We’re missing Green opportunities


12:22 pm - July 31st 2009

by Neil Robertson    


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It’s clear that Vestas, the company faced with a long-running sit in, acted with contempt towards its workers: the practically non-existent dialogue, the transparent attempt to starve them out, the delivery of termination letters with the workers’ one hot meal, the shoddy paperwork filed to have them evicted, and the laughable charge from their legal team that there was a fear the protests could get ‘heated’ or violent.

Equally, whilst Ed Miliband has handled the matter better than one might’ve expected, the charge that his government has lacked leadership on this can’t be ignored.

Whether the option is nationalisation or, more preferably, a kind of decentralised, locally-run operation, there is a case for the government to facilitate some kind of deal to save the factory.

But I’d now like to leave the particulars of Vestas’ closure to one side and try to consider the case from a national perspective.

turbine

The common purpose shown by the pro-labour left and the green movement (and obviously there are overlaps between the two), comes from two sources. First, concern for the livelihoods of workers at risk of unemployment and disgust at how they’ve been treated, but also from a wider feeling of anger & frustration at what many activists feel has been a lack of resolute commitment by the government to tackle climate change and remodel our system of energy production.

Those activists have a point. However, so does Miliband when he argues that government shouldn’t shoulder the entire blame for the lack of progress on wind farms; many councils have been resistant or hostile to planting turbines in their back yards, and many community campaigns have succeeded in having plans to build one in their area aborted. If the green movement – and the general public – is serious about seeing wind power as part of our energy future, then solely lobbying central government isn’t the way to go.

So the fault is partly on this government, partly on us for resisting change, and partly on the failure of green activism to make a grassroots case for why action is necessary and what rewards can be reaped.

For me, this all rather underlines the urgent need to be more radical about clean energy, and for government to create the conditions which make it easier for us all to take ownership of spreading green technologies. If we could really push forward with the ‘smart grid‘, take greater steps to decentralise electricity production & distribution, and incentivise micro-generation , you might just see more switched-on (pardon the pun) energy consumers.

Let’s just take one example from abroad. Denmark is currently the biggest source of wind power in Europe, but to get to that position it encouraged the public to invest in it; offering tax incentives for people who either generated their own electricity or as part of a commune. Eventually wind turbine cooperatives became commonplace, with individuals being able to own a stake in the power being produced. In 2004, over 150,000 Danes either owned turbines or shares in a turbine cooperative.

Could this not work in Britain? If there were genuine economic incentives as well as environmental benefits for individuals & communities embracing wind power (and green energy more generally) would the resistance to them really be so great? The advantage of these reforms is that it could enable the general public to become more involved, but first the government needs to create the conditions & incentives for it to happen.

Again, aside from the specific cruelties of the Vestas case, it should seen as reflective of a sense of frustration about Britain’s environmental and energy future. To turn that into positive action, our best hope might be to (quite literally) put power in the hands of the people.

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About the author
Neil Robertson is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He was born in Barnsley in 1984, and through a mixture of good luck and circumstance he ended up passing through Cambridge, Sheffield and Coventry before finally landing in London, where he works in education. His writing often focuses on social policy or international relations, because that's what all the Cool Kids write about. He mostly blogs at: The Bleeding Heart Show.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Environment ,Europe ,Foreign affairs ,Labour party ,Westminster

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Reader comments


1. Luis Enrique

I’m sure there’s room for lots of different ways of doing things, and windfarm co-operatives sounds sensible. I am a bit worried the green movement has a bias towards micro-generation and decentralisation. Anybody who has an interest in climate change and renewable energy should read this book (it’s free) particularly the chapter Every Big Helps – some of the things we need to do require large scale investments that are going to involve companies like Siemens and Munich Re, Exxon etc. and are going to be “centralised”. Building a smart grid isn’t going to be done by local co-operatives either.

2. Luis Enrique

it’s perhaps worth noting that 150,000 Danes either owning turbines or shares in a turbine cooperative amounts to under 3% of the population.

(doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing, but puts it in perspective)

Luis – I don’t think everything can be done locally – but the two options aren’t mutually exclusive right?

I think we should focus more on decentralisation not less. The balance is still tipped towards big centralisation

4. Luis Enrique

Sunny, re:mutually exclusive, I quite agree. I don’t really know what decentralised means – if you have 3 competing power generators (say EDF, Npower, Powergen), they are not “centralised” as such. Does decentralised mean “small” and “local”? In which case, I’m not sure we want to focus more on small and local. That book I link to above is very informative about the scale of the problem and the potential of small local power generation. I think we need to focus more on making some very large, centralised investments in changing how we generate and use power in this country. Doesn’t mean the small stuff isn’t worth doing, does mean we don’t want to get distracted by it and let the big stuff go begging. “Green” movements need to be concentrating their fire on the big changes, imho.

There are ways to do it – all long term and will, obviously, harm short term protifs, if you can think of it that way.

The government says that energy produced by, say 2013, has to be 50% renewable and UK created. Now that is ridiculous – but put that almost impossible target and let the energy companies bitch about it until you get a significant amount of energy produced by renewables. Negotiate from a point of power – whatever they say it’s simple – you get your act together or we add a tax to your profits to invest in the wind farms, et al, ourselves.

Give them a year date whereby 100% of energy produced must be from renewables.

Though none of that will happen – simply put, the UK would rather import energy from the Dutch than invest. The UK just seems to be staid and old. Always finding excuses for not doing something rather than attacking it and being the best at doing so.

Dear All,

The locality/scale issues are slightly different but overlap. Some technologies need to be big simply because the ratio of embodied energy to energy produced is marginal or even negative for some small scale technologies (such as wind generation) and thus bigger is nearly always better for those systems. For other technologies, such as solar, the scale is less important and the enbodied energy of micro-hydro is often lower proportionally than for large schemes. Locality has several components; distance from generation has grid-loss and voltage issues and issues of local democratic control. As has been pointed out, control is often by multinationals anyway regardless of location. But all of the technical points are not really important as they are easy to sort out. The hard part is getting political support for swift action. Smart grids in less densely populated areas might be very useful to help match supply and demand more locally but the cheapest way to save energy is through good old insulation and draught-proofing.

The political and economic problem is much bigger than one might at first think because when energy saving measures work they are either expensive (hard to get people to accept the costs) or cheap (releasing funds for other things). The ‘other things’ are usually themselves energy consumptive. Growth is thus the issue that no politician wants to tackle outside of the Green Party. And greens don’t tend shout too loudly either. I wrote a piece about this some years ago if anyone’s interested (most are not) and it’s still more relevant today in my view.

http://www.nagara.co.uk/The%20Political%20Will%20to%20Face%20Environmental%20Affairs.htm

Best wishes

Nick


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