It won't come as much of a surprise that I think Tim is right on the money in his treatment of 'unthinking environmentalism'. Most 'green' policies are so poorly constructed they achieve very little at prohibitive cost. Plenty have been actively counterproductive.
Tim is right to give the DDT ban and biofuels subsidies centre stage. The human toll in the developing world is shocking. However, we don't need to look to the poor world to see how dangerous misconceived environmental policies can be.
The Renewables Obligation, CERT and the European Emissions Trading Scheme all increase the cost of energy. They are quietly constituting 8% of a household electricity bill, according to Ofgem (PDF). This hits the poor hardest (Chart 6.1, PDF) and, particularly, the elderly.
In the winter of 2006-07 statistics from the Office for National Statistics (XLS) show that there were 23,900 excess winter deaths in the United Kingdom. Anything that makes it more expensive to turn up the thermostat will increase the number of elderly people who take risks and will kill people.
The Renewables Obligation costs taxpayers and costs lives. The big winners are renewables firms. The Financial Times reported some of the figures earlier this year along with this telling quote:
"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."
What do we get in return for lining the pockets of renewables firms with vast amounts of money taken from the poorest taxpayers?
Even if you judge success by the amount of wind capacity the Renewables Obligation is clearly failing. The amount of wind capacity added in 2007 was about three quarters the amount built in 2006 (see the FT report linked above). That is shocking considering the massive scale of the subsidy. The basic problem is that wind power is doubly inefficient. It is financially and environmentally (in the old fashioned sense of the word) costly. It disrupts a great many landscapes for a given amount of output compared to conventional sources which makes getting planning permission for wind turbines particularly difficult. Short of centralising the planning process there isn't much the Government can do about that and it is stalling the development of UK wind power capacity.
Even if it could be made to work wind power is a deperately poor way of providing for our energy needs. Look at this graph (PDF), by the consultancy PB Power, showing the costs of different types of energy. Even compared to nuclear power (which probably needs something of a subsidy to be economical) onshore wind is twice as expensive and offshore wind is even more costly:
That makes wind a complete non-starter in any thinking energy policy that doesn't aim to massively impoverish the population at large. However, it gets worse, from a BBC report:
"We face many hours a year with more or less no wind," says Martin Fuchs, chief executive of one of Germany's biggest electricity grid operators, E.On Netz. "We can save only a very small number of conventional power stations."
Surges of wind-generated electricity risk overloading the grid, he adds, causing power blackouts."
European wind power turbines typically produce less than 20 per cent of their rated capacity.
It's important to note that too much power is sometimes as much of a problem as not enough. That's the problem with breathless articles like this one from the Telegraph celebrating wind power's 'good' days. Big countries that can't just sell the energy off at a loss like Denmark does risk causing blackouts. The 'rebuttal' from a wind power lobbyist in the next paragraph is very weak. Ordinary power plants don't regularly shut down unless we tell them to.
Serious thinking about energy policy leads you very quickly to one of two conclusions:
1) We aren't in a position to effect a practical transition to non-fossil fuel sources of power right now. Given that Britain produces a tiny proportion of world emissions and China, in particular, shows little willingness to impede its development in the name of restraining emissions our cuts won't achieve much anyway. We should work on adapting to the expected effects of global warming and investing in science to find a better to solution to the problem of providing low carbon dioxide emission power than the ones we have now.
2) We should replace the renewables obligation with an old fashioned non-fossil fuel obligation. This will slash the costs as you can then include nuclear power which is, as can be seen above, pretty cheap compared with the renewable technologies. You could get more low-emission power for much less cost to ordinary consumers and taxpayers.
Cross-posted from CentreRight.Com.