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For a long time now the government of this country has been pursuing a so called 'green' agenda. There is an underlying principle behind this which is broadly speaking correct - we will one day run out of fossil fuels, which in the meantime are becoming more expensive and by geographical accident are concentrated in the hands of a few countries. So, without doubt we should be looking for alternative sources of energy.

But, this sound logic has been allied with the the threat of' 'man-made global warming' an iffy scientific conclusion which has been renamed 'climate change' as its adherents spot the actual absence of any warming for some years now. In order to combat this supposed threat we have been building windmills! Ugly, overpowering intrusions into our countryside which for much of the time are completely useless, and actually add to the amount of fossil fuel being burned as unproductive power stations are kept on standby for calm days.

And we pay for this on our electricity bills. A tax disguised as a levy. And at last someone in authority has realised that this is regressive (regressive taxes are bad because they hit those with little money as hard or harder as they do those with a lot) rather than progressive (progressive taxes are not so bad (is there any auch thing as a good tax?) because the rich pay progressively more). This report in the Daily Telegraph on the proceedings of the Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee refers.

Tags: change, climate, levy, tax, windmills

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This is one of those discussions that is happening in so many places on the InterWeb that it may well become a primary consumer of electricity by itself..... In addition the entrenched nature of opinion rarely makes the energy put into this debate 'illuminating'.

Everyone would agree that your first paragraph is very reasonable: alternative sources of energy other than fossil fuels are needed, because irrespective of the CO2 debate, they are going to run out. There is a view that we may have more fossil fuel available than previously thought: some say we may have 100-150 years more oil and gas rather than 50. I personally hope that human civilisation has a timescale of some many tens or hundreds of thousands of years, as opposed to the next 100, and therefore it is pretty worthwhile coming up with alternatives so that it doesn't all get awkward for one's grandchildren very suddenly. Nothing wrong with being prepared.

And coming up with an alternative is the difficult bit. There is no ban on the Clarksons, Street-Porters or Lawsons coming up with non-fossil alternatives to wind turbines for power generation. But since they are media people or arts graduates, rather than engineers, they cannot. Many would think it a bit much to criticise those who at least try and do something to solve the problem, even if it is not perfect, when one is absolutely clueless oneself. The engineers and boffins working on the problem say 'this is the best we can do so far, but we are still working on it", and really the responsibility of critics is to either put up or shut up, to put it bluntly.

I think this is why we get obfuscatory arguments appearing, which is how I feel about the 'regressive tax' argument for the 'green levy'. It is not a tax, it is a levy. Energy is a product and you pay a percentage of that product to support investment in new plant that will keep that product appearing. When I buy a car a proportion of what I pay goes into a bank so BMW can build factories and pay workers so that in 10 years time I can buy another car. There is no reason my car purchase price should be related to my taxable income. This is the same with any other product. Casting this as a regressive tax is a rhetorical device to try and arrogate the mantle of progressive social responsibility to this issue.

Finally, on your second paragraph - well, as I said above, we are not going to get consensus on this. I'll mention two things however. Firstly, an appeal for fair-play over statistics. Wind farms are often described as 'only 20% efficient'. It sounds shocking, but some fossil fuel plants are only 50% efficient. There, not so bad, eh? See http://tinyurl.com/cd4mz54 for a useful discussion of capacity factor. Also I regard 20% efficient better than 0% efficient, which is what a gas generation plant is when there is a gas embargo. Nuclear is 100% efficient, but try that argument in Fukushima....

And anecdotally, after a June trip to a scorching New York last year, I watched with sad nostalgia the October flooding of those baseball courts, children's playgrounds and parks in lower Manhattan where I had walked in glorious sun only months before. On sceptic Fox News I noticed a change of tone, which to paraphrase: OK, this flooding is probably a one-off, but if it is not and it is climate change related, then New York is well stuffed. So maybe we should be a little less certain about things, just in case we might be wrong.

Nothing wrong with being well-prepared.

