Time to shift the climate debate on to renewables

Climate scepticism is not really the main problem; far more challenging is the ‘climate agnosticism’, writes Reg Platt, climate change researcher at ippr.

Our guest writer is Reg Platt, climate change researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr)

Climate scepticism is a most persistent foe. For the most part it trundles along causing unhelpful but limited disruption from the sidelines. But then, on occasions it will have an outburst, such as the climate science ‘scandals’ that erupted after the failed international negotiations in Copenhagen, and the issue lands square and centre once more.

But climate scepticism is not really the main problem. Far more challenging is the ‘climate agnosticism’ – the lack of motivation to modify behaviour, adopt lower carbon lifestyles and support low carbon policies – which most people hold.

This is partly due to climate scepticism but is mainly because climate change is a fundamentally difficult problem to engage constructively with: it is invisible, it is the result of the actions of people from across the world, its impacts are long term and it is inescapably depressing.

It is entirely unsurprising that, despite the best awareness raising efforts of the environmental charities and government campaigns, most people continue to prioritise their day to day concerns – such as how much money they have – and enjoying themselves. The challenge this creates is to find alternative ways of engaging people in reducing their carbon emissions rather than asking them to do it just because of climate change.

Renewable technologies, such as wind turbines and solar panels, may be just the answer we are looking for. Some large-scale on-shore wind turbine developments face nimbyism, but renewables are generally popular.

In an ippr survey of 3,032 people in 157 marginal constituencies, conducted before the general election, we found that 44 per cent of respondents agreed strongly or very strongly that we should be generating 15 per cent of our energy from renewable sources by 2015, and only 4 per cent disagreed (see the ippr report ‘Climate of Opinion’).

Also, in a recent poll of 1,822 adults Ipsos Mori found that 88 per cent of people are favourable towards solar power, and 82 per cent towards wind (see the Ipsos Mori poll ‘British Attitudes to the Environment, Climate Change and Future Energy Choices’).

As a response to climate change, renewables are an ideal way of engaging people: they are a positive, solution focused step that can be taken in the here and now. But it is not just the difference that renewables can make to climate change that makes them popular. The survey tested different ways of presenting the policy and found that 10 per cent more respondents agreed strongly or very strongly with the above statement if it was framed as an energy security rather than a climate change policy.

Up until now, the widespread uptake of renewables in the UK has been held back because the technologies have simply been too expensive. If you bought a solar panel you used to have to wait about 35 years to get your money back in reduced electricity bills. However, this has now changed and in addition to the benefits they offer for climate change and energy security, renewables have suddenly become an attractive financial proposition.

In April this year the government introduced a radical policy instrument called the Feed-In Tariff, which means households and organisations get paid for generating renewable electricity. Payments are index-linked and guaranteed for 25 years. This has fundamentally altered the economics of renewable electricity with the technologies now offering a reasonable return on investment of between 5 and 8 per cent.

In ‘Green Streets: Exploring the potential for community energy projects’, a new report and accompanying research by ippr and British Gas, we illustrate the financial opportunity that renewables present for community groups.

We estimate that through the Feed-In Tariff solar panels on pubs could generate around £15 million, village halls £10 million, community centres £8 million, churches and other religious buildings £25 million, schools £35 million and swimming pools £3 million. In addition the buildings will be able to use the electricity the solar panels use for free and sell anything they don’t use back to the grid.

This money can enable community groups to focus less on fundraising to pay energy bills, and instead spend the money on what they are passionate about, improving their communities. For example, one community group involved in the research runs a Lido in Beccles, Suffolk. Working with British Gas the group is having solar photovoltaic panels installed on the Lido building. This will generate an annual windfall of £3,000, which will be a vital aid to keeping the organisation’s balance sheet looking healthy.

The introduction of the Feed-In Tariff has kick-started a dizzying amount of innovation in the renewable electricity sector with new start ups and major retailers bringing new products and offers to market, particularly in relation to solar panels. We are on the cusp of a revolution in small scale renewables and it may not be long before solar panels on houses are as common a sight as satellite dishes.

But there are still barriers to the widespread uptake of the technologies. The high up front capital costs remain the key barrier, although there are a range of financing options that either already exist in the market or which are currently in development. Beyond this there are far simpler cultural barriers: most people simply do not understand the technologies or the benefits they can offer.

Our research suggests that having renewables on community buildings could be a way to ‘normalise’ renewable technologies by demonstrating their benefits in practise and making them seem less alien. Their high visibility on community buildings could be a great way to engage a lot of people at the local level and could ultimately lead to an increase in their uptake and a greater public acceptance for more ambitious large scale renewable programmes.

There is still no public mandate supporting wide-scale action on climate change, and with the climate science debate still alive and kicking and the public sector finances in dire straights job security and money are much more pressing issues in most peoples’ minds.

Renewables, backed up by the Feed-In Tariff, present a major opportunity for getting people engaged in reducing their emissions and we would all be wise to make the most of it.

