The power to save Britain

How our island could be supplying Europe with green electricity. Plus Peter

It may not feel like it on a gusty grey day in Rhyl, but this country is blessed. Take a boat out into the choppy waters off the North Wales coast, and you can see why. Thirty bright white turbines spin continuously just five miles off the coast, producing enough electrical power to supply 40,000 homes with clean, green energy. The wind and waves seem limitless and powerful - and they are. If the UK had been more aggressive and far-sighted in developing renewable energy, we would already be exporting green electricity and wind turbines to Europe and further afield.

In renewable energy terms, we would be the Saudi Arabia of Europe. A full 40 per cent of the continent's wind blows across British shores, enough to meet all our energy needs and more. But instead of leading the world in renewable energy and at the same time cutting carbon emissions, the UK languishes close to the bottom of the European clean energy league. Just 2 per cent of our energy comes from renewable sources and the rest from dirty, climate-changing fossil fuels. This is the legacy of years of contradictory policies, conflicting priorities, ideological pig-headedness and government incompetence.

It's a story that shames Britain.

A good place to start is the government's Low Carbon Buildings Programme (LCBP). This was launched in 2006 to provide grants to householders wanting to instal renewable generation technologies - from solar panels to small hydro schemes - on their properties. Ministers acknowledge that micro-generation could play a big part in our clean energy future, and that turning homes into mini power stations is good for energy security, household income and the environment. But what actually happened? Instead of kick-starting a whole new market sector, the government starved it of funds. A measly £12.7m was allocated, with a monthly cap. On the first day of each month all the available grants were snapped up within hours.

This stop-start approach led to frustrated householders and cash-strapped solar installation companies, many of which began to go bust. The number of grants given for solar hot water systems fell by half last year, and the number for micro wind turbines by two-thirds. For ground-source heat pumps, while 100 grants were made in the last three months of 2006, the equivalent number for 2007 was zero. For electricity, we managed to put only 270 solar panels on British roofs last year, while Germany installed 130,000.

Gordon Brown, first as chancellor, and now as Prime Minister, has successfully ensured that it makes no financial sense whatsoever for householders to invest in generating their own energy renewably. If you put up a solar photovoltaic panel in this country, you do it for altruistic reasons only: at present, you are guaranteed to lose money hand over fist.

Germany's renewables sector has rocketed, thanks to a system that guarantees long-term paybacks at above-market rates for cleanly generated power. This is called the "feed-in tariff", which has also successfully catapulted Spain and Portugal to the top of the European clean energy league. Portugal gets 39 per cent of its electricity from renewables and is aiming for 60 per cent by 2020. In stark contrast, the UK government continues to rule out feed-in tariffs, insisting instead on retaining its outdated Renewables Obligation system, a support mechanism which is so complicated and cumbersome that only the biggest players can make any money from it (or, indeed, even understand it).

The RO system reveals another classic new Labour problem: an obsession with the market. Instead of simply guaranteeing a good return for solar or wind electricity over a long enough time period to make this an attractive investment, the government insists on making the Renewable Obligation Certificates tradable. If a company doesn't meet its obligation to generate power renewably, it must buy certificates from another company that has produced a surplus. The result is long-term price uncertainty, which makes investment much more costly, due to the "risk premium" that must be added to any lending. The ROC system has been fiddled with so many times that the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) now opposes a feed-in tariff system, on the grounds that yet more policy uncertainty might scare off potential investors for good.

Lost business

This catalogue of failure has not only been bad for the climate, it has been bad for business. Britain might once have led the world in wind turbine development. But with no domestic market, production moved elsewhere, and today most turbines installed in this country are imported from Denmark. The leader in solar power is not Britain but Germany, which has pioneered a lucrative export industry in solar photovoltaic cells. In China, too, solar manufacturing is big business: the country's second-richest man leads a solar energy company. This is an energy sector which saw growth last year of roughly 40 per cent, and has attracted tens of billions in venture capital. None of that came to Britain. Instead of creating a brand new industry and thousands of jobs, British-based renewables companies have been going out of business.

