Last week the coalition government came out with their energy policy proposals. It can be seen as a small victory for the Liberal Democrats in the government that the worst excesses of Conservative climate-scepticism were pushed aside. There will not be a new dash for climate-changing gas but a dash for renewables and nuclear.
We actually need a dash for energy saving but that message is never front of mind with politicians, instead we are offered ways to increase energy production or at least maintain it. The problem with producing and using more energy, or even the same amount, through different methods, is that in the real world all means of energy production have snags attached to them. Some are rather big snags (like nuclear waste hanging around for a long time).
Wind power and nuclear power both have the inconvenience of being expensive but they impose less ecological damage on the world (which has an economic cost associated with it that we rarely remember).
However, wind power is a land-hungry technology. A single turbine won’t do much good so we need lots of them if they are to help us meet our carbon reduction targets (and they will only ever be a small part of the solution). Now the trouble with having lots of wind turbines is that you need lots of land. And although any land where the wind blows is good enough, some of that land is expensive. So windfarms tend to be built on bits of land which aren’t very valuable for other uses – like the tops of mountains and remote moorland.
There are lots of concerns about wind energy. Is it too expensive? Can it do the job? Is it reliable enough? Does it really save carbon emissions? I can’t resist pointing out that despite the fact that on balance wind energy comes out as being a good bet it is still true that ‘you can’t get thin just by eating more lettuce‘.
However, as with many things, it is a bit complicated. We have always known that the carbon emissions from the building of any energy generating operation need to be taken into account. Think, for example, of the energy that goes into building a barrage across the Severn Estuary – those emissions need to be taken into account in any calculation of the energy value of such a scheme. And so it is with wind turbines.
A consequence of wind developments being pushed to cheaper land is that these are sometimes peatlands – and peat is a carbon store (a big carbon store). If you start mucking about with a peat bog, building roads across it, setting wind turbines into it, you start releasing its peat. These arguments were deployed when the RSPB opposed the building of a massive windfarm on the Isle of Lewis which would also have destroyed important wildlife habitat.
But I am a grateful to a correspondent for pointing me in the direction of a paper published earlier this year which looks more carefully at the carbon balance of building wind turbines on peat. What researchers from Aberdeen University say is that wind turbines on peat are rarely justified simply on carbon grounds. And so the message appears to be – avoid building windfarms on peaty soils.
The consequence of that is that they should more often be built on mineral soils, or offshore, or we should build fewer windfarms. But if we build fewer windfarms the consequences of that are that we need other low-carbon energy sources or, I say again, to reduce our energy use.
Just imagine a world in which instead of counting the cost of everything in terms of money (can you explain to me what money is – really?) we did our calculations in terms of carbon. How would the world be different?