10 Responses to “Time to shift the climate debate on to renewables”

  1. UKYCC

    RT @leftfootfwd: Time to shift the climate debate on to renewables: //bit.ly/blsHVT by @ippr’s Reg Platt

  2. John Ruddy

    Hopefully 'Green Ed' can push for this RT @leftfootfwd: Time to shift the climate debate on to renewables //bit.ly/blsHVT

  3. Red Ed

    What is climate scepticism? Who’s sceptical about there being a climate? You’d need socialist levels of self-delusion to be sceptical there’s a climate.

    I think there is something called scepticism of global warming caused by man.

    There is scepticism that a trace atmospheric gas has more influence over our climate than the sun or ocean currents.

    There is scepticism that man is to blame for catastrophic changes in global temperatures when these temperatures have occurred many times before in the Earth’s history.

    There is scepticism that man made global warming is proven by second rate scientists manipulating poorly kept temperature records being fed into hopelessly inadequate computer models.

    There is a niggling suspicion that man made global warming is a convenient peg for those who want to control our lives to hang their schemes of state regulation on.

    You can’t make renewables affordable by magically feeding in subsidies. All your doing is hiding and transferring the cost elsewhere. The costs are still there, off the books, like the billions hidden by PFI. All it really means is that our nation becomes less competitive as we pay multiples of the price countries like China pay for their energy just so we can feel smugly self-righteous that we’ve made the world a little bit fluffier and saved a few bunnies.

  4. Gentoo

    The challenge facing us all is to work out how to avoid wasting energy.

    If you really think that photovoltaic generators are part of the solution then you might want to consider if you are actually part of the problem.

    Solar panels are not new technology. There is no learning curve. The production technologies are well known.

    At a time when the evidence from Spain and Italy (y’know “sunny”) and Germany shows the feed-in tariff to be expensive and ineffective you are promoting the merits of this poorly thought through scheme.

    These novel financing models you extol are based on a flaw in the scheme so obvious that even HMRC or DWP would have designed a better one.

    The scheme is designed to subsidise the costs of small scale schemes and large scale schemes to achieve similar rates of return. The variation in cost base must include supply chain costs, logistics, the ability to buy in bulk, more efficient use of installers’ time and so forth.

    However the scheme as designed does not prevent large scale logistics being applied to multiple small scale installations in the same geographic area. (That will be the basis of novel approaches you laud BTW)

    So a scheme based on a subsidy of 26p/kWh is able to attract a subsidy of 41p/kWh. And this subsidy is linked to price inflation for 25 years.

    But let’s not forget this subsidy, paid from everyone’s electricity bill, is only justified if the belief that somehow there is a market failure. Even if you do believe the the cost of the panels might fall as a result of market stimulation (actually, the price of panels has already collapsed as reported in January this year) a major proportion of the price is supply and fix. And that is currently looks like a cartel as you are unable to obtain a feed-in tariff unless you use an approved supplier.

    Even if you think there are opportunities for redistribution (th large roofs on “community” centres no doubt there will be many poorer people that will not be in a position to take advantage of the scheme (no or small roof, poorly sited, etc – and for wind see “location, location, location” by one of the low carbon lobbyists)

    However they will subsidise the scheme, possibly disproportionately as a result of living in lower quality accommodation. At the margin they will move into “fuel poverty” as a result of this subsidy transfer, triggering further subsidy of the scheme.

    A further feature of these schemes is their susceptibility to intrinsic fraud. As evidenced in other countries, there is no way of determining how the electricity flowing back to the grid has actually been generated, so the feed-in tariff could be subsidising small scale diesel generation, or for the really clever (e.g., the displaced cannabis farmers used to stealing electricity from the grid) “recycled” grid electricity.

    The science bit

    These panels are based on silicon (Group IV in the periodic table). Although fairly useless for generating electricity from sunlight, it has the merit of abundance. The International Space Station uses a more sophisticated approach, (III-V) which has greater efficiency. These panels are custom made in specialist laboratories. Luckily there is only one ISS as the materials are rare and it would be a gross misuse of the materials to attempt mass production for a feed-in tariff scheme.

    Yes, I would be happy to debate this at any level above I’m a fcsking Tory.

  5. Paul Jeater

    While renewables are part of the discussion I feel that public opinion can be won more easily on energy saving. The focus should be on the undeniable fact that in the UK that anything up to 40% of energy is wasted. A campaign to ensure homes, offices and public buildings are adequately insulated would create jobs, be cost effective and cut carbon use.

