“Green Energy” by Richard Burnett-Hall

Bob Marshall posed some fair questions in last month’s magazine about the value of green energy. Though quite a few of the facts he quotes are open to challenge, I’d rather leave that for another day, and try here to put the development of green energy into context. Certainly we should be careful to look at all the impacts and deficiencies of any generating technology, and wind farms are by no means ideal. But then nor is nuclear, let alone fossil fuels. Moreover, though there are economies of scale from using relatively few large plants, nuclear or whatever, transmission losses in the power lines become substantial over long distances, and hence these economies are far from compelling. A relatively expensive technology, a mile or two from your home, if not on your roof, may end up being the cheapest for you.

But, fundamentally, renewable energy is something we have to develop, like it or not, because we simply cannot continue to depend on consuming fossil fuels at current rates. The cost may be higher initially, but as technologies mature and become widely adopted, they will come down. (Remember how much the very primitive computers of 25 years ago cost?) Anyway, the useful comparison is not so much with today’s costs, but with what conventionally generated electricity will cost in 10 or 20 years’ time and beyond. As world demand for conventional fuels rises, their prices will rise to match, and will become increasingly unaffordable.

Global warming is for most people, and certainly for the vast majority of objective scientists who have put their minds to it, something we must deal with if we are to leave a world worth having to our grandchildren. For thousands of years up to the Industrial Revolution the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was around 255-260 ppm. Since then it has increased by half as much again to around 395 ppm today, and is now at 400 ppm in the Arctic – a level that the world has never seen for some 800,000 years at least, and probably several million. CO2 levels continue to increase by 2 or 3 ppm every year, and it is feared that at about 450 ppm we could reach a tipping point at which positive feedback, e.g. from methane releases, will make global warming accelerate out of control. We are running a hugely dangerous experiment with the world’s climate, wholly unnecessarily, that is putting us and everything we hold dear at risk. Yet, as the Stern report made clear, we can avoid that at a cost that is negligible compared with GDP growth over the past 50 years.

Electricity generation produces some 40% of the UK’s carbon emissions. Which is why the Committee on Climate Change recommended in 2011 that by 2030 we should be emitting just 50 gm CO2 per KWh of electricity produced, compared with over 440 gm per KWh in 2011. This would be achieved by having renewable energy forming up to 45% of the total generated, compared with 3% in 2011. (Most of the rest would be from nuclear, plus some from fossil fuel plants with carbon capture and storage.) The sooner we act to get to that 45% target, the easier it will be. Personally, I would like much more focus on wave and tidal power (far more predictable than wind), and on heat pumps (ground and air) and biomass from strictly limited sources. Long term, I see us turning to hydrogen as our standard fuel, which could be easily generated from water using wind and solar when demand is slight, thus transforming their efficiencies. Meanwhile, let us go for local community energy schemes, which have been very popular and successful in Germany. Solar PV panels all over our Village Hall’s south facing slope would be a great start – to everyone’s benefit.

Richard Burnett-Hall