Wind and solar energy are essential ingredients in our move to a sustainable economy here in the Westcountry, argues Professor Catherine Mitchell.
Much has been written in these pages about the impact of wind and solar farms on our landscape in the Westcountry. Everyone has their own views about energy. I am someone who loves wind turbines, solar panels and renewable electricity in general. I look at wind turbines and think: this is positive; this is making the world a better place; this is a clean energy future for our children.
I have solar water heaters on my house, and every time I take a shower I get a good feeling because I know the energy to warm the water has come from the sun, without creating any pollution in the process. While this is good for me and the environment, it’s also good for British energy security because more renewables mean less reliance on fossil fuels from abroad.
I’ve worked in energy policy for over 30 years and was a Lead Author on the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which sets out the science behind climate change; what the impacts will be; and the ways to meet its challenges. If little is done to reduce global warming emissions – most of which derive from coal, gas and petrol – and we carry on using energy as usual, the globe will be a very different and much tougher place to survive in. It is not just that it will be a warmer world, but what we think of now as extreme events will become the norm.
Fortunately, the character of the energy system worldwide is changing from traditionally being made up of a few large power plants to one made up of lots of power plants. This is occurring because of advances in communication technologies and cost reductions in renewable energy. Countries with a good proportion of their electricity from renewables have had falling wholesale energy prices. This decentralisation, in the form of smaller power plants, energy efficiency, storage technologies and so on, is technically efficient, more economical and environmentally preferable. It also provides increased energy security – especially to a region out on a limb like ours – and reduced dependence on imported fossil fuels from abroad.
There are those who object to renewable energy – which, of course, is their right. I am not someone who supports all renewable projects. However, I do recognise their vital importance. The move towards a clean energy system depends on countless individual decisions – which is why all our individual decisions about energy use are so important, including whether we support a wind farm, add more insulation in our walls and attics or turn off a light.
I also think it is important to encourage a greater understanding between us as energy consumers and where energy comes from and what the impacts of using it are. Renewables can help this because being able to see a wind turbine or a solar panel can often lead to discussions about energy use and prompt people to think about the way they use energy. On the whole, individuals and communities want to do the right thing for their community and society as a whole. We can see from national polling that the vast majority of people support wind energy as a way of tackling climate change. So being able to buy green electricity, investing in a wind farm, or supporting a green energy project are all ways of harnessing a collective desire to do good. The positive feelings engendered in individuals and communities who do take such action should not be under-estimated. Forward-thinking energy companies are now creating new ways for communities and individuals to make these positive decisions.
Climate change has occurred primarily because of the burning of fossil fuels over the last 250 years. We, as individuals and a country, have benefited enormously from that use of energy. However, we are the generations who have ended up having to take responsibility for those years of economic development. We owe it to future generations to look after our environment and help enable the move to a sustainable energy system.
Catherine Mitchell is Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Exeter
This opinion piece was published in the Western Morning News on 8th August 2014: http://www.westernmorningnews.co.uk/Climate-change-s-late-change-gloomy-prognosis/story-22219184-detail/story.html#ixzz3A5XcDjUE
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