Wind should already be our biggest single power source. The BWEA estimates that wind could generate 27 per cent of our electricity by 2020, which, combined with other renewables, could easily meet our EU-assigned target of 15 per cent renewable energy by 2020. Instead, wind accounts for just 1.5 per cent of UK electricity generation today (the equivalent figure in far less windy Denmark is 20 per cent, for Spain 8 per cent and Germany 5 per cent). That 1.5 per cent could be ramped up very quickly if the planning system worked in favour of renewables. According to the BWEA, 220 windpower projects are currently stuck in planning. If all received immediate consent, they could generate 9.3 gigawatts of electricity, enough for an estimated 5.25 million households. If the 39 projects that were refused planning permission last year had instead been allowed it, they could have provided power for 750,000 households, and prevented the emission of three million tonnes of CO2. (Anti-wind campaigners need to recognise their moral liability for these climate-changing emissions.)

While 39 projects were refused planning permission, just 26 projects went ahead. This year, we are level-pegging: seven wind applications have been approved and six refused. It can now take ten years for a windfarm project to get approved and built, and another five for it to get a grid connection (unlike in other countries, renewable generators here have to pay for their own grid connections). This does not look like a country on the fast track to a clean energy future. Indeed, power companies such as E.ON are pro posing to invest billions in hugely polluting coal power plants instead.

The government has proposed to reform the planning system to make it easier for windfarms to get the go-ahead. Environmentalists and conservationists are opposed to the reform, however, for the good reason that it would also make it easier for new motorways, power stations and airports to gain approval, and stifle local democracy in the process.

A greener government might have focused on reforming the planning system for renewable energy projects, gaining support from greens and electricity generators alike. Instead, in its enthusiasm for aviation and nuclear power, the government has bundled windfarms into a planning policy package that will be opposed by almost all. A missed opportunity.

There is some good news. The 1000MW London Array - which will generate enough power from wind for a quarter of London's households - has been given the go-ahead. Several other major projects are under way, and this year the UK will overtake Denmark as the largest offshore generator in the world. The UK also still leads in marine renewables (wave and tidal stream power). With 30 marine technology developers headquartered here, compared to only 15 in the rest of Europe, the UK is able to put its offshore operational skills learned from North Sea oil - now in long-term decline - to good use. At the end of last month the world's largest conference on wave and tidal stream energy, Marine 08, was held in Edinburgh. Tidal power would address the intermittency question: what to do when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine. Tidal power is predictable. Wave power is also more dependable. The more sources of energy we can call on, the less vulnerable we will be to losing power in any one sector.

Yet in marine renewables, too, the government has risked Britain losing its competitive edge. The world's first commercial-scale wave-generating array, while built by a UK-based company, is being launched off the Portuguese, not the British, coast. And, mirroring the disaster of the Low Carbon Buildings Programme, the Marine Renewables Deployment Fund - supposed to support the fledgling sector with capital grants and other financial aid - has a tiny budget and a cap per project of £9m, far too little for any British design to make it past the prototype stage into commercial production. Once again, we are wasting a historic advantage.

With the right policy levers pulled, we could in the not-too-distant future be generating 20 per cent of all our electricity out at sea using wave and tidal power, and far more from onshore and offshore wind. We could lead the world in a new manufacturing sector and generate thousands of new jobs. We could have a zero-carbon electricity grid as early as 2030. We could also lead the world in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.

But, for this to happen, the government will need to admit that its policies have been a cala mitous failure and put clean energy at the top of its long-term agenda, before it is too late.

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 10 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How Hillary did it

PAUL KOOIMAN/GALLERY STOCK
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Chill out

Stress is not as destructive as is often assumed: a little bit of it may even be good for us.

It creeps up on you as soon as the alarm clock rings. Fingers reflexively unlock your phone. Emails bound in with a jolly ping: things you should have done last week; pointless meeting requests; bills to pay.

