrict the fair trade of their oil. Perhaps it gets rationed so that each nation gets a quota.

Eventually, one way or the other, the whole economy that we’ve built on relatively cheap, readily available fossil fuels will falter. It’s not an if. It’s a when, and a how, but not an if.

In your world, what happens next?

Do we leave our children or our children’s children to squabble over the remains of our technology? Do we trust to luck and good faith that technology will find a way forward, even if starved of the funding and the environment it needs to thrive? Do we risk that the scientists who say the data says the climate is changing are all corrupt or mistaken?

Or do we use what we can to build redundancy into our systems so that there’s an alternative when things get hard? Do we strive for flexibility, and to use resources that can’t be denied us by war or economy? Do we wait, with bated breath, for fate to remove what we’ve been able to exploit for so long, or do we plan for its demise to minimise its impact on our culture?

Every time you say “not in my back yard”, you’re arguing that we should sacrifice the future for the present. Every time you tell me that wind farms are useless or ugly, you’re not only mistaken, you are contributing to a climate where we have no alternative to fossil fuels and other fuel-based power.

Wind farms are not the answer. But they provide us with power from the wind when the wind blows. They are flexible and responsive. They enable and encourage us to develop a grid infrastructure that can respond to variations in supply as well as demand. They teach us to balance the demands of the ecology with our thirst for energy. And out there, on the hillsides, they are an unmistakable sign that someone, somewhere gives a damn about tomorrow.

And I’m tired of having the same argument. Don’t tell me I have to defend wind farms. You defend your strange belief that, contrary to all evidence, tomorrow will be just like today only better. It won’t. We have to create tomorrow.

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Linked to from the Scots Renewables blog.

I like it because it makes the point I always want to make. If I shout “Duck, he’s got a gun!” you don’t say, “I’m not going to bother because it might not hit me anyway.” You duck first and then check to see if I’m right.

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If I ask you what colour the sky was, you’d say blue. If I asked what colour it was right now where you are, the only way for you to answer correctly would be to go and look. That’s science: the go and look bit. Science is where we try and get past the rote answer and use evidence to understand what’s going on.

There have always been people who don’t like the go-and-look philosophy. Most of the time they’re the same people who would prefer we all take on the listen-to-them philosophy. It rankles with a certain type of person that they can’t just say anything they like without being fact-checked. It used to be religious authority who were most guilty of this; now it seems to be marketers & PR people working for rich corporations, billionaires and politicians. Or at least so the documents about the Heartland Institute released this week would lead us to conclude. (I’ll not go through this, you can read more about it here if you’re interested.

I don’t like this war. To me, if you want to know what colour the sky is, you go and look. If you can’t do that, you use the scientific method to find the most probable answer. You don’t ask yourself, what is the most beneficial answer? And then shout out to everyone who’ll listen that the sky is in fact black-and-white-stripes, punching anyone who disagrees with you in the mouth. The trouble is that in human affairs, what matters most isn’t what you can prove, it’s what you can get people to believe. And the anti-climate-change lobby have been very, very effective at getting the public to accept the idea that there’s any scientific controversy. There isn’t. Human action is causing the climate to change. (The graph in that last link is particularly compelling.)

Over and over again, I encounter the idea that renewables are only being developed for the subsidies; like there are fat cats putting up useless wind farms and then laughing at us all the way to the bank. I’ve seen no evidence for this. Firstly the subsidies are generally paid out alongside the electricity being generated, so that if you build a wind farm in a bad location or if you don’t maintain it you get far less in terms of subsidies. Secondly the expense of building the project and the risk of failure all fall on the developer, and many wind farms do fail at various points after significant time and money has been invested in them; not really something that encourages risky development and then running off with the cash. Thirdly, the renewables lobby, like the climate change lobby, are nowhere near as effective as their various counterparts. And fourthly, electricity prices are driven by gas prices. Renewables aren’t driving profits or costs to any large extent, and a lot of their profits goes back into the next development. Profits which are being invested in infrastructure aren’t lining fat cat pockets.

If there are powerful people with lots of spare money about, they’re not coming from the renewables industry. They’re more likely to be coming from the oil and gas sector. Those are the people who don’t want us to invest in renewable energy which doesn’t require a constant fuel source. Those are the people with both the motivation and the money to actually get their voice heard. And the evidence seems to suggest that they’re using that voice: they’re using it to lie to you.

The worst thing about it is that if we don’t know the facts we make poor decisions. We all want our grandchildren to live on a planet that’s at least as good as the one we have. No-one wants the luxury of a private jet if the direct cost is watching their grandchildren starve in a climate-change induced drought. If we change things now, we can do it slowly, keep the level of technology we have. If we don’t…

Well, the way I see it, if we don’t reduce our reliance on oil and gas we face much bigger problems than just climate change. We face the increasing instability of the Middle East, and hugely fluctuating prices. We face increasingly desperate technologies (like fracking) used in increasingly unsuitable environments. We face dwindling global supplies and perhaps even wars over what remains (the question of who owns North Sea oil if Scotland gains independence will seem tame in comparison). On a human level there could be a global crisis of a level not seen since the second world war. And on top of that we could have hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts and monsoons, rising sea levels and dwindling water supplies.

Unless we work to avert it. Now. Little by little.

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