A battle for our green and pleasant land

3rd November, 2012

‘There has been no change in the government’s policy on renewable energy, the prime minister has said.’ – BBC News

That’s news?

That is news because it follows hard on the heels of a declaration by John Hayes, the new energy minister, that “enough is enough” as far as onshore wind farms are concerned.

That sounds like a change in the government’s energy policy.

It does indeed. The number of wind farms has been growing steadily, and RenewableUK, the industry body, recently announced that approvals for new onshore wind farms were up for the first time in five years, and sharply so. Mr Hayes, in contrast, was quoted as saying: “I can’t single-handedly build a new Jerusalem but I can protect our green and pleasant land.”

I’m guessing he’s a Tory rather than a Liberal Democrat, somehow.

Given the new Jerusalem reference, I am starting to suspect that Mr Hayes is not a Conservative but instead a comic actor taking the role of a Tory MP and playing it for laughs. Officially Mr Hayes is a Conservative but his boss, Ed Davey, is a Lib Dem and Mr Davey was quick to overrule Mr Hayes.

But what was Mr Hayes planning to do, then, before he was overruled?

He was planning to commission new evidence on which to base his future “enough is enough” policy, suggesting that the existing policy wasn’t based on evidence but on a “bourgeois left article of faith based on some academic perspective”.

I’m confused. How does he know what the new evidence will say before he’s seen it?

It is odd. Mr Hayes is not the only politician to rely on clairvoyant evidence, as the science writer Mark Henderson has pointed out. Politicians have a habit of announcing what the research will discover before the research has been carried out. Scientists, rather quaintly, undertake research because they don’t know what the results will be.

Oh, those pesky scientists. Don’t worry about them. They have an academic perspective, I think you will find.

Apparently so.

So what is the situation with wind power, then?

For a windy country, the UK’s installed capacity is middling at best. In Europe, its capacity is just behind that of Italy and France but dwarfed by Spain and Germany. But Mr Hayes may have reason to be more worried about recent trends: in 2011, the UK installed more capacity than any European country other than Germany.

What about offshore wind? Surely that is no threat to the new Jerusalem.

According to RenewableUK, the UK has more offshore wind capacity installed than the rest of the world put together.

Splendid news!

I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Renewable energy requires substantial subsidy. Why do we subsidise it? Chiefly because of climate change and perhaps because of the fear that fossil fuels will eventually run out. But these issues are both global and long-term, which means that what really matters is to develop technologies that have a chance of being adopted across the world.

And we’re a global leader in offshore wind farms.

I fear that we may remain a global leader in offshore wind farms because so few other countries are interested in the technology, which is an expensive way to pander to the tastes of small, rich coastal areas. I wonder if wind farms optimised for the plains of Mexico or the steppes of Mongolia might be a better bet than trying to figure out how to plant windmills in the Irish Sea and keep them from corroding.

You seem rather cynical about the whole thing.

I am. Climate change is no joke and dealing with it is going to require some big technological leaps. We need a substantial and credible carbon price and a far more radical scheme of funding low-carbon innovation. Instead we have an ugly game of political football. The spat between Mr Hayes and Mr Davey will make renewable energy providers nervous and make it even more expensive for the taxpayer to persuade them to make risky investments.

Do you want these investments or don’t you?

I suspect that the future of low-carbon technology is going to involve a lot more nuclear and geothermal energy and a lot less wind. But I am probably wrong; nobody knows. I am sure of this: it’s expensive enough to build wind farms already without stirring up uncertainty and then having to pay danger money just to persuade investors to brave our shambolic energy policy.

Also published at ft.com.

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