Over a hurried breakfast you scan the headlines: wall-to-wall misery. On the train you turn to social media for relief. ­Gillian is funnier than you. Alex got promoted again. Laura’s sunning herself in Thailand. You’re here, packed in, surrounded but alone, rattling your way towards another overstretched day.

Stress: we know what it feels like, we can smell it on others, we complain about it most days. And we’re living through an epidemic of it. The government’s Health and Safety Executive estimates that stress cost the economy nearly ten million working days last year. Some 43 per cent of all sick days were attributed to stress. In the US, a large survey conducted by the National Public Radio network in 2014 showed that nearly one in two people reported a major stress event at some point in the previous 12 months. The year before that, American doctors wrote 76 million unique prescriptions for the anti-anxiety drugs Xanax and Ativan. With the media running stories about stress-induced heart disease, strokes, obesity, depression, ulcers and cancer, it’s hard not to conclude that stress kills.

But consider this: just a century ago, nobody got stressed. They suffered with their nerves, got a touch of the vapours; they worried; but they were never stressed. In fact, our current view of stress – what it is, what it feels like, and when it is harmful – evolved surprisingly recently. And research shows that the way we think about stress has a profound influence on how it affects us.

Prolonged, uncontrollable stress – particularly if suffered in childhood – can be profoundly corrosive and debilitating. But what of the familiar stresses of day-to-day life? Are they actually damaging you? Might the belief that stress is harmful be self-fulfilling? And what would a stress-free life look like? Instead of turning in on ourselves and doing battle with our personal stress demons, might we be able to put their diabolic energy to good use?

If we pause for a moment from our daily hustle we would see that many of us are incurably hooked on stress. We thrive on it, getting a kick out of surviving the high-stakes presentation, meeting the deadline and overcoming our fears and prejudices. Watching a thriller, we are on the edge of our seat, pulses racing. Sports, on the field or on television, can propel us into “fight or flight” mode. Humanity’s fascination with gambling hinges on stress.

If the most skilled physiologists in the world could peer beneath the skin of a thrill-seeker on a roller coaster and an out-of-his-depth job interview candidate, they would struggle to tell them apart. Deep in the brain, they would see a structure called the hypothalamus fired up. With each lurch of the ride or disarming question asked, the hypothalamus signals to the adrenal glands, which sit atop each kidney. The adrenals then squirt a shot of adrenalin into the bloodstream. In the background, the hypothalamus prods the pituitary gland, which passes a different message on to the adrenal gland. This increases production of cortisol, the textbook “stress hormone”. Flipping these biological switches triggers the familiar bodily symptoms of stress: a pounding heart, raised blood pressure, dilated pupils, arrested digestion and a damped-down immune system. In both cases, the biological stress response would look very similar.

Even if we could eliminate stress entirely, or smother it with pharmaceuticals, we wouldn’t want to. To muzzle the stress response is to silence the good as well as the bad. At best, stress can motivate us to achieve more and fix the sources of our stress. Boredom is stressful in its own way: observe a caged lion, or an understimulated teenager. In fact, as the animal psychologist Françoise Wemelsfelder told New Scientist recently, boredom may exist to spur us back into activity. This half-forgotten idea, that some degree of stress can inspire and elevate, is common sense. It also has deep roots in the earliest scientific study of stress and stress responses.

***

At the beginning of the 20th century, two American psychologists, Robert Yerkes and John Dodson, wanted to know how stressing out lab mice affected their learning. They set the rodents navigational challenges and punished wrong turns by administering small electric shocks to the feet. In their terminology, larger electric currents caused greater “arousal”.

They spotted some consistent trends. When they gave mice an easy task (choosing between a black or a white tunnel) the relationship between the strength of the shock and the speed of learning was simple. The greater the stressor, the quicker the mice learned to pick the right tunnel.

When the challenge was subtler (differentiating between grey tunnels), the response was less straightforward. Weak shocks provided little impetus to learn, but as the zaps got stronger, the mice gradually upped their game. They focused on the task and remembered the consequences of wrong choices. Yet, at a certain point, the high stress levels that helped with the easy task became counterproductive. Overwhelmed, the mice skittered around at random, trying in vain to escape.

On a graph, the relationship between stress and performance on onerous tasks traces an inverted U shape. Some degree of stress helps, but there is a clear tipping point, beyond which stress becomes paralysing. The findings became known as the Yerkes-Dodson law.

This was all very well for mice, but could it be applied to human beings? According to the Canadian-Austrian endocrinologist Hans Selye, the “father of stress”, it could. Selye was the first person to describe the key glands, hormones and nerves of the biological stress response during the 1930s and 1940s, and also one of the first to apply the word “stress” to human biology.

For Selye, “stress” described an all-purpose response the body had to any demand placed upon it. When stress is on the upswing of Yerkes and Dodson’s inverted-U performance curve, Selye calls it “eustress”. This is where good teachers and managers should push their charges: to the sweet spot that separates predictable tedium from chaotic overload. Where stress gets more persistent, unmanageable and damaging, Selye calls it “distress”. Eustress and distress have identical biological bases; they are simply found at different points on the same curve.

Despite this knowledge, stress has a terrible public image today, often synonymous with distress. While some wear their stress as a badge of honour (“I’m important enough to be stressed”), deep down even the most gung-ho City workers probably stress about their stress. And in painting stress as a beast, we grant it more destructive power.

When did we come to view stress as the universal enemy? Mark Petticrew, Professor of Public Health Evaluation at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has sifted through a huge archive of historical tobacco industry documents. In a 2011 paper, he revealed that a large proportion of stress research during the second half of the 20th century was funded, steered and manipulated by this most unexpected of benefactors. Indeed, from the late 1950s, Hans Selye received hundreds of thousands of tobacco-stained dollars. He also allowed industry lawyers to vet his research and appeared in several pro-tobacco propaganda films.

“They put a massive, massive amount of money into it,” Petticrew told me.

Why were tobacco manufacturers so interested in stress? First, cigarettes were marketed as a stress reliever. “To anxiety . . . I bring relief,” reads a 1930s advertisement for Lucky Strike. So if research could help them pin poor mental and physical health to stress, this sort of message would carry more weight. (Incidentally, the still widespread belief that smoking reduces anxiety appears to be wrong.)

Later, as evidence grew that smoking caused cancer and heart disease, the tobacco industry wanted to prove that stress was an equally significant risk factor. They used the authority of Selye and several other leading researchers as a smokescreen. “Doubt is our product,” read a top industry executive’s 1969 memo. And so doubt they sowed, arguing repeatedly that stress was a major cause of disease. Those seeking to control tobacco were wrong, they claimed.

It worked: the industry convinced the general public of the evils of stress and diverted public health research for at least a decade. With tobacco regulation and compensation payouts postponed, the profits kept rolling in.

Should we doubt the veracity and neutrality of all the foundational research into stress as a disease? “I wouldn’t want to argue that stress doesn’t exist, or that it isn’t bad for your health and certainly your mental health,” Petticrew says. “But you can’t ignore this story.”

He goes on to describe concrete “findings” that industry-funded researchers got wrong. Prominent among these was a link between coronary disease and people displaying so-called Type A personality traits: competitiveness, ambition, anxiety. Such temperamentally “stressed” people were especially likely to suffer heart attacks and, not coincidentally, to smoke. Then the association faded away. “Aside from the scientific weaknesses, which are many, Type A is a cultural artefact to some extent constructed by the tobacco lobby,” Petticrew says. And yet, despite its fragile foundations, the Type A myth persists today.

