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It's Time for a Common Sense Debate About Britain's Energy Future

Posted: 14/01/2012 00:00

We have a serious challenge in the UK which must be addressed and acted upon in the next few years in the interests of us all - what forms of energy will power our country, our homes and our businesses in the near future?

This matters because in the next 10 years, nearly 25% of our current power stations will close as they come to the end of their lifecycle. What we invest in to power our future is a decision which matters, not only for the sake of the environment, but also for the jobs and the industries which will be created, from engineering to industrial design and manufacturing. Put simply, we can keep the lights on and create a lasting home-grown industry, or we can go for a fix of foreign energy.

The UK is not alone in having to face these important decisions. Germany, Spain, Denmark and the global powers of the US and China are also facing the challenge of needing to replace ageing power stations. The tsunami suffered by Japan last year has led that country to reconsider how to meet its energy needs.

It is a real concern therefore that certain sections of the media, urged on by think tanks keen to make headlines, are striving to make this a debate based on their own pseudo-science, rather than the crucial facts. In doing so, they risk damaging a growing industry which is creating thousands of engineering jobs and a export manufacturing industry for the UK of which we can all be proud.

In Germany, nearly 10% of electricity is produced by wind power. The country's engineering sector has created a major turbine export industry which supplies the world. With nearly 30,000 wind turbines located mainly onshore, the German government has produced a policy which will seek 100% reliance on renewable energy for electricity production by 2050. This undertaking will include a further expansion of wind farms, particularly offshore.

When Chancellor Merkel announced last year her administration would phase out its ageing nuclear power stations and not replace them, it was considered to be a response to the Fukushima disaster in Japan. This may have played a part in that decision, but it was also taken because her country had invested in a successful alternative, boosting German industry, and ending much of its dependence on other sources of power.

So why then has the think tank Civitas claimed that "there is no economic case for wind power"? They argued that back-up costs from non-renewable energy sources at times when the wind doesn't blow means that wind would be more expensive; they stated this back-up might contribute to carbon emissions; they also said the National Grid would need to be developed to take power from wind farms to where people live, adding to costs.

This alleged need for extensive and expensive back-up is an argument that has not held back Germany, Spain or the USA. That is because in their far more mature wind energy industry, it has been proved not to be a significant challenge at all. Wind has, because of its very reliability, been a major contributor to reducing carbon emissions. As for the need to develop the grid, this is required for most new power sources as they are not near the facilities they replace. So as we renew a substantial percentage of our power generation in the next ten years, this will be a major consideration for any new power stations, whether they are wind farms or not.

Ruth Lea, the author of the Civitas report, does concede that "a mix of technologies is preferable for operational reasons". I could not agree more. But then she lowered the tone by describing wind energy as an "expensive folly".

The only folly I can see is that of ignoring the development of the wind energy industry in other countries where so many of our peers see their path to secure, safe, clean energy production to be anchored by wind.

So, as we engage in this crucial debate in the coming months we must base these vital decisions on what has been proved to work in other countries - not pseudo-science - and what is already creating lasting and affordable energy solutions and a home-grown engineering industry here in the UK. This is not just for the benefit of future generations, it's for the sake of common sense.

Maria McCaffery MBE is the Chief Executive of RenewableUK, the trade association for Britain's wind and tidal energy industries.

 

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