1) And coming up with an alternative is the difficult bit.  --  Agreed - and given that so far we haven't should we not encourage the boffins to do so rather than compel a subsidy for something that we all agree does not work. Rewarding a half baked solution surely must be wrong.

2) The difference between a levy imposed by a government and a tax is too subtle for me. 

3) Al Gore would seem to be the master of obfuscation - the untruth that most impressed me was the wall sized graph showing that CO2 and temperature are related. That is true enough - a higher temperature precedes an increase in CO2, not vice versa as Gore presents it. If the argument in favour of a position depends on sleight of hand then I don't accept the argument.

4) Efficiency/statistics - everything is inefficient, if it weren't then we could have a perpetual motion machine. Chris Froome is pretty damned efficient, but I cannot agree with you that a wind turbine that will certainly not work from time to time, is the same as a gas fired plant that might not work if contractual arrangements break down. One of Clarkson's anecdotes relates to the batteries for electric cars, made from a heavy metal mined on one continent, assembled in another, shipped to a third for the car construction, with the car being sold to a user on a fourth continent, using electricity from a 50% efficient conventional generator, transmitted over lossy power lines to a charging point. Probably producing more CO2 in total than the infernal combustion engine. 

5) "And anecdotally  . . ." - !

6) There would be nothing wrong with being well prepared I agree , but the current Ofgem predictions suggest we are not

Concrete turbine base

In reply to your points

1) We haven't agreed that wind turbines do not work. The UK figures for increase in generation since 2011 are:

  • Wind offshore + 2,337 GWh to 7,463 GWh (+ 46%)
  • Wind onshore + 1,737 GWh to 12,121 GWh (17%)
  • Solar photovoltaics + 944 GWh to 1,188 GWh, ~ 4-fold increase

- they give us 11.3% of our electricity. See DECC figures

We can probably agree turbines are environmentally controversial, particularly onshore, and not maximally efficient. But the proposal that we do nothing, and wait until something perfect comes along, is the bit I have problems with. The boffins might want more encouragement to do better, in the shape of bankers' salaries, if only to attract all the City quants back to their old profession.  Still, no amount of encouragement guarantees coming up with innovative ideas that work. It rarely occurs by a single flash of brilliance, but by incremental development, with engineers working with R&D specialists to refine and improve ideas and established technologies.

To give an example, the problem of wind not providing continuous energy is well recognised. This week a large scale battery was commissioned in Leighton Buzzard which begins to address this problem. Worldwide there are investigations into liquid metal batteries and other industrial scale electrical storage systems. It would be lovely if those two technologies could arrive together but that is the reality of research. It takes time and investment.

This idea of incremental development in engineering is one we have totally lost in the UK, but is still 'got' by the US, China and others. We just seem to whinge if it is not perfect first time.

2) Your main argument was about 'regressive tax policies'. Repeating what I said, I think claiming the levy is a tax which is socially regressive is a rhetorical device. I guess we are not going to agree on that one.

3) I tried not to enter the CO2 debate in my first post and am not going to do that here. Plenty of stuff elsewhere on that. It is a murky business. I was hoping to establish some agreement around the resource depletion issue: eventually, and indeed relatively soon, fossil fuel resource depletion will be the economic and social issue.

4). My key point was that the oft quoted figure of 20% efficiency of wind power needs contextualising by the equivalent figure for a fossil fuel plant that might be itself only 50% efficient. The reference I gave goes into more detail.

Of course everyone knows wind power is less efficient, and that in some parts of the country some of the time some turbines will be still (but much less likely that all of the turbines in all the country will have no wind). Supporters of wind power are not complete dummies. Hence research on power storage etc. In the end, it comes back to to one of my first points - is there an alternative non-fossil fuel based system? No one would have wind turbines if there was an alternative! Is there a process to deliver one before the lights go out? Or is basically down to just carrying on and gambling that something will turn up?

6. No disagreement

I like the picture. At first I thought it might be a fracking site so I was grateful that it was labelled.


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