Friday, 26 February 2010

Offshore wind bringing green growth to UK?

Several months ago when a Vestas blade factory on the Isle of Wight closed down, there were howls of protest. Four hundred people lost their jobs and it seemed to show that all the government’s talk of green collar jobs was just hot air. The staff went on strike and occupied the building. Some people were even calling for the nationalisation of the company in order to develop green power.

At the time I cautioned against any such language, arguing that the blades from the closing factory were made for use in the US, and that nationalisations and buy-outs of large foreign owned players like Vestas would be highly counterproductive, to put it mildly (if not illegal!). A better strategy would be for the government to invest in research and development, and building up the market for offshore wind.

Well it is always nice to have someone follow your advice, even if it was obvious and they never heard it! Since the closure of the Vestas plant, the issue of green jobs has taken a higher priority (and we have the strikers in part to thank for that). At the same time the government has given the go ahead to two important pieces of legislation – the licensing of over 25 GW of round three offshore wind sites (on top of the 9 GW or so already licensed and under development) and the introduction of a Feed in Tariff for small wind.

Already these moves seem to be having an effect. Late last year Clipper Wind Power confirmed that the would be continuing with the development of the Britannia Project, a prototype 10 MW offshore wind turbine and its accompanying blades which will be built at a factory in the North East of England (as an aside, what is it with Clipper’s patriotic names. The American one is called the Liberty, the UK one the Britannia! Is this cunning lobbying?). Soon afterward a company in Wales announced it was setting up a factory to build large turbine towers, while back in the North East a cabling company has announced a major expansion to supply offshore wind.

By far the best news came just this week however, when Mitsubshi signed an MOU for the investment of £100 million in a research and development facility in the North East, building turbines and blades for the offshore wind market. At the same time the government provided grants for the expansion of the blade test bed and offshore wind prototype facilities at the New and Renewable Energy Centre nearby in Blyth.

Okay, the reason that these moves are so exciting is precisely because the UK is starting from a low base in the wind business, and even now the investment is relatively small. In Germany, Spain or Denmark these developments would be minor news. The UK is, in effect, fifteen years behind. Having said that, the fact that such a large expansion of offshore wind is now planned means that there is real potential to build a world class, low carbon industry, and every little step along that route is to be encouraged.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Why has environmentalism become a left wing issue?

Something important has been happening in the last couple of years. The right, at least in the UK where I live, has been getting more and more anti-green. I suspect the same is happening in the US. I am not sure why. There seems no particular reason why being green should be anti-right. In fact it was only a few years ago that I found that most of the objections where being raised by the hard left, who saw environmentalism as a middle-class conspiracy to stop industrial development. What has caused the change?

Take pollution control for example. While the right may struggle and thrash against the idea of rules and regulations on industry, in many cases these are laws that have existed for decades. In terms of dumping, chemical discharge, pesticide use, illegal logging etc.. these could just as easily be issues of law and order, which the right normally takes a strong line on.

The same is true about the misdeeds of British companies abroad, or foreign companies here. In many, many cases, the actions of these companies are already in breach of law and order, or of international corruption treaties.

Climate change though is the issue which has really split the right. Some see it as a communist plot. Others see it as the mother of all regulation. Some just see it as a tiresome distraction. Many believe it is completely made up. But why? Many of the solutions of climate change should appeal to the right. Decentralised energy puts power in the hands of individuals, and takes it away from monopolistic companies or state controlled actors. Renewable energy should free us from complicated entanglements with the Middle East and Russia, and stop us supporting foreign dictators. Moving away from coal would avoid the threat of being held hostage by organised labour. Trying to cut airmiles by building a local, more self sufficient economy again seems to fit with the right wing ideal.

And what about conservation? Well this is the one area that seems to the environmental strong suit of the right. The idea of maintaining parks and protecting impressive species seems to appeal. But the broader aspects of conservation, such as rewilding, species reintroduction, inviolate zones etc.. seem harder to swallow (for many on the left too).

I am not sure what the reasons are. Perhaps right wing people just don’t care about the environment or other people? I don’t want to believe that. Perhaps the fact that the hard left has adopted environmentalism so readily (and this is of concern to me too) put them off? It shouldn’t. Is it simply that crimes committed by companies and business men don’t count? Is it the Americanisation of the UK right? I suspect there is an element of all these things, but I have another theory as well. In order to communicate the environmental crises facing us, politicians and NGOs have been forced to turn to the people they felt would be most responsive, and in many cases this was the broad left. Recent studies show that people respond to science that agrees with their own point of view. Thus is the messages have been pitched to the left, they may have alienated the right.

