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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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As I said earlier, I’ve been reading the Geek Manifesto lately. This is the sort of thing you don’t read if you want a quiet life of rolling your eyes when people are wrong rather than gathering friends to overdose on homeopathic remedies outside a chemist.

It has come to my attention that one Mr Griff Rhys Jones has recently weighed in on the wind farm question. He has been quoted as claiming that wind farms are “green tokenism”, and being “randomly deposited” across the country. (Apparently this is from a column in the Radio Times, which is not online.)

Fresh from my perusal of the Geek Manifesto, it occurs to me that there are some parallels between this occurence and the British Chiropractic Association vs Simon Singh libel case. In the BCA case, Simon Singh had claimed Chiropracters made bogus claims; the BCA then sued for libel claiming damage to their reputation. In the case of Mr Rhys Jones, a celebrity has similarly made comments which are highly damaging to the reputation of an industry.

Only I can provide all sorts of evidence that wind farms are not “randomly distributed”, and that far from being “green tokenism” they actively contribute to our electricity networks saving on fossil fuels.

(I’ve not linked to much for the first statement about not being randomly distributed because to be honest it’s a bit of a blog post in itself and I don’t think anyone’s written it yet. Basically I need to demonstrate that there are financial incentives to build in the windiest places, that there are well established procedures in the industry for establishing windiness before construction, and that these procedures are generally followed. Some of the evidence may be commercially sensitive, but certainly there’s a solid case there.)

Has the reputation of the wind industry been libelled? Well, let’s be honest, Mr Rhys Jones is no more guilty of that than dozens of journalists, editors and commentors in print and even more random people online. But maybe they are all guilty of libel. Because I see far more accusations of bad practice from random people than I’ve seen any evidence of it. I’m not saying that the industry as a whole should start suing for libel when critics make rash statements which aren’t backed up by even a modicum of evidence. Neither am I saying that the wind industry is perfect. But no industry is perfect.

I do wish that celebrities, whose opinions are magnified in today’s culture, would try to remember that if it isn’t backed up by evidence it’s only an opinion.

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“The Geek Manifesto” is a book by Mark Henderson which has been making quite a splash with a few science-minded people I know: I think I’ve had it recommended to me about four times by different people. So I bought it for my kindle and I’m now about half way through.

Because I’ve been following a lot of science people on twitter for a while, a lot of the issues raised by the book aren’t new to me. I followed the sacking of David Nutt for commenting on his scientific findings on drugs, I followed the libel reform case between Simon Singh and the BCA, and I also saw the birth of the Science is Vital campaign as a response to the 2010 Spending Review. These issues, and other similar ones are covered in the manifesto. I’m sure there’ll be others as I work my way through the book.

As a scientist, these issues do matter to me. I want decisions to be based on evidence, and I want politicians to try to compile high-quality evidence where it’s needed. It is true that it is easier in general to find examples of policy-driven evidence than evidence-driven policy; for instance, the War in Iraq was not justified by the evidence available at the time.

If there was evidence to show that wind farms don’t work — that they don’t produce power that can be used, that they fail to reduce CO2 emissions, or that they are ultimately more polluting than they save — I would want to know about it. I would want to say to my colleagues, look, it’s not working, let’s find another way, some other technology. I don’t want to bet my career on something that doesn’t work.

Of course, wind power may not be the best long-term solution to all our energy needs. That’s different, and fine by me. I’m not trying to build a panacea for all humanity’s ills, I just want to change the world a little bit to be a better world.

The truth is that the evidence /doesn’t/ say that. Wind farms produce more electricity than they use and they save enough in carbon to balance their construction costs in only a few months of their 20-year lifetime (also see here.

I wonder if part of the reason that the wind industry has failed to engage with its detractors is that most of our talking comes from the CEOs and lobbyists that are a crucial part of our industry, but who aren’t actually scientists or trained in assessing evidence objectively. That’s one reason why I set up this blog; I wanted someone to be presenting the balanced viewpoint that the energy debate demands.

Scientists are good at that, and we need to be here; we need to be heard.

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There are some people who feel that those who are pro-wind-power must by definition be anti-nuclear. This is far from true in reality: both power sources include very different challenges but actually complement one another in some ways. Most engineers will tell you that we need a variety of generation sources to keep the power flowing on demand; running the grid with wind energy only would be a recipe for blackouts unless something really changed. Like hydro, nuclear is a generation method that doesn’t burn carbon and that is basically controllable on demand. Some environmentalists argue that in fact it is essential to include nuclear in the mix if you want to reduce carbon emissions in your electricity generation.

I don’t have any moral objections to nuclear; but I appreciate that it brings enormous challenges.

Still, it’s looking increasingly like nuclear power — or at least new nuclear power stations — will not be contributing much to the UK’s electricity generation in the near future. A summary of the situation:

There’s a lot there to suggest that the privatised electricity market in the UK simply doesn’t have the stomach for new nuclear generation.

Meanwhile, the UK’s existing nuclear facilities are aging; Germany intends to stop using nuclear at all and Japan has hardly started back up after the tsunami over a year ago.

Locally and globally the message is the same. Nuclear power — fission at least — may well have had its heyday.

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Scotland:
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)

England:
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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