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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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