Either way we are now in position where we need to urgently engage the broad right. There are simply too many of them to ignore.

Monday, 15 February 2010

In partial defence of the IPCC

Hi folks. Well well well. The climate scandals keep on coming don’t they? Except that they don’t. Nearly all of them, with the exception of the original email hacking incident and the inconsequential mistake over the Himalayan glaciers seem to be pretty tame affairs, or just wrong. RealClimate have a good discussion of the facts on their website. Okay, I know die-hard conspiracy fans will point out that RealClimate are pretty chummy with the University of East Anglia, but they do provide evidence and links to back up their statements.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is to take a look at the IPCC report. I have just downloaded one section of part one, which is 26 MB. As the guys on RealClimate say, the whole thing is 3000 pages long, with 450 authors and 2500 reviewers. It received 90,000 comments before publication. This is all publicly available. That there have been two or three mistakes found in such a highly scrutinized work is astonishing. I would expect dozens. That all of these mistakes have been found outside of the section on physical science shows the robustness of the climate data. I am sure mistakes will be found in volume one, given time, but it remains to be seen if they are fundamental.

I also expect tens, if not hundreds of pieces of evidence to be refined and superseded in the coming years. That is how science works. In contrast Ian Plimer has been peddling many of the same errors for years. I say that not to denigrate ‘scientific skeptics’, but to show the difference between scientific process and denialists like Plimer.

Science is never about being 100% right. It is about looking at the balance of evidence. Over time, the amount of evidence can be so overwhelming as to make something appear an absolute, but it never is. There are thousands of pieces of evidence which appear to show that man-made climate change is a reality. In fact a quick glance at the IPCC synthesis tells us that 89% of well over a thousand temperature studies indicate warming. That means you can find 100 that don't! All we can do is act on the evidence. If this fundamentally changes, then so will our outlook, but a bit of hysterical howling from the press and a couple of derived errors should not.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Climate confusion - blame the press

Unless you have had your head buried in the sand ­– which I have been trying to do ­– you will know that these are hard times in the climate change debate. There have been a couple of scandals and mistakes, and we have gone back ten years to discussing whether climate change is even real. Those who say that the evidence supports the idea that humans are altering the climate are under attack, with even sympathetic journalists lining up to say that scientists need to show their workings, and a little more humility. But these calls from the press miss a real problem with the climate discussion, and that is the inability of the media to understand and communicate complex science.

The reasons are obvious. By and large the media do not have the training, the time or the inclination to process papers and data, and so they need to ask the scientists to summarize extremely complex information in soundbites. At the same time, every normal twist and turn, every refinement and retesting of climate science is pounced upon by the press. ‘Does this undermine/support the case for climate change’, is asked of every single new piece of information. This forces scientists to state their views, to become political.

Perhaps the scientists should be above this. They should simply publish and let the scientific press, policy advisers and businesses make the scientific judgements. The trouble is that this assumes that we have a policy neutral world that will respond to the best science – not so. If the climate scientists remain silent, PR savvy pundits will jump all over their work. Since the majority of the media will not understand it anyway, they can put any spin on it they like. So again the scientists are forced to become politically involved.

So we now have scientists who are involved in the press game. They must be commentators and pundits. They are needed to communicate and comment. They are the gate keepers to a language the press cannot interpret. They are figures of authority, and like politicians, journalists like to find and exploit their weaknesses and contradictions, because we – the public – like to read about them. These scientists are also sensitive, used to conspiracies and tricks against them (particularly climate scientists who have endured nearly two decades of orchestrated misinformation against them). They are now set up for a fall. When mistakes are uncovered (as is inevitable) suddenly the climate scientists are the deceivers… a monolithic block to be vilified.

Sadly, scientists by and large are not good at PR. Some are, most not. They are not trained in it. They respond by restating their data, but since the press did not understand this in the first place it makes them seem arrogant to the press. Out of touch. Their opponents can attack. So the scientists must defend the conclusions of their work, which makes them more political. The press, and in this case climate deniers say they should stick to the science. And so on.

I am not saying that these scandals are not damaging or wrong. If people have mislead intentionally, they must take responsibility for their actions. Mistakes must be scrutinized and the data examined. If it turns out that climate change is not a problem – great, we can get on with dealing with the other problems. But it seems that there are still many thousands of lines of information saying climate change is happening, that we are causing it, and that it is a problem. Perhaps the media need to show a bit more humility and realise that reporting does not create reality, but the perception of it. Unfortunately that is almost as important.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Solar panels for MushyPea Towers!

The mushypea is getting solar panels. Yes, that's right, I am taking the plunge... It has been in planning for a while but the UK government has finally announced a feed-in tariff for solar which will make it all affordable...

Okay, it might be 5-10 years late in coming, and some may complain that it won't give enough support to large renewables (although others might say that this is exactly the point), and the targets are unambitious........ but still! We have a feed-in tariff for electricity, and soon we will have one for heat too..... This is a positive step from DECC.

Small solar will get 41.3p/kWh... which is pretty respectable. More than I was expecting. So I am investing in a shiny new PV system for the roof of the house. I would have gone for solar thermal too, but we have no heat storage tank, and a brand new and highly efficient condensing boiler... so it would make no sense.

The system will be small, as our roof is quite small... probably 1.08-1.16 kWp... or there abouts.. believe it or not though, this should still provide about 55%-70% of our electricity throughout the year... and more if we can reduce our consumption.. ( we only use about 1400-1600 kWh per year).

Panels will be monocrystalline silicon, made by Sharp Solar in the UK..... (in Wrexham I think)....

Anyway, just thought I would share that, and I'll let you know how we get on! Photos will be posted when the time comes!

Monday, 1 February 2010

Conservation blues

Why are some conservationists, particularly in the UK, so obsessed with building roads and picnic spots? Seriously, there appears to be a real institutional bias towards spending the budgets on nature trails, path clearance and interpretive centres, all of which are on my list of things most likely to destroy an area of natural beauty and biodiversity.

Okay, I know that the odd path is useful both for conservation staff and also to prevent visitors from having to cut a new path each time they enter an area. They are also useful for finding your way around. The aim though, in protected areas, should surely be to keep these to a minimum, particularly those which are semi-paved and signposted, or which can take cars.

Much worse though than too many paths are car parks, educational centres and café gift shops.

Now I know that national parks and protected areas in UK and Europe are different to those in North America. There is no true wilderness left in Britain, and I understand that many landscapes that appear to be wild are effectively man-made. There are however areas which are more wild than others, and others which have become ‘wilder’ or ‘minimally managed’ thanks to changes in use or population. In my view the ultimate aim of conservation is to preserve (and promote) as much wildness as possible in a landscape and to protect, encourage and study the wildlife. It should not be the primary job of conservation or national parks to focus on opening up these areas to increased traffic.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that we need to ensure right of access, and (particularly in England and Wales) there is much more which could be done on this, but that is not the same as saying that access needs to be spoon-fed. Driving in protected areas should be minimised and discouraged (i.e. new roads really should only be built in extreme circumstances). Wherever possible the role of conservation and park management should be to examine what pieces of human construction can be removed. Obviously this is very difficult in areas where people are living, but in many cases there are redundant forestry ditches and tracks which can be blocked. Similarly if there is no use for a decaying building, far better to let it collapse and fade than for it to be turned into a pointless interpretive centre, complete with access roads, power supply and café.

It is not just areas of ‘wilderness’ or nature reserves where this is a problem. The cliffs of Moher in Ireland are a classic example of how individual natural features can be destroyed in this way, These are a set of breathtaking sea cliffs on the west coast, dizzyingly high and dropping into the pounding Atlantic. Sadly they are hard to appreciate, as the most spectacular stretch has been ‘enhanced’ with a paved foot path along the top, a protective wall, installed telescopes and a large café, gift shop, ‘museum’ and interpretive centre. Interpret what for goodness sake? If you don’t get a kick out of staring 400 feet into the ocean, you are in the wrong place. As a result of all this the cliffs have been reduced to a sort of ‘cliffs museum’ were the viewer is separated from the natural spectacle and directed to a host of ugly and inane attempts to get your cash.

Please please please. I understand that conservation is difficult, I do it, but I am begging conservationists, civil servants, politicians and the public to understand that in order for conservation to be a success an area does not need to become better tended, easier to enter and more appealing to commercial interests. The benefits that biodiversity, wildlife and increasing wildness of land can bring are far more valuable than that.