Wind farm nimbyism means 10,000 jobs just went to Ireland

We're saving money, but Ireland is getting the work.

Yesterday the UK and Irish governments signed an agreement that could see British businesses and consumers funding wind farm developments in Ireland that will export electricity to the UK. As a way of mollifying wind farm critics and keeping costs down, the UK government’s approach is understandable. But the majority of Brits who favour wind power may question why they are paying for jobs in Ireland when unemployment is still at 7.7 per cent at home.

The scale of wind farm development in Ireland that may result from yesterday’s agreement is huge. One project alone, called Greenwire, could see 700 wind turbines with 3GW of generating capacity being built. The UK has a target to generate 30 per cent of its electricity from renewables by 2020 so this project could contribute a tenth towards that goal.

To enable projects like Greenwire to go ahead the UK Government will need to provide financial incentives to developers. If they use the same approach as has been proposed for developments within the UK, the government will guarantee developers a set price for the energy they produce. The money required to meet this guarantee will come from increases to the energy bills of consumers and businesses.

In one sense this is a sensible move. Despite onshore wind power being the cheapest renewable technology, there is a vigorous campaign against expanding its use in the UK. If the growth of onshore wind is restricted and options for producing renewable electricity are limited to the UK’s borders, more expensive technologies, particularly offshore wind, will be needed as an alternative. The Greenwire developers claim their project will actually save consumers and businesses £7 billion compared with a scenario in which an equivalent amount of offshore wind was built.

So far, so good. But there is a catch: by outsourcing the generation of cheap onshore wind power to Ireland, Britain will miss the opportunity to create good quality jobs, develop skills and secure a comparative advantage in a burgeoning sector with huge global potential. Greenwire alone will create 10,000 new jobs in Ireland during its construction phase and 3,000 jobs in the longer term, so the developers claim. These are jobs that could be going to Brits.

Greenwire is a concrete example of how anti-wind farm campaigns could cost the UK jobs and growth.

Campaigners tend to be concerned about the aesthetic impact of wind turbines on the countryside and this must be taken into account. Less valid, however, are claims often made about the effectiveness of wind power technology. The Institute for Public Policy Research has shown that wind power is an effective way to reduce carbon emissions. Furthermore, challenges posed by the variable nature of how much electricity wind farms produce, because the wind doesn’t always blow, are often overstated. This variability can be easily accommodated by the grid, posing no threat of power interruptions, at the levels of deployment expected for the technology by 2020.

The scale of opposition to onshore wind often seems larger than it is. This is because campaigners concerns have been amplified by certain segments of the press and championed by several government ministers including the Energy Minister, John Hayes. In fact most of the UK public consistently supports expanding the use of the technology.

These supporters should get angry if their money is used to support wind farms in Ireland instead of the UK, because major job and economic opportunities will be lost.

Editor's note: The headline of this piece was changed on 25 January at 15:45

Wind farms. Photograph: Getty Images

Reg Platt is a Research Fellow at IPPR. He tweets as @regplatt.

GETTY
Show Hide image

North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry insiders imply that job creation in the UK could rival that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed only one in seven of the jobs the industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates 10 times more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without the introduction of fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that fracking is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we are only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservaitves support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This is a sentiment that was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision as a “fantastic opportunity” for fracking.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because of the question of their replacement once they eventually run out: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.