The long shadow cast by decades of one-sided, propaganda-laced stress research has led many people to believe that stress is a direct cause of heart attacks. But the British Heart Foundation’s website states, “There is no evidence to suggest that stress causes coronary heart disease or heart attacks.” Nor does it cause stomach ulcers: usually it is a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori which does that.

The tobacco-funded researchers didn’t get it all wrong. Stress does have clear causal links to some diseases, particularly mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and addictive behaviour. High stress levels appear to be a general risk factor for early death, among middle-aged men in particular. Moreover, we all know how unpleasant stress can be. From insomnia to binge eating and boozing, we respond to stress with all sorts of counterproductive and antisocial behaviours. And that is partly why the tone of messages we hear about stress matters so much. Human beings are inherently suggestible and particularly vulnerable to warning messages about our health, especially when those messages seem to be backed by science.

***

With mice in a cage, you can measure the tipping point – the precise current of the electric shock – where good stress becomes bad. But we don’t need the lurking menace of a lion in the long grass to activate our stress response. We can do it perfectly well for ourselves. All it takes is a negative thought, the memory of an insult, or a vague feeling of unease.

We can think our way into stress. And, as recent evidence shows, if we believe stress is going to hurt us, it is more likely to hurt us. This is one message emerging from the Whitehall II project, a long-term study of 10,000 UK government civil servants, set up in 1985 to study the social, economic and personal determinants of health and disease. A 2013 analysis of Whitehall II data concluded that people who believe stress adversely affects their health are more than twice as likely to suffer a heart attack, irrespective of their stress levels.

There is a flipside to this gloomy news. If our thoughts and beliefs can switch on a damaging stress response, can they also switch it off? Could the power of suggestion be a partial vaccination in the battle against the stress epidemic?

This is the contention of Alia Crum, a psychology professor at Stanford University and a flagbearer for the science of mindset manipulations. In 2007 she showed that if hotel chambermaids come to think of their work as exercise, they lose weight and their blood pressure falls, apparently without them working any harder. More recently, she described how UBS bankers who were shown videos about the life-enhancing effects of stress – how it can sharpen attention, boost cognition and force fresh perspectives – reported being more productive, focused and collaborative, and less afflicted by depression and anxiety.

The inescapable conclusion is this: the human mind is a powerful gatekeeper to the stress response. But we have to tread carefully here. UBS employees may have the freedom to choose a less stressful life, and find opportunity to reshape their stress mindsets. What about those whose stress is delivered early and compounded by a lifetime of disadvantage and adversity? Perhaps this is where the story of familiar, workaday stress and the grinding strain of social injustice come together. Stress gets under our skin only when we can’t see the end or spot the fix. So what, other than using Crum’s mindset interventions, can we do to restore the critical feeling of empowerment?

Emily Ansell, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Yale, says that reaching out a kindly hand to your fellow human beings can be surprisingly helpful. In a study published last year, Ansell and colleagues gave a group of 77 people a diary-like smartphone app. They asked the subjects to record all the stressful incidents they encountered, and any minor acts of kindness they performed, during a 14-day period. The data shows that gestures such as holding doors for strangers and helping elderly people across the road buffer the effects of stress and make you feel more optimistic.

Positive interactions deliver a reward at the neurological level. They restore a sense of control and show that meaningful relationships are possible. Moreover, helpers often get more psychological and health benefits than those on the receiving end of  that help.

How do we encourage prosocial behaviour throughout society, particularly at the margins? According to Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, lower-class people in America often “have less and give more”. They are more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful than their upper-class counterparts. It’s possible that this tendency to reach out and muck in is a direct response to a life of chronic stress. In response to Piff’s theory, Michael Poulin, a professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo, suggests: “We should perhaps really focus on encouraging prosocial behaviour among the well-off, ­potentially leading to benefits both for them – in terms of stress – and for the disadvantaged, who would presumably benefit from their generosity.”

This article is published simultaneously in the Long + Short, the free online magazine of ideas published by Nesta, the UK’s innovation foundation. thelongandshort.org

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster