Arun Chandran’s letter to the Newton News is, sadly, typical of the insular thinking and cherry-picking attitudes to data which so typifies the “skeptic” set.
Let us establish a framework in which to have this discussion. We live on a finite planet with a finite amount of prehistoric carbon to burn. We also live in a growing human population, with a current global energy demand of 18 Trillion KWH expected to increase to 31 Trillion KWH by 2030. Approximately 85% of total current energy use comes from fossil carbon sources. In order to keep current global carbon fuel use constant, we need to engage in a year on year reduction in our use of carbon-based fuels that far outpaces current growth in renewables.
Practically, with all the best intentions in the world, and allowing for environmentally damaging extraction techniques like fracking, demand for and all forms of fossil carbon fuel will continue to rise, while supply will decrease. The simplest economic formula in the world, the law of supply and demand, tells us that the price of carbon fuel will rise.
Natural gas is the most variably priced fossil fuel, with prices veering sharply between peaks and troughs (rather than oil’s generally slow but unstoppable increase). Gas prices recently crashed, following a number of Shale Gas reserves coming into the market, but nobody believes this is a sustainable low and many analysts are cautioning against assuming this is not an artificial underpricing, liable for sudden correction soon.
Further, current best projections put us at around 60-90 years of natural gas reserves. This is not as good as it sounds (this is to say, not as good as “all the gas will be long gone by the year 2100”) because cheap reserves will be extracted and burned first, so by 2040-60 we’ll be left with the more difficult, i.e. pricier, gas and oil reserves.
Within our lifetimes we are likely to see average gas prices more than triple, with the potential for volatile spikes to a much higher level. This can only be exacerbated by the process of increasingly relying on gas power for grid electricity.
Now, Mr Chandran’s article against wind is hard to engage with on the specifics, because he veers so wildly from number to number, picking evidence to support one assertion and then proving himself wrong when he has something else to say. For example, he describes a target of building 30,000 turbines to produce an average of 12,300MW capacity as “delusional,” “pure wishful thinking,” and “driven by an obsession that can only (only!) result in our computer-driven economy grinding to a halt.”
Towards the end of the letter, Mr Chandran changes course, bemoaning that Lord Deben stands to make money from the “thousands of turbines” on his Forewind’s Dogger Bank wind farm, which has a target nameplate capacity of 9,000MW by 2020. Together with the other Crown Estate projects, installed wind capacity in the UK is estimated to be 27,800 MW by 2020, more than double the capacity Mr Chandran believed was not just impossible to achieve, but likely to drive us all to the brink of the apocalypse.
Of course, wind is not the only “renewable” as Mr Chandran so scare-quotingly puts it. Solar currently only constitutes a fraction of the energy requirements in the UK, but the potential for south-facing residential and commercial rooftop installation to reduce baseline load is a staggering example of the power of arithmetic.
Many people are already seeing the advantages of “free” solar installations (really a kind of roof-leasing project) which cut the amount of electricity they need to pull from the National Grid in half. Demand reduction and efficiency are key to any new energy strategy. Relying solely on any single source of energy is a recipe for high electricity prices, but so is excluding non carbon sources in a century where the carbon is becoming increasingly scarce.
Mr Chandran is on slightly firmer, if still very obviously cherry-picked, territory with his overreliance on the conclusions drawn by Prof Hughes and the GWPF (which, for all its attempts to give itself a veneer of objectivity, is a Think Tank founded by a Climate Change Denialist). Switching to a new energy mix, particularly if we want to do so in short order, is likely to be expensive, inefficient, and to create various market distortions with unintended second-order effects along the way. But the necessity to bootstrap a non-carbon energy industry does not go away just because it is difficult and complicated.
There will not magically be more natural gas left in the ground in 2050 just because NIMBYs have an aversion to wind energy. The longer we wait, the more expensive, difficult and disruptive the inevitable transition will be. Had we started in the 1970s, we could be sat atop a world-leading renewables sector, with second or third generation engineering expertise in wind, solar, geothermal and tidal generation. We did not, so we must now attempt to chivvy ourselves along behind other countries. There is no perfect solution, and sulking until we get one is no strategy.
I suspect that many of us would rather our local councillors were trying to attract new technologies and industries to the region rather than trying to chase them away. It will cost £124 Billion to bootstrap our wind industry up to target by 2020, will it? Brilliant. How much of that £124 Billion investment can be spent in Co Durham? How can our local municipal authorities ensure a better return to local people from this new industry?
Coal miners and their families are still getting free coal, after all. Is it beyond the realms of possibility that local councils and MPs who stopped being pointlessly obstructionist could instead use their power to bargain for lower electricity costs to those whose homes and businesses came within the radius of a wind farm? Is it really in the best interests of the North East for those elected to represent us to consider it their duty to stand athwart history shouting “Stop”?