Why sacrifice our landscape?

Thursday 11th July 2013 10:00 pm
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Richard Howell, of North Huish, South Brent, writes:

To save our planet, first we must sacrifice our landscape. Or so those wishing to profit from many of the industrial scale renewable energy projects, such as the solar and wind farms currently spreading like a rash around the South Hams, would have us believe.

Unless we reduce our emissions, they tell us, we will be unable to counter the impact of global warming, with dire consequences, not only for ourselves but even more so for our children and grandchildren.

Yet while there is little doubt that man-made emissions are, if not the cause, certainly an important factor in our planet becoming warmer, there is little evidence to suggest that turning our green fields brown is going to prove the answer.

For example, according to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, in 2011 renewable sources provided 9.4 per cent of the electricity generated in the UK, compared to just five per cent in 2007.

And, in the 18 or so months since then, many more wind turbines and solar panels have come on stream. So it is reasonable to assume the percentage generated by renewables will have increased, particularly as the contribution from wind rose by a third in the year between 2011 and 2012.

Consequently you could also assume the contribution from coal, by far the most polluting means of generating electricity, and which for each kWh generated pumps another 1K of CO2 in to the atmosphere, would have fallen.

In fact, the converse has been the case. In 2010 coal was responsible for generating 28 per cent of our electricity. In 2011 that proportion rose to 30 per cent, while in 2012 it shot up to a staggering 42.8 per cent.

In other words, we are burning more coal and increasing our contribution to global warming, even while we smear ever more turbines and solar panels across our countryside.

To make matters worse, while we are burning more coal, we are also using significantly less gas, with the proportion of our electricity generated from that source falling noticeably from 40 per cent in 2011 to just 30 per cent in 2012.

Indeed in 2012, due to the decreased demand from the generators, UK gas demand was at its lowest level since 1995. However, unlike coal, for each kWh of electricity generated, gas only puts a far less polluting 400g of CO2 into the atmosphere.

So why this ostensibly insane dash away from gas?

To begin with, as a result of the boom in shale gas production, coal prices in the United States have plummeted.

Secondly, the EU Large Combustion Plant Directive requires coal plants failing to meet strict emission standards to be limited to a continuing life of only 20,000 hours, or around 28 more months of constant activity. Consequently, for any generator unwilling to pay the price of meeting those emission standards, the availability of cheap American coal is an incentive to burn through that allowance faster, even if the consequence is earlier closure.

Thirdly, we are producing less of our own gas, in part because of declining reserves around our coasts, and in part because of continuing planned and unplanned maintenance activity.

To compensate, we have been importing larger volumes of gas through undersea pipelines, primarily from Norway, in turn offset by a drop in the number of tankers arriving to offload cargoes of liquified natural gas.

For generators, the cost of gas is currently far higher and noticeably more unpredictable than coal. So they have an inescapable economic imperative to make as much use of their coal-fired capacity at the expense of gas as possible.

In response the Government will argue that the proposed increase in the carbon floor price of £16 per tonne to around £30 by 2020 will make it far less attractive for generators to burn coal. Unfortunately, according to Greenpeace, few analysts think that figure will be sufficient, and anything higher politically impossible to implement.

However, regardless of economic considerations, renewables are also a factor. Unlike gas, a coal-fired power station cannot begin generating as soon as the wind stops blowing or the sun slips behind a cloud, so sufficient gas capacity has to be kept idle, ready to be brought on stream as necessary.

And the more solar and wind farms we build, and the more of our countryside we destroy, the more gas-fired generators will need to be kept in reserve so our politicians can be seen to be doing something about climate change.

In the meantime we will go on importing and burning coal, emitting more than twice the amount of pollution that those idle gas generating stations would have produced, resulting in no net savings in emissions.

It makes no sense at all.

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