Do we Have the Stomach for Renewables?

I have written about David MacKay’s work before [update: David is now Chief Scientific Adviser to Department for Environment and Climate Change (DECC) – so there!], when I highlighted his experiment involving a power meter and mobile phone chargers. This showed how very small the power used by each one when the phone isn’t attached to it really is (less than 1 watt) and how public messaging campaigns which focus on this are essentially a waste of time.

David’s research work goes much deeper than this and his book Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air tries to address the real issues this country faces when trying to replace dwindling (and climate change causing) fossil fuels with alternative sources of energy, ideally in time to avoid the planet becoming so warm that millions of people either die or are forced to move.

One of the biggest questions in relation to this is whether we can replace carbon intensive coal, oil and gas with renewable technologies such as solar, wind and hydro so that we can carry on enjoying a wide range of activities (both economic and leisure) in a sustainable way.

The answer is complicated by a whole range of issues including how urgently we need to install the new technology and how much energy we really need. For example, if we replace gas heating in homes with electric heating, we need more electricity. Equally, if we stop filling our cars with petrol and all buy electric vehicles, we need even more electricity.

Calculating all this is frankly beyond me but there are other very important considerations over and above the “simple” maths of supply and demand: mainly, do we actually have the stomach for renewables and the associated infrastructure in this country? There is currently a big “Say No to Pylons” campaign near our offices in Stirling which is vehemently opposed to the impending Beauly to Denny Power Line. This line is largely being built to allow the power generated via off-shore wind farms in North Scotland to be transmitted to central Scotland where it is going to be used. So it’s an important part of the renewables infrastructure but many people hate the idea of more pylons in the countryside. Many people also hate the idea of wind turbines near their homes or even solar panels on roofs. I’m not sure why solar panels should be any more of an eyesore than velux windows but there we go.

I came across a neat illustration of the problem on David’s website and wanted to reproduce it here to show how we could very easily shoot ourselves in the foot by rejecting renewable technologies outright. One the left hand side of the diagram below (in red boxes) is the energy we need and on the right (in green boxes) is the energy we might just about get from renewables, showing the various reasons why they might get rejected by the public:

Renewable Technologies - and why we don't want them

The trouble with this diagram is that it’s not far fetched. It’s what we see every day when people try to install things in and around our homes. We like things to stay the same but that’s just not possible if we are to provide a whole new range of energy generating equipment to power our energy hungry lives.

Something that occurred to me in this debate: how popular were the first petrol stations, fume-emitting cars or coal fired power stations? How popular were pylons, girders and wires when we had none of those things? If the internal combustion engine was invented today, it would probably be banned as an overly polluting, energy inefficient way of generating movement.

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