Monday, 11 August 2008

When the wind blows

The proposal by Powys County Council to refuse all consents for wind farms on highways grounds looks pretty sweeping. I'm open to be proved wrong, but I doubt that they will be able to sustain the policy in the event of any appeal, unless they can prove that the reasoning is sound in the case of any individual application. It has already been successful, however, in drawing attention to the fact that wind power is not necessarily as 'green' as it is painted.

As with most environmental questions, it is hard to work out where the balance of advantage lies when it comes to wind power, and it comes down to a matter of judgement.

Many of the objections relate to the aesthetics of wind farms on our mountain tops, and are made very vociferously. Living within the buffer area around the Brechfa Forest SSA, I can understand the argument. But the quality of an argument does not depend on its volume; and given the impact that unchecked climate change would have on our landscape, I think that the aesthetics argument is just about the weakest reason for objecting to wind farms.

I don't doubt that some wind farms are being built for the 'wrong' reasons. The 'renewables subsidy' is encouraging the construction of wind farms by distorting the economics, and means that they are being constructed because they will bring profit to the operators rather than for 'green' reasons. I really don't believe that many companies, particularly large ones, are anywhere near as 'green' in their motivations as they pretend to be. They are in business first and foremost to make money.

But conceding that point to the opponents doesn't mean that they win their case. Doing something for the 'wrong' reason doesn't mean that it's the wrong thing to do.

Another of the arguments used by opponents is that wind farms only produce electricity when the wind is blowing; and the times when the wind is blowing don't necessarily coincide with the times when the electricity is needed. This in turn means that conventional power stations need to be kept on standby, so that electricity is available when required.

It's a powerful argument. And it underlines the way in which sight has been lost of the real target. The original objective was surely to do with reducing our carbon footprint. That has been 'translated' into a target that a percentage of our electricity needs is met from renewable sources, and using windpower helps to achieve that secondary target. But it doesn't help to achieve the original goal unless we actually succeed in closing, or at least turning off, conventional power stations as well.

Again, however, conceding the merit of that argument still doesn't mean that building wind farms is the wrong thing to do. What it does mean is that we need a more integrated and coherent energy policy.

One of the problems with electricity is that it's not easy to store; it generally has to be used when it is produced. There are some ways of 'storing' electricity – the pumped storage scheme at Dinorwig is an excellent example. And there are other ways of 'storing' electricity as well – one of them, for instance, is to use surpluses to extract hydrogen (for fuel cells) from water, a technology which holds a great deal of promise for the future.

Why don't we have an integrated energy policy? Ultimately, because the then Tory government fragmented and privatised the electricity supply industry. Each of the companies is competing to sell its electricity to the customers. Each of them has a direct interest in beating its competitors; none of them has a real vested interest in an overall strategy for supply. And the government has abdicated its own responsibility in that regard to the 'market', with a few subsidies and incentives thrown in to try and encourage particular approaches.

Wind energy has a key role to play, but it can only play its proper role as part of a planned approach to securing our energy supplies. And we'll only get that when government accepts its responsibility for producing a plan and insisting on its implementation, rather than simply setting targets and leaving the implementation to the whim of the market.

4 comments:

Draig said...

I think blaming central government (in Tory or Labour incarnations) for this lets our Assembly off the hook. We need the power to be able to create an integrated energy policy for ourselves. And we should be actively demanding it. I don't see that our elected representatives are doing that.

It means devolving energy consents to Cardiff. This provision is not part of the package offered in the 2011 referendum. Why? Are we going to wait till 2020?

It's no use saying that "We must be realistic and work within the confines of what we have now". A whole new generation of infrastructure and power generation is being built NOW, and unless we take a stand on this we will be locked into an outdated mode of generation for another 25 years.

That's the reality of our situation, and we can either grasp it, and start laying the foundations for a truly INDEPENDENT and sustainable system of energy generation and distribution, or we will have a system which is designed to meet the needs of England, and not us here in Wales.

Some good, thoughtful posting here though. It's just good that someone is actually giving the issue some thought for once!

ianjamesjohnson said...

An interesting article on energy in today's (Weds 13th) in the Western Mail's business section.

The key for me is control over decisions for 50MW+ power generators in Wales - of whatever type.

Sadly Labour voted in the Planning Bill against giving Wales the opportunity to decide for itself on this issue.

John Dixon said...

Draig,

Basically, I agree. And my comments were directed at 'government' rather than at a specific level - it just so happens that at present most of the responsibility for energy policy resides at Westminster.

The Assembly Government has produced a routemap for energy policy; but without the power to insist on its implementation, it is a pretty meaningless set of targets, which are highly unlikely to be met.

As far as Plaid policy is concerned, my own branch have submitted some amendments on this issue to conference this year - one of the points that we are making very strongly is that the Assembly must have the power over energy policy.

As for the forthcoming referendum, I entirely agree that there are some serious limitations on the powers which will be devolved under the Government of Wales Act 2006; it does not give us everything that Scotland currently has. BUT, to get more than that would require a new act of parliament in Westminster, and that is not likely to happen under any foreseeable government in this parliament or the next. It's frustrating, I know, but I think that we have no real choice but to go for what we can get under the current act and then argue for extra powers, rather than delay until we can have a new act.

Ian,

Again, I agree that we need the power to take decisions over 50MW+ generators. But I was going further than that. Rather than merely reacting to specific applications for generators, I think we need the power to decide how many generators, what type and where - a pro-active rather than a reactive energy policy.

Draig said...

John,

It's good that your branch is looking to make the case for control over our energy resources more strongly at conference. I'm quite new to Plaid, and was looking to do a similar thing through my own branch, but have probably missed the boat with it now.

I'm not quite up on the procedure for these things!

I know that energy is only one aspect of policy amongst many, but to me it is key. It is key to people's general general prosperity and wellbeing, and from a Plaid point of view, it is a key plank in the argument not just for more powers, but for Plaid's longer term aim of independence.

As far as the 2011 referendum goes, I think it's important to take a few lessons from 1997. After the last referendum, an article in Barn magazine showed that the areas that gave the most support to an Assembly were not just Welsh-speaking areas, but also working class areas.

Even in Cardiff, which voted "No" as a whole, areas like Llanrumney delivered high "Yes" votes, as compared to wealthier areas of the city.

But what's this got to do with energy?

I think these are the areas which are, and will, be hit hardest by rising fuel prices. And these are the areas that we will count on for another "Yes" vote. As we slip into an energy-induced recession, these areas are now being hammered, and the likely consequence is that, unless we can make a COHESIVE case for more devolution of powers, people will balk at the PERCIEVED COST.

Will people see the point in voting for what's on offer if they realise that it will not have the power to prevent a rapid erosion in their standard of living?

What we are offering to the public is, ultimately, a flawed arrangement. An arrangement that was made in better economic times. Since then, things have changed dramatically.

I recognise that we are bound by a legal noose not of our own making, but surely there are few things in this world more powerful than mass, popular support. We need to get out there and tap it.