Before getting on to the point in hand today, a hello to my correspondents, Eli, Paul, Students, and other occasional readers who have kept an eye on this space even when it appeared vacant; thank you for your patience.

I’ve been working for an engineering company for eight months now, having left the teaching profession. I’m still working towards the masters degree but the heart attack has slowed things down a bit. Fortunately, there may be the opportunity to study an area where there is a synergy between the job and the philosophical interests.

Since everyone is on the sea ice bandwagon these days, today’s comment is on the development of renewable energy in the UK. Comments, as always, welcomed.

There is no question that renewables are continuing to expand rapidly, though this has little, if anything, to do with climate change concerns. In my experience as a supplier of the technology, the vast majority of decisions are based on purely economic considerations. Developers are following the Merton Rule, in the belief that this will facilitate planning applications; in this case, the renewables are add-ons which are considered to be justifiable expenses against the gains to be made from a successful development. There are a few cases where companies express a concern with addressing climate change, but this is a contingent benefit, not a motive, and in most cases is a fortunate and marketable by-product of other forces.

There is also a real and rapid growth of interest in small-medium sized wind farms, often in the guise of Community Renewables Projects. Three motives appear to exist most strongly; such projects can get a degree of funding, reducing capital costs and increasing ROI; they can attract equity or bank funding using existing, tried and tested ‘bankable models’, making them lower risk, and, finally, they offer the prospect of medium-term energy security for villages and small towns and their businesses, in an environment of uncertainty over the National Grid’s ability to meet expected demand after 2014. For some areas, too, promoting wind energy projects is a marketing opportunity, promoting the ‘green’ credentials of an area and encouraging the all-important tourist/visitor numbers to continue.

The Private user/domestic renewables market is slightly different. Farms and isolated locations are still regular buyers of off-grid technology, though energy prices are critical motivators, too. There are a much greater number of private indviduals who are committed to thinking in the longer term and doing their bit towards reducing greenhouse gases, but even this commitment only remain robust where the economic realities add up: nobody wants to waste their money.

Being more energy efficient, in particular about heating, is still the biggest and most effective way of reducing a carbon footprint. On a commercial scale, replacing old oil-fired boilers, steam boiler systems, or inefficient old air-conditioning systems, are both cost-effective and successful greenhouse gas reducers. Of the renewable energy technologies in the UK, wind is the most efficient in both financial and productivity terms, in a large proportion of locations, but arguably still the most controversial, as it is visible in a way that solar pv, for example, is not. 

In very few cases do people in the UK opt for renewables purely on the grounds of contributing towards reducing our carbon footprint. Do I think this is a good or a bad thing? I feel that it shows that, in most cases, the climate change argument is known but not well-understood, or that people are unwilling or unable to look at our world and our problems on a large enough time or geographical scale, or probably both. There may be a parallel in the global leisure clothing market; many people express a desire to avoid exploitative practices in manufacturing, but this does not stop them from buying the product. There is an interesting moral comparison here; many people are keen to sypathise with the suffering of others (like the 200 million displaced Indians who hace barely hit the headlines this week), but their actions and decisions are in contradiction to their expressed desires. Perhaps this is a demonstration that, if there is a perceived conflict of interest between one’s own wealth/comfort and the very survival of distant and unfamiliar others, the others still lose out.

So, if there is to be a real change in the UK, a change which gives hope that the world is not sliding inexorably towards meltdown in the coming decades, we first need to have courage. People, commercial and private, need to actually do the things they think matter, rather than finding excuses not to, or waiting for someone else to pay the price. The British are well-known (even though this is a racial stereotype/cliche) for our pluck, phlegm or spunk. I’d like to see more evidence of it in the climate change and renewables debates.

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