Opinion: The renewables sector is more about money than energy

Wind turbine on the Moorfoots <em>Picture: Callum Black</em>
Wind turbine on the Moorfoots Picture: Callum Black
By Stuart Crawford

Many of us continue to look on aghast at Scotland’s headlong rush down the renewable energy cul-de-sac. The Scottish government seems to have embraced the renewable agenda almost without question, and has made increasingly ambitious claims for the booming sector and Scotland’s place in it.

We have been told that Scotland can produce the “equivalent” of 100 per cent of its electricity requirements (what exactly does that mean?) from renewable sources by 2020, and that up to 130,000 jobs can be created by the renewables industry.

Recently, however, more sensible heads have begun to question some of the wilder claims made by renewables enthusiasts, and there is a definite feeling abroad that the debate is turning.

One of the first blows struck for common-sense was the report Worth the Candle? The Economic Impact of Renewable Energy Policy in Scotland and the UK, published by Kirkcaldy-based Verso Economics in March of this year. This cost-benefit based research document went round the world, with requests for copies coming from, among others, the World Bank, the US government, both houses of the Westminster parliament, the Australian government and, closer to home, the Scottish government (which bought, I believe, one of the first copies, if not the first, on publication).

The Verso study only considered the economic arguments for renewables, but tellingly found that, far from being a job creator, the sector was at best jobs-neutral for Scotland – and that in the rest of the UK for every renewables job created, 3.7 would be lost. Even more interestingly, it suggested that, if Scotland were to become independent, it too would face a jobs-negative result.

It should also be noted that, to date, there has been no reasoned rebuttal of the Verso work, nor have any coherent counter-arguments been put forward or published.

There appears to be little doubt that electricity from renewable sources is at the upper end of the cost spectrum compared to other generation options. Recent figures from the Royal Academy of Engineering indicate that the cost of generating 1kWh of electricity is 2.2p by gas but 7.2p by offshore wind turbine.

So why the rush into renewables given this unfavourable generation cost differential? The answer is not, sadly, for the benefit of the environment or to reduce our carbon footprint. It is purely for money. The incentives that the government has put in place to encourage the uptake in renewables, in the form of feed-in tariffs and renewable obligation certificates, has led directly to the scramble to share in the huge subsidies available. And who pays for this generosity? The consumer and taxpayer.

Lest anyone thinks I am overstating the case, I have before me as I write a cold-calling letter from a Business Insider Top 500 Scottish company delivered to a farm in Lanarkshire. In it, the company waxes lyrical about its wind turbine deployment services and its expertise in assisting landowners in having wind turbines installed on their land. The prospect is described as “very attractive for landowners since the introduction of the Feed in Tariff in 2010”.

There then follows a review of the various funding options, from self-funding to full funding by the developer. The boast is made that “the turbines tend to pay for themselves within 5 to 7 years” and that “the government feed-in tariff scheme is guaranteed for 20 years so a significant return could be made over this period”. An attached sheet gives the example of a 50kW turbine returning a net profit of nearly £750,000 after 20 years.

Money for old rope, you may say, and good luck to them. But the point I want to make is that nowhere in the letter is there any mention of the environment, greenhouse gases, carbon footprint or anything else remotely connected with the green agenda. It is couched in purely financial terms to appeal to people’s pecuniary avarice. And lots of landowners are cashing in.

Clearly there is something wrong here. You and I are paying increased electricity bills while landowners and developers are trousering huge amounts of government subsidy. As Bill Jamieson put it so eloquently recently, “there is no more pernicious transfer of wealth in Britain today from the poor to the rich than the vast subsidies paid to landowners for a deeply flawed wind energy system”. It’s right up there with the National Lottery – “a tax on the stupid” as a friend of mine put it – and dealing in illegal drugs.

Just for the record, I am not personally anti-renewables or anti-green, nor do I dismiss those who are concerned about global warming out of hand. There is a debate to be had. But I am anti-hype, anti-humbug, and anti-hypocrisy – and some of the more ridiculous and outlandish claims made by government and the renewables lobby fall within one, or more typically all, of those headings.

Quite simply, claims that renewables will provide 100 per cent “equivalent” of Scotland’s electricity requirements by 2020 and create 130,000 jobs do not pass the common-sense test.

Increasingly I feel that I am not the only one to be sceptical. Ten thousand people so far have rallied to the cause espoused by Communities Against Turbines Scotland. The current government’s pathological fascination is no longer something to be dismissed as a passing fancy – it is rapidly becoming a vote loser.

If you’ll excuse the pun, I think the tide is turning.

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