Rising energy costs have put the focus on the cost of renewables. Merlin Hyman of Regen South West defends the technology – and its cost – against the many doubters.
Rising energy prices seem to becoming as regular a feature of autumn as falling leaves, reminding us we face some key decisions as to where we get our energy from in the future.
In recent years we have begun to invest in making use of our excellent natural wind, sun, wave and tidal resources to generate secure and sustainable renewable energy locally. Regen SW's annual 'progress report' found our renewable energy capacity more than doubled in the last year.
However, readers of the letters page of this newspaper will be familiar with sceptics who question whether renewable energy, and wind power in particular, can play a key role in the future. So what are the facts?
It comes as a surprise to many that globally investment in renewable power capacity is now greater than in fossil fuel generation. In 2011, investment in renewables totalled $237bn for renewables versus $223bn for additional fossil fuel generation. It's worth repeating this – the giant fossil fuel industry that has so dominated our economy is now being outspent by the fledgling renewables sector.
Sceptics claim renewable energy is expensive. There is no doubt that we will need to invest if we are to develop our renewable energy resources. Economists in government helpfully can tell us just what the cost is. In 2010 the cost of renewable energy subsidy was £18 per head on the average combined electricity and gas bill of a bill over £1,000.
However, all forms of energy require investment. For example, if you divide the £6.93bn of taxpayers' money given to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority in 2010-2011 by the 26.3 million households in the country you find the annual cost per household of nuclear waste is £260.
Fossil fuels are also costing us dearly, between 2004 and 2010 dual fuel bills rose by £455, of which £382 was due to soaring gas prices. Globally subsidies for fossil fuels are $409 billion compared to $66 billion for renewable energy.
So it turns out renewables actually stack up well with the costs of other forms of energy.
Sceptics also argue that renewables don't work. We are all familiar with argument that wind power doesn't reduce carbon emissions because of the need to keep fossil fuels burning as back-up when the wind does not blow.
This is simply wrong. We can look at the actual data which shows that a megawatt hour of wind typically meant the UK grid used one less megawatt hour of gas-derived electricity. This means that actual CO2 savings can be calculated from the data with a high degree of accuracy – these are not guesstimates from models, but observations of real-world data.
A recent letter to this newspaper claimed wind turbines take 100 years to pay back the energy used in their manufacture. The actual figure is 3-6 months which compares favourably with other forms of power generation.
The evidence is clear – expansion in offshore and onshore wind is good news for carbon emissions and can be accommodated without major problems by the grid.
Looking at the number of column inches in some papers would lead you to think renewable energy is unpopular. In fact the evidence shows the public consistently supports renewable energy generally and wind power in particular – the latest poll shows 66% support for wind power. That reflects the experience I have when I speak at public meeting and community events.
I believe it is simply common sense when we have an effective, proven, popular and cost-effective energy option on our doorstep to make the most of this resource. Despite recent progress renewables supplies just a few per cent of our energy. What we should now be doing is focusing our efforts on making the most of the opportunity.
We should applaud Cornwall Council for its recently announced plans to develop wind power on its own land with the income staying in Cornwall and welcome the work of communities like Ladock in Cornwall and Totnes in Devon to develop local renewable energy schemes that generate revenues for the local community.
We should celebrate the local entrepreneurial companies and the vital projects like Atlantic Array Offshore Wind Farm of the north coast of Devon that are leading the way in renewable energy. There are now 10,000 people employed in renewable energy across the south west, up from 5,000 people just two years ago in the teeth of the recession. Many south west companies are now selling their skills and expertise around the world.
Find out more at www.embracemyplanet.com and find out how your community can make more of renewable energy at www.communities4 renewables.uk