The case for onshore wind

The Chancellor’s crusade against onshore wind, whatever the merits with his own backbenchers, is economically ill-judged.

In a straight political fight between George Osborne and Ed Davey, few pundits would have put their money on the Chancellor losing. Not only has the Department of Energy and Climate Change recently lost its Permanent Secretary, in what can only be described as strange circumstances, but a much-trailed cut in subsidy support for onshore wind was kicked into the long grass of the Parliamentary summer recess.

So how is it that when the extent to which subsidies would be cut was finally determined this week it was announced that it would be DECC’s 10 per cent cut rather than the Chancellor’s preferred cut of 25 per cent? There has been so much political debate around wind power that, perhaps, the economic case has been overlooked. Osborne’s case against onshore wind is simply this: wind does not blow all the time, so why should we subsidise a technology that is intermittent, cannot provide the base load of electricity supply and despoils some of the most beautiful landscape in the country which, incidentally, happens to be in Conservative-held seats?

The answer, of course, is that in the long-term we should not. Subsidies should never be a permanent feature of any market. They should be introduced only to address market failure and they should be withdrawn gradually as those distortions in the market are addressed. Treasury economists no doubt recognise the economic rectitude of such a position; whether they can square it with their ongoing subsidies to fossil fuels is entirely a different matter.

Last year, the OECD estimated that in 2010 the subsidies for coal, gas and petrol in the UK amounted to £3.6bn on top of which the Chancellor, in the 2012 budget, has announced further exploration and production subsidies of £65m to develop the West of Shetland fields. Quite what market failures these subsidies are being used to redress is unclear. On the contrary, it would appear that the fossil fuels has an entrenched subsidy culture where such taxpayer handouts are regarded as a right rather than a means of addressing what is an otherwise unlevel playing field. The total subsidy paid to onshore wind amounted to less than £400m in 2010-11 or £6 on the annual bill of the average household. This gives some better sense of proportion about the subsidy onshore wind currently enjoys against the £3.6bn in consumption subsidies that fossil fuels enjoy before the cost of carbon emissions is even factored in.

The real market failure is that the environmental, social and economic cost of greenhouse gas emissions is not properly factored into our fossil fuel price. The government has recognised this and has tried to attribute a price to carbon emissions through the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Unfortunately the carbon price has neither been stable enough nor high enough to redress this market failure even for the 40% of the UK’s carbon emissions that are covered by the ETS. This means that fossil fuels are operating in a market that is tilted distinctly in their favour.  Renewables such as onshore wind, and which do not produce polluting carbon emissions, are perhaps entitled to claim therefore that there is a clear justification for being subsidised. Bringing new technologies to the market can be difficult and many technologies have died in the valley that lies between demonstrator prototype and full commercial development. If the UK is to develop world leading renewable technology the Government must be prepared to support them to market. The Renewable Obligation subsidy, brought in under Labour, was designed to do this - supporting new wind generation as technology is successively improved and economies of scale reduce production costs. It is worth noting that it is precisely the positive trajectory of onshore wind that led DECC to argue that the subsidy could be reduced by 10% in the first place.

This trajectory leads some in the industry to predict that onshore wind will be cost competitive with gas by 2020. For this reason the subsidy should progressively be reduced, but, at the same time, the gas sector should increasingly pay the full cost of its carbon emissions which it is currently failing to do. Even if average household electricity consumption remains unchanged (and we should all sincerely hope it reduces dramatically) and even if the subsidy remains unchanged (and it has already come down and will further) the additional cost to a household bill in 2020 as a result of the most optimistic growth forecast in onshore wind would still only be £13 per year. Yet gas produces significant carbon emissions and onshore wind produces none.

The Chancellor’s crusade against onshore wind, whatever the merits with his own backbenchers, is economically ill-judged. What compounds his mistake though, is that he has now demanded additional measures to subsidise gas. Should policy change to ensure we meet our carbon budgets, these investments will prove to be redundant as we will require electricity produced at approximately 50 grams of CO₂e per kilowatt/hour. Gas-fired power stations cannot achieve this. The Chancellor is using public money to subsidise investment in a technology that will be incapable of meeting the legal requirements of the UK’s climate Change Change Act.

Barry Gardiner is the Labour MP for Brent North and Ed Miliband's Special Envoy on Climate Change and the Environment

The Whitelee onshore windfarm in Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images

Barry Gardiner is Labour MP for Brent North and shadow minister for Energy and Climate Change. 

Getty
Show Hide image

The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.