  6. John77

    Gentoo mistakenly equates “not new” with “no learning curve”. Solar panels are still being improved – I’ve noticed improvements in car engines in my lifetime and they were far older when I was born than solar panels are now.
    An intelligent policy would involve increased investment in improving the technology of solar panels – these are the future of power generation as they can provide all the power that human society would need if the whole world had the same standard of living as the USA or Western Europe from the sunlight that naturally falls onto the earth’s surface – instead of spending billions of pounds on importing machinery from Denmark and building offshore windfarms that are horrendously inefficient (working less than one-quarter of the time, on average), uneconomic (a multiple of the cost per kWh of gas or nuclear power stations), with heavy power losses in transmission between windfarm and consumer (often one-third is lost of electricity generated is lost in transmission, which is BOTH inefficient and uneconomic), and are expensive to maintain and a danger to shipping (turbines break fairly frequently) or demanding that consumers subsidise Model T Ford standard photovoltaics or the even less efficient onshore windfarms (estimated to be in use 12% of the time).
    CURRENTLY THE ONLY ECONOMIC RENEWABLE ENERGY SOURCES ARE HYDROELECTRICITY OR BURNING RUBBISH. Wind turbines are not remotely economic, nor are, so far, PV solar panels for feeding electricity into the grid although solar water heating has been for more than 25 years. The Dutch understand windmills and use them for interruptible, local energy use that is not time critical, such as pumping water out of polders – Denmark is trying to sell wind turbines and hooks them up to its grid and suffered a brown-out when the cable connecting it to Sweden’s nuclear power plants broke down.
    In the medium-term (i.e. my lifetime) the only practical choice for a major expansion in low-carbon energy generation is nuclear (hydroelectricity is good but most of the best sites for hydroelectricity are already in use).
    Your “click here to connect” reference does NOT support your contention – in fact, it provides no hard data whatsoever. Those of us who have been quietly beavering away on energy efficiency for half a lifetime would prefer the shouters to get it right as you damage our credibility and efforts when you are obviously wrong

  7. Gentoo

    I agree with quite a lot of you wider points. However, I assure you I am not confused. Car engines have improved because they are complex electro-chemical-mechanical systems with some fluid dynamics thrown in for good measure, with multiple interactions between each technology and scope for optimisation. Much of the improvement has been in better electronic control, only relatively recently possible, than could be achieved using mechanical timing systems. Then there are the improvements in manufacturing and machining of complex parts.

    PV is a very simple process – the energy from photon collision displacing electrons generating current. That’s it. ####the panels are very simple in design. Minimising the amount of silicon, maximising the surface area,substrate design, interconnect design are all techniques from the semiconductor industry and are all mature (no learning curve)

  8. Dominic

    Oh, where to start?

    Look Reg, I can’t face going over the reasons why PV is a waste of time, so I will let George Monbiot do it for me. See:

    “Are we really going to let ourselves be duped into this solar panel rip-off?”
    //www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/mar/01/solar-panel-feed-in-tariff

    “Solar PV has failed in Germany and it will fail in the UK”
    //www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2010/mar/11/solar-power-germany-feed-in-tariff

    “There is no ‘green treachery’ in questioning this solar panel rip-off”
    //www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2010/mar/05/solar-feed-in-tariff

    The Feed In Tariff, in Monbiot’s words, is ‘extortionate, useless and deeply regressive’. Then he really gets going. See here:

    “A Great Green Rip-Off”
    //www.monbiot.com/archives/2010/03/01/a-great-green-rip-off/

    As for wind, when will you lot get it through your heads that IT NEEDS MIRRORING by conventional gas- or coal-fired capacity? When?

    The more wind capacity we install, the more conventional we need to back it up. The result – yup, more CO2 emissions.

    Hint – you can’t just flick a switch and turn conventional generation on and off. It has to be running or it cannot step in when the wind stops blowing. This makes the lights go off. So more wind means more CO2 from conventional. See it now?

    Wind is a rip-off funded by the public via the Renewables Obligation. Ditto PV.

    Not green, not alternative, not good, not efficient, not CO2 reducing, not planet saving. Not worth bothering with.

    So why are you peddling this nonsense? And how can you be so ignorant of the facts? What is it again… oh yes ‘climate change researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr)’.

    God help us.

  9. Dominic

    Stuck in moderation eh?

    I thought this was a progressive left blog.

    I should have made myself clearer.

    Wind power is now part of an unfair, disproportionate electricity tax that hits low-income families hardest. This has been achieved by government sleight of hand in the form of the Renewables Obligation.

    Power companies have become proxy tax collectors, and simply pass on the huge cost of subsidising the gross inefficiency and vast expense of wind generation to their customers. To us.

    This in the form of inflated electricity bills. Which really hurts the vulnerable, the low income, the elderly. You know, the people we are supposed to care about and protect from big business and bad government.

    To this miserable mess, add the collusion between hedge funds and wealthy land owners. Working together, they finance and build wind farms. These harvest subsidies which we all pay for.

    The rich get richer; the poor get poorer.

    Sound familiar?

    So I ask again – why are you giving uncritical space to the sort of stuff that Reg Platt is promoting? I cannot understand what is going on here.

  10. Dominic

    Please – don’t take my word for it.

    From an article in The Ecologist:

    ‘Quoted in the FT Peter Atherton, head utilities analyst at Citi Investment Research, said: “It’s a bonanza. Anyone who can get their nose in the trough is trying to.”‘

    Energy companies aren’t just to proxy tax collectors, they are also dishonest proxy tax collectors.

    See here for the rest:

    //www.theecologist.org/News/news_round_up/269271/energy_companies_profit_from_wind_farms_without_building_many_more_windmills.html

    Reg, do you have nothing at all to say